On the second day of blogmas, my true love gave to me… this blog! And also another encouragement to subscribe to my free(ish) newsletter, Future Proof.
I was writing, yesterday, about the state of the global cinema industry. In short, it’s been a bit of a bummer year for movies. Not in terms of the quality of the films themselves — I actually think this will be a much stronger year, come the awards shows in the early spring, than many in the past decade — but in terms of the finances. Just two films — Barbie and Super Mario Bros — have made a billion dollars. Both, in spite of some good intentions, are marketed predominantly at children (or inner children) and utilise existing intellectual property. They are bankable hits, but unremarkable ones.
But that’s the marketplace we’re living in. If you’re looking at the top 10 highest grossing films of the year, only one of them stands out like a sore thumb (and not just because I’ve put it in bold): Barbie, Super Mario, Oppenheimer, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, Fast & Furious 10, a Spider-Man, The Little Mermaid, a Mission: Impossible, Elemental, and Ant-Man 3.
Oppenheimer, a film I thought was fine (and no more), is the only film on that list truly marketed to adults. You could certainly argue that Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One is also targeted at older viewers (given that its action superhero lead is now 61) but there’s something fundamentally pubescent about the rock’em sock’em action movie format. It can be enjoyable, sure, it can even be creatively profound, but, at its core, it strikes at something quite base in our limbic system. Oppenheimer, however, is a) not for kids, and b) not based on existing IP. The only other film to satisfy that second criteria is Elemental, a middling entry in the Pixar canon (which exists as a semi-multiverse in its own right).
(A note here on the fact that cinema has ONCE AGAIN failed to exploit the “grey pound” (or “gray dollar” has Americans would say). There seems to be a belief that in order for films to be profitible they must serve the highest number of demographics possible, which basically means you make a PG-13, at most, film that some children will watch, loads of teenagers will watch, some more juvenile millennials will watch, and then another tonne of parents will find themselves stuck at. Fine, but that’s why we end up with so many naff superhero movies. The “grey pound”, which I think propelled Oppenheimer to its very healthy returns, also go to the cinema, have more disposable income, and, most importantly, want to watch films which are MUCH cheaper to make.)
Oppenheimer, the third highest grossing film of the year, grossed $950,554,020 at the worldwide box office. That figure might make you scratch your chin in befuddlement at the title of the piece. After all, that seems fairly empirical evidence that Oppenheimer is, in point of fact, very much not a billion dollar movie.
But something happened on the train this morning. I was tootling along between Forest Hill and Hoxton, doing some work on my laptop. The lack of wi-fi made me increasingly frustrated and so I began scrolling through one of the few tabs I had already open and loaded: the 2023 worldwide box office list. It was towards the bottom of the list (I was truly bored; suffering from that specific indolence that disenfranchised digital natives feel when out of communication) that I noticed a number of “re-releases”. The most lucrative of these was the re-release of Pixar’s Toy Story, which took in an additional $27.5m (which is more than, for example, Renfield or Dumb Money). But there were two other re-releases (out of 8 that made the top 200 highest grossing films of the year) that interested me more: Interstellar and The Dark Knight.
A word first on re-releases. Avatar, James Cameron’s 2009 epic about strangely blue space folk, recently reclaimed its title as the highest grossing movie of all time, following a re-release, notionally in preparation for its sequel being released last year. It’s hard not to suspect that there was an element of gamesmanship to this too: Cameron had lost his crown to Avengers: Endgame and was keen to reclaim it. For all that these blockbuster movies take out pages in the trade press in order to slap one another on the black, the ultimate title of Highest Grossing Film Ever is a belt worth having — and holding onto.
But re-releases do have a long, strategic history in the movie business, and nobody has been more adept at using them than Disney. In the more recent of Disney’s Golden Eras — the one which saw them smash out Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Little Mermaid, Aladdin… etc — the business model for the company retained an historic principle, that theatrical releases would be accompanied by extremely long intervals for home video release. They were amazingly restrained in terms of freeing these films up for home consumption: Dumbo came out in cinemas in 1941 and was only released on home video in 1981, Bambi came out first in 1942 and on VHS in 1989, and The Jungle Book was in theaters in 1967 an in living rooms in 1990. It was a strategy that allowed them to make absolute oodles from the eventual video releases (which were events, in themselves, on a similar scale to the theatrical release) but also intermittently re-release them in theaters, in order to get new generations hopped up on the Disney juice.
The re-releases of Interstellar and The Dark Knight, this year, are because of Oppenheimer. They all share a director: Christopher Nolan. And with Nolan the talk of tinseltown once again, it made sense to put two of his most celebrated, more cerebral (in a way) films back on the big screen. Interstellar took $25,950,515 this time round, while The Dark Knight added $22,011,318 to its gross. Add those together and you have an additional $49,515,076. Add that to Oppenheimer’s $950,563,875 and what do you end up with? $1,000,078,951.
Of course, cynics and sticklers will point out that these movies are raking in cash for three different distributers (Universal for Oppenheimer, Paramount for Interstellar, and Warner Bros for TDK) but at the base of the pyramid is one man, Nolan, and one company, Syncopy, who have generated a billion dollars in theatrical gross this year. And it’s all because of Oppenheimer. It might not get the credit for passing a billion at the box office, but in precipitating nearly $50m in extra revenue through re-releases, it has a claim to be the third, and final, billion-dollar film of 2023.
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