“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” rode a wave of smashing reviews to a $73 million opening this past weekend, knocking off “Transformers: Age of Extinction” — which has been a punching bag for critics.
“Dawn” is at 91 percent positive on review tracking service Rotten Tomatoes, while “Age of Extinction” is at 17 percent “fresh.” But audiences awarded both of them “A-” CinemaScore grades, and have turned out in numbers sufficient to make both movies hits.
How is it that reviews can make such a big difference for one movie and seemingly mean nothing for the other? That’s really not the case, but it takes a closer look to get the real picture.
There’s no denying critical acclaim was a major factor in the big opening weekend for “Apes,” which came in at more than $10 million over the studio’s and analysts’ projections. Another was the goodwill from the previous film in the franchise, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which was also very well-reviewed.
“It created one of those rare situations where the critics and the audiences aligned, and that created a perfect storm,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s distribution chief.
The impact of positive word of mouth from was just as clear. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” fell off just eight percent from Friday to Saturday, less than half the drop most films see on their second day. It’s also a indicator of just how fast that word, good and bad, travels in today’s social media-fueled world.
“Great reviews are nice, but I don’t think they necessarily make that big a difference with this kind of movie,” Don Harris, Paramount’s distribution chief said following the debut of Michael Bay‘s morphing robots epic starring Mark Wahlberg.
It didn’t on the first weekend, when “Transformers” registered the year’s only $100 million opening. It became the only summer movie to repeat as No. 1 the following week, but that was July 4 weekend, a box-office debacle. “Age of Extinction” has seen big drops — 63 and 56 percent in its second and third weeks — and is at $209 million domestically. That means that it will be the first film in the franchise that won’t hit $300 million in the U.S.
“In the case of ‘Transformers,’ the brand transcends everything,” Rentrak’s senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said Monday. “And there’s the popcorn movie factor. Audiences know they they’re not getting Shakespeare or an Oscar contender, but they figure they’re going to get a rousing experience, and they do.”
There are good reasons to see some films as “review proof.” The previous “Transformers” movie, 2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen,” wasn’t a hit with critics, either. It had a 36 percent positive Rotten Tomatoes rating and still wound up grossing more than $350 million domestically. And 2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen” was at just 19 percent and it took in $402 million, the most of any film in the series. But three straight critical shellackings, and some inevitable franchise fatigue, look to finally be taking a toll on “Age of Extinction.”
When the notices are bad, the core audience — young males who probably aren’t reading a lot of reviews — turns out, but the chances of broadening beyond that base go down. The reverse is true for a movie with good strong reviews.
“In ‘Transformers’ and a lot of these popcorn movies, the visuals outweigh the dialogue and that’s OK,” Dergarabedian said. “But in the case of ‘Apes,’ you had the great action, smart writing and a level of intelligence that drew in the critics, and that will contribute to word of mouth that will lure older moviegoers and others that might not have been attracted initially.”
What it all seems to suggest is that when it comes to tentpole movies, great reviews can help you but bad ones won’t necessarily hurt — at least not right away.
It’s worth noting that Paramount executives are probably spending more time studying their foreign box office returns than crummy “Transformers” reviews. The film’s out-sized performance overseas — it has taken in more than $752 million worldwide to become the year’s highest grossing movie — has it on course for a $1 billion global haul.