Wednesday, August 4, 2021

In Laman's Terms: A look back at the August 2011 box office

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

You don't realize just how much the film business has changed in ten years until you look back on the box office landscape of August 2011.

Think about this: in August 2011, the thought of movies debuting on streaming services was a fairy tale. Netflix was still two years away from dropping its first original TV series. Disney had never distributed a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Hell, Disney hadn't bought Star Wars yet! It was a whole different world of cinema. With so much distance between then and the present, now is an opportune time to look at August 2011, what worked and what didn't in this month, as well as how this slate of movies compared to what's on the slate for theatrical release in August 2021.

In August 2011, only two new releases managed to crack $100 million. This is actually one thing that hasn't shifted much in the last decade as only two movies crossed that threshold in August 2018. The biggest movie of the month was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which grossed $176.7 million, a sum that narrowly eclipsed the costlier July 2011 blockbusters Captain America: The First Avenger and Cowboys & Aliens. The runner-up for the month was sleeper smash The Help, which grossed $169.7 million domestically. Though (correctly) recognized as a white savior movie today by even its own cast members, The Help was a phenomenon on the big screen a decade ago. Some culture shifts inspire dread. The fact that The Help wouldn't get such a pass a decade later is actually a tad encouraging.  

Amusingly, no other new releases this month cracked $50 million domestically. There's over $125 million between the second and third-biggest movies of August 2011, with the latter title going to the $42.5 million haul of Final Destination 5. Though today widely recognized as the best entry in the series (even initial critical marks were solid), Final Destination 5 sunk the series to a new domestic box office low. After a decade of dormancy,  a sixth entry is reportedly in development. If any upcoming Warner Bros./New Line Cinema project seems primed for an HBO Max launch, it's this one.

Fourth for the month is the ill-fated Spy Kids 4-D: All the Time in the World, with just $38.5 million. One of many instances of The Weinstein Company trying and failing to launch a family movie success, this one was mainly held back by poor timing. Nobody was demanding more Spy Kids circa. 2011, but in the modern pop culture landscape, when kids who saw the original Spy Kids in theaters are now grown-ups with disposable income, another installment could be a nostalgia-fueled hit.

Fifth and sixth place for the month are The Change-Up and 30 Minutes or Less, a pair of R-rated comedy box office nonstarters. It was odd that August 2011 saw such financial struggles for yukfests given that the preceding summertime months had been crammed with R-rated comedy hits. For every Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses, there must be a 30 Minutes or Less. There's not much to say about the rest of the top ten biggest movies of the month beyond, hey, Our Idiot Brother existed. 

The only other wide release of note in the month is Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, the lowest-grossing wide release of August 2011. With just $11.8 million, this was a clear sign that the bloom was off the rose for the Glee franchise. Meanwhile, my assessment that 2008-2012 were a dark age for American indie cinema (due to the closure of major indie movie studios like Paramount Vantage) seems to bear out with how little impact any limited release titles had in this month. 

True, August is usually an awkward period for arthouse fare, given that this is just before all the big fall festivals arrive. But even August 2019 saw movies like Brittany Runs a Marathon, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and Luce all crack $2 million in their domestic runs. The closest August 2011 had to an indie crossover hit was the documentary Senna, which grossed $1.6 million despite never playing in more than 47 theaters. The Rachel Weisz film The Whistleblower did manage to crack $1.1 million despite also having a restrictive heater count of just 70 locations. Both titles show there was an audience for arthouse fare, it's just that there weren't A24's, NEON's, or Miramax's at that moment to satisfy those desires.

Having now run down the films of August 2011 on their own merits, how does this slate compare to the collection of films released theatrically in August 2019 and 2021? Well, there's good and bad news here. In both 2011 and 2019 (the last August we have full box office data on), a big-budget blockbuster released in the first weekend of the month dominated all titles. The more things change, and all that. There's also nothing even reminiscent of The Help (a mid-budget adult drama) in the August 2019 line-up, though August 2021 at least has the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect to provide more grounded drama fare for those who don't want to see Free Guy.

On the other hand, 2011 was already when several key changes had occurred in Hollywood (in response to the 2008 economic recession) that resulted in the consolidation of studios and certain mid-budget genres getting eschewed entirely (notice how there aren't any romantic-comedies in that top ten). Thus, there isn't a drastic difference in some respects in what was popular in August 2011 and what's on the deck for theatrical release in August 2021, the biggest departure there being the total lack of R-rated comedies in August 2021. 

Interestingly, one thankful improvement is that the indie scene has expanded a bit since August 2011. The start of the 2010s was part of a dark age for American indie cinema and that, thankfully, improved a smidge with the introduction of Amazon Studios, A24, and NEON into the scene in the last few years before the COVID-19 pandemic. August 2021 looks light on major arthouse fare (only Annette looks like it could make a major impact and who knows how many theaters Amazon is putting it in), but, thankfully, September and the rest of the months after that genuinely do look like business as usual for arthouse fare in terms of what's scheduled for theatrical release.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. There are some stark contrasts to the current moviegoing landscape when looking back on August 2011, some for the better, some for the worse. In addition to those changes, there are also constants, like audiences turning out for documentaries in theaters as well as people really liking to see widely-marketed blockbusters on the big screen. Diving into the past makes one realize the complicated relationship between the past and the present. It also makes one wonder why on Earth anyone at Sony/Columbia thought 30 Minutes or Less was gonna work as a comedy premise. Dark comedies have been made in the past, sure, but one's that revolve around a guy with a bomb on his chest? That alone feels like it should be the movie's hook but then you throw in the forced bank robbery on top of that? I know director Ruben Fleischer was high off the success of Zombieland but that still feels like a bit of an overstuffed premise to spend $28 million on.

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