For better or worse, the defining summer blockbuster of our lives is Michael Bay’s “Transformers.” It’s an absolute juggernaut, designed as much to pack viewers into theaters as it is to dominate foreign box offices.
You can buy "Transformers" toys, play the video games and read the novelizations by Peter David. It’s a franchise emblematic not only of Hollywood’s fixation with “Expanded Long Form Cinematic Universes” but also its increasingly expensive July 4 blockbusters that, in recent years, have opened to less and less impressive weekend box office performances, according to statistics from the Internet box office database Box Office Mojo.
As we enter this year’s summer blockbuster season, I decided to take a look at the data behind every July 4 opening weekend since 1985.
Using data downloaded from Box Office Mojo and the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), I sought to quantify what films and movie studios dominate the most important blockbuster weekend of the summer, and how those trends have shifted over the years.
Does an expensive movie guarantee a successful movie? Does a high-grossing movie have any correlation to a good movie? Are we really all enslaved by Michael Bay and his Decepticons, or does it just feel that way?
Below are the top 10 highest grossing July 4 opening weekends since 1985, adjusted for inflation. If you’ve felt like Hollywood has churned out a disproportionate number of remakes and sequels recently, you might might be on to something.
Seven of the top 10 most profitable opening July 4 weekends came from either reboots of existing properties (“Transformers” and “War of the Worlds) or sequels (anything with a subtitle, “2” or the slightly more pretentious “II” tacked onto it).
“Independence Day,” "Men in Black" and "Hancock" are the sole original properties. Though they all star Will Smith, the latter is anything but fresh; according to the data set, the film sits at a 41% Freshness on popular review aggregate site rottentomatoes.com.
“Hancock” aside, it’s not difficult to see why Hollywood falls back on established properties. Even after adjusting for inflation, movies are significantly more expensive to make now than they were to make in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
After adjusting for inflation, a big film in the 1980s cost somewhere between $30 and $90 million dollars to produce.
Now the most expensive blockbusters typically cost upwards of $150 million — with the exception of 2014's "Tammy", which only cost $20 million — and that doesn’t take into account the cost of promotion, which as a rule of thumb generally costs half of what production does.
Modern movies are too expensive to take risks with. Sequels are safer.
And finally, the question becomes: If Hollywood is dominated by incredibly expensive prequels, sequels and Autobots, does anybody actually enjoy Hollywood blockbusters anymore?
This chart — visualizing the Rotten Tomatoes rating and opening gross of the top 25 highest-grossing July 4 blockbusters of all time — doesn’t really offer any answers. Each circle represents a film whose size is a function of its budget.
About half of the films, the ones that land to the left of the X axis’ 50% freshness rating, can be reasonably considered “bad movies.” The other half are “good movies.”
On average, the bad movies return about $70 million in their opening weekend, and the good movies make about $69 million. There’s a few obvious exceptions — that giant orange circle floating at the top represents the $108 million opening “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which sits at 34% on rottentomatoes.com and the modest red circle at the bottom right-hand corner represents “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
Good movies don't necessarily mean successful movies, and bad movies don't guarantee a flop.
That's why when we look back on our summers from the twilight of old age, we will remember the smell of sunscreen, the sound of fireworks crackling and the sight of lumbering CGI aliens who inexplicably like hanging out with Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg. Even when analyzed, Hollywood makes absolutely no sense.