There are two versions of the 90s we could talk about. One of them ended on December 31st, 1999, with Stuart Little and Toy Story 2 riding the top of the box office at $68.4 and $199.8 million to date, respectively, no end in sight. Behind them they could see Titanic and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, the two highest grossing films of their decade, and feel proud. But they also recalled new phenomena like The Blair Witch Project, which seemed to disrupt any pre-existing box office paradigm — and made them feel a little queasy. They weren’t sure what the end of the 1990s meant for the future, but maybe if they looked far enough, they could see another 90s — The Real 90s. The ones who waited for the summer of 2014.
“The Real 90s” is a phrase that represents the five (and probably six) largest opening weekends that occurred between the months of April and August of 2014 and each fell in the $90 million range. These were, consecutively: Captain America 2 with $95.0 million; The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with $91.6 million; Godzilla with $93.2 million; X-Men: Days of Future Past with $90.8 million; and Guardians of the Galaxy with $94.3 million. For some, the Real 90s also included Transformers: Age of Extinction, which was alleged by its home studio of Paramount and aggregator BoxOfficeMojo.com to open at $100.03 million — but widely questioned by competing studios (and box office enthusiasts) as somewhere closer to $98.0, perhaps due to internal concerns over layoffs at Paramount.
To put this into perspective: movies don’t really open in the 90s anymore. Following the lead set by Spider-Man (2002) with its then-record $114 million opening, there are mega-blockbusters that open above $115 million, and then there are softer tentpoles clustered between $50 and $70 million. The five or six aforementioned movies from 2014 were all expected to perform in line with one of these scenarios, but instead found themselves bundled in the 90s with no more than $1 million between them –– so close together that one only need whisper, “The Avengers opened to over $100 million more than any of us?” for another to hear it.
The typical “peaks and valleys” landscape of the box office tells us that some major films need to fall hard in order for others to overperform, but summer 2014 continually struck a defiant middle chord that made it difficult to admit pride or disappointment in anything at all. Everything was precarious, and relative: Godzilla was only a hit if you avoided looking at its opening weekend percentage of total haul, or inflation comparison charts to the notoriously underattended 1998 version.
In this context, suspicion around Transformers stirred an unease that by the end of the summer could no longer be ignored: Does the box office lie? Could it?
Are the 90s really Real? Or is everything else suspect? No one stopped BoxOfficeMojo.com from reporting that The Avengers opened to $207.4 million in May 2012, and that’s fine. We won’t exactly stop them either. But what if we said that The Avengers actually opened to $96.2 million? It might feel more accurate to someone who didn’t see The Avengers, or to someone like Godzilla or The Amazing Spider-Man 2, neither of whom could possibly imagine an opening weekend more than twice as big as theirs. Regardless of which numbers are true (or Real), we can troubleshoot the discrepancy for ourselves by rethinking the Industrial as Interpersonal. The numbers don’t simply represent the movie’s performance, but are a representation of us, and our relationship to movies.
If you’re wondering why you should care at all, first ask yourself two more questions: do you consider movies a friendship? Do you feel proud when one of your friends does well at the box office?
Just a month before the end of the 1990s, Toy Story 2 and Stuart Little’s friendly predecessors The World Is Not Enough and Sleepy Hollow debuted on the same weekend, and it felt sort of like your two best friends were throwing separate birthday parties on the same night. By Monday, after bowing in the top two positions with $35.5 and $30.1 million, The World Is Not Enough and Sleepy Hollow were still holding hands.
Some parties allow you to attend other parties equally. Some demand that you don’t spend as much time at the other. Some parties are forgiving of your absence altogether, trusting their attendees to fill you in after the fact. And others are downright unforgiving if you choose not to go, or to hit another party, which can seem unfair.
Movies don’t expect you to watch them. People do. And box office reporters determine exactly how many of us have. Why do we let a select few define the bond between us and some of the best friends we might ever have?
That brings us to one last question, for now: who benefits from a movie doing well, or not doing well? The knee-jerk answer is big studios, because they’re getting the money. The talent involved with the movie will benefit, too, since they’ll become more bankable individuals to the studios. Then there’s the well-being of a franchise or genre, either of which could thrive or die based on the performance of any given movie.
But then there’s us and our friends, the movies. Most of us can’t always keep track of how “well” they’re doing — we have jobs, homes, boyfriends, and children, just like movies do. But we do spend a lot of time with movies, time that doesn’t often translate into revenue. We talk about movies. We think about movies. We fall asleep beside movies, and wake up to movies, our breakfast in bed. And the box office is someone else’s way of gossiping about all of them.
2014 crept forward, Mockingjay Part 1’s $121.9 million weekend in November broke the spell of the $90-something openers, and the dust seemed to settle. Some of us could breathe again. We could sense the Christmas season patterns taking root and anticipate Into the Woods tracking alongside Les Miserables, or Unbroken alongside Django Unchained, or whichever Night at the Museum movie this was tracking 40% behind its predecessor.
What we couldn’t sense was the dustiest weekend of all; the one that showed us that The Real 90s were just getting started. American Sniper’s career in wide release started as a whisper — “it could rival Gran Torino’s $29.5 million as the highest opening weekend of Clint Eastwood’s career”; “it’s tracking close to Lone Survivor, the runaway hit from last January that opened to $37.8 million”; and so on. When the dust settled, Sunday weekend estimates put it at $90.2 million, marking it as Real with so little room to spare that box office conspiracists couldn’t feel anything but validated. What could the future hold? Would 50 shades of grey be 40 too few?
Did Mockingjay Part 1 really fall 23% from its predecessor’s opening weekend to $121.9 million, or was that just a calculation easing us halfway to the Real — when Mockingjay Part 2 will slip another 23% to $94 million?
Late the following afternoon, Monday actuals corrected American Sniper down a bit. This happens often enough, with studios having laid bragging rights to slightly inflated weekend numbers — imagine conceding to your Sunday brunch friends that Saturday night’s hookup had fizzled without an orgasm. Here, the difference was everything. American Sniper: $89.3 million. The 90s receded, though you may still question whether they did it to themselves, and so do we.
Less than 24 hours later, their medusa grin still ringing in our rearview mirror, they quietly stepped away.
But they’ll be back.