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Opinion: Is this summer's box office bomb-proof?

I can’t have been the only person sharpening my snarky knives ahead of the release of World War Z .

Overdue and over-budget, the film was shaping up to be amongst this summer’s biggest turkeys. One, which as a fan of the source material from which the film takes its name, I was gleefully looking forward to carving to pieces.

But then the unthinkable happened and Marc Forster’s undead epic actually opened strongly. Very strongly in fact. It might have lagged behind Pixar’s Monsters University during its opening weekend, but World War Z still took a $66 million bite out of the box office in North America; a domestic debut that makes it Brad Pitt’s most successful opening to date.

Add in the $45.8 million the movie made across the globe and it’s well on its way to recouping the reported $190 million budget that many people – myself included - had suggested would doom it to failure. In fact it’s proved so successful that Paramount are now reportedly forging ahead with a sequel, something that seemed unthinkable when Pitt described the first cut of the film as “just atrocious”.

Strangely though, World War Z isn’t the first feature to surf a swathe of negative publicity to make it good at the box office this summer. Earlier this month After Earth , a Smith family-starring vehicle greeted with all the 'meh' you’d expect from an M. Night Shyamalan movie, performed a similar feat. Panned by many critics (the movie currently holds an 11% fresh rating on reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes) After Earth performed woefully at the American box office, landing Will Smith his worst opening weekend in more than 20 years. Yet no sooner had the experts labelled the film a flop than it went on to make an impressive $45.5 million overseas.

Beyond that, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was another bomb successfully defused at the box office, hauling in an impressive $51.1 million domestic debut; not bad for a dud that divided critics.

So just why is this summer’s box office proving so strangely bombproof?

One thing all three of the aforementioned movies have in common of course is the talent involved. Smith, Pitt and DiCaprio are certainly names to conjure with; huge stars whose exploits both on and off screen continue to fascinate film fans around the globe. Clearly the age of the A-lister is far from over and it was no surprise then to see these familiar faces ensconced at every stage of the marketing merry-go-round as studios banked on them masking the movies’ collective failings through sheer star power alone.

The fact that all of these potential duds failed to detonate is also proof that the saturation marketing studios are so fond of actually works. Gatsby and After Earth were everywhere leading up to their release, whilst Warner Bros. did a fine job of showcasing summer-friendly action sequences as World War Z shuffled its corpse into cinemas. Of course all of those billboards aren’t cheap, and it would be interesting to see just how many millions the studios had spent on marketing before the movies were released.



But there’s a big difference between a film sinking or swimming come opening weekend, one which is particularly pronounced when you get to the long tail of DVD sales where movies make most of their profits these days.

Clearly something is happening. But whether this failed turkey shoot is a sign of the industry’s robustness, or an indictment of our willingness as audiences to watch anything given a big enough push; remains to be seen.

The answer I suspect may lie somewhere in-between; at least with Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger riding into view, we may get to see if this summer’s box office truly is bombproof.

Daniel is a freelance film writer; you can watch him wrongly predict more flops over on Twitter @danielbettridge .
 

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