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July 09
2017

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS SEQUEL MACHINE

By PAULA PARISI

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Photo credit: Film Frame. Copyright © 2017 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

After a disappointing summer in 2016, attributed largely to “sequel fatigue,” the studios realize that a number after the title does not automatically mean success. This year’s storylines seem to hold more promise, while heightened achievements of spectacle, whether through verisimilitude of long-ago lands or outrageous fantasy, have pumped expectations.

This summer, seven of the 11 big visual effects releases are sequels (or in the case of Universal’s June 9 The Mummy, a reboot). Last summer, of a whopping 14 sequels only three out-earned their predecessors.

“This year’s sequels look like a lot more thought and care went into them, and they’re going to be a lot better, including the level of visual effects. I don’t care if a movie has an 8 behind the title, if it’s good, people will see it,” says Comscore Senior Media Analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

Wonder Woman (Photo credit: Clay Enos. Copyright © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.)

The Fate of the Furious is a good example. Released April 13, Universal’s eighth installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, with effects by Digital Domain and Double Negative, has already passed the $200 million domestic box-office mark this year. The fact that the film has made $950 million at the international box office (for a global cume of $1.16 billion) points up another trend that bodes well for the visual effects business: increased emphasis on the foreign markets.

“Special effects are an international language and films loaded with effects do well all over the world,” Dergarabedian says, adding, “As long as there are films making more than $1 billion, that’s fine. The studios are going to keep doing more of that. It keeps the machine humming.”

War for the Planet of the Apes is like 90% visual effects or something insane. It’s practically an animated movie,” Exhibitor Relations box-office analyst Jeff Bock points out. And you have movies like Beauty and the Beast, which would have traditionally been considered animated but are now solidly in the visual effects realm.

Alien: Covenant (Photo credit: Mark Rogers. Copyright© 2017 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.)

Digital Domain is arguably as responsible for actor Dan Stevens’ moving performance as the Beast as director Bill Condon. “We used a direct drive system, where Dan performed sitting in an apparatus that looked like he was from outer space. It registered upwards of 3,500 dots on his face,” the film’s producer, David Hoberman, explains. “What you see onscreen are his real eye movements, his real expressions. It was extraordinary, to have the line so completely blurred between what’s real and what’s fantasy,” says Hoberman, who calls the synthesized performance the film’s most critical element. “Unless we got the Beast right, we had no movie,” Hoberman says.

The fact that these spectacles play so well on 3D IMAX screens, which sell at premium prices, also helps boost their box-office haul. To watch from within Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest” musical set piece, amid dancing napkins, whirling forks and food, and the enchanted moves of candelabra Lumiere and Coxworth the clock, “it’s an experience you don’t easily forget,” Hoberman says.

Transformers: The Last Knight (Photo credit: Paramount Pictures/Bay Films. Copyright © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

He adds that at this level of visual effects, “these are complicated films that take a huge team effort over a long period of time, but are worth it.” Movie-going audiences the world over seem to agree.

With a dazzling array of eye candy in store for everyone from comic book fans (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman) to the classic drama crowd (King Arthur, Dunkirk), summer 2017 has the deck stacked in favor of solid box-office results.

The summer season – 18 weeks that start the first Friday in May and end Labor Day weekend (which this year is the first weekend of September – have always had a disproportionate impact on the annual box-office haul, accounting for about 40% of the 52-week total.

“I call it the breadbasket of the box office,” analyst Dergarabedian says, noting an over-abundance of tent pole fare for the warmer months has pushed big releases earlier in the season. Disney was out of the gate with Beauty and the Beast on March 15 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 on May 5. The films racked a collective $672 in domestic gross ($1.6 billion worldwide) before the kids were even out of school.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Photo credit: Film Frame. Copyright © 2017 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

Dergarabedian is confident that summer 2017 will sail past the $4.4 billion mark achieved at the North American box office last year, though he thinks it will come up short of 2013’s $4.75 billion record. Exhibitor Relations’ Bock agrees that outperforming last year is a possibility, but worries that the absence of an obvious blockbuster in August could be the Achilles heel.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Photo copyright © 2016 EuropaCorp, Valerian SAS – TF1 Films Production. All Rights Reserved.)

The Mummy (Photo copyright © 2016 Universal Pictures. All Right Reserved.)

“Two more big films in August and it would be a slam dunk,” Bock states. As things stand, he is puzzled as to why STX’s Luc Besson-directed space epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is positioned against Christopher Nolan’s WW II drama Dunkirk the weekend of July 21. “Christopher Nolan has astrong box-office track record no matter what the genre,” Bock says of the director, famous for fantasy epics (including two Batman films, Man of Steel and Interstellar).

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Photo copyright © 2017 Sony Pictures/CTMG Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)



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