How The Rock’s Earth-Shaking ‘San Andreas’ Debut Ranks in Disaster Movie History

The quake saga’s opening is in the top three, or a little lower, depending on how you define the genre

So how does this weekend’s eye-popping $53.2 million debut of the earthquake epic “San Andreas,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, measure up against the box-office debuts of other disaster movies?

That depends on how you slice it, or more specifically, how you define “disaster movie.”

If you take the purist approach and limit the films to acts of God, Mother Nature and other natural occurrences, the answer is pretty good – third place.

Only the openings of two movies directed by Roland Emmerich — the climate change saga “The Day After Tomorrow” from 2004 and 2009’s global warming epic “2012” — rank above Warner Bros.’ “San Andreas” with $68.7 million and $65.2 million openings respectively. The sea saga “The Perfect Storm” with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg is next with its $41 million debut in 2000.

For the record, we’ve left some titles out. “The Wizard of Oz,” in which Judy Garland’s Dorothy is catapulted over the rainbow by a twister, could be in here, but we’re limiting it to films in which the disaster is essentially the villain.

No matter how you define them, disaster movies tend to be expensive gambles and considerable risks for studios, because they are typically heavy on the special effects. It can pay off, and “San Andreas” shows how. All the special effects and the 3D helped push the budget on the Brad Peyton-directed earthquake disaster up to $110 million, but in its first three days it made roughly half of that back at the box office, in part because of the premium ticket prices from 3D and giant screen showings.

The highest-grossing of all disaster movies over the course of its global run is “Titanic,” which took in $2.1 billion in 1997.

In case you’re wondering – and we know you are – the lowest-ranking film on the all-time list of disaster movies at Box Office Mojo is “The Hindenburg,” a 1975 extravaganza from “West Side Story” and “Sound of Music” director Robert Wise that starred  George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft. Grosses from those days are unreliable, but the film had a dismal showing at the box office and with critics. “‘The Hindenburg’ is a disaster picture, all right,” wrote Roger Ebert at the time.

Here are some other disaster titles that made their mark, one way or another:

gravity.With Sandra Bullock and George Clooney playing astronauts stranded in space, Alfonso Cuaron’s 3D “Gravity” was the first blockbuster to launch in October, when students are in school and less-commercial awards fare dominates. It took in $716 million in 2013.

twister2The iconic flying cow was nearly as much the star as Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in 1996’s “Twister,” which brought in $246 million domestically.

Gwyneth Paltrow, ContagionSteven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller “Contagion” was about the global breakout of a disease with no known cure. It was an edgy hit, and made last year’s Ebola epidemic all the scarier for those who’d seen the film starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Kate Winslet. It debuted with $22 million at the domestic box office.

MSDHIND EC004Made for a then-extravagant $12 million, “The Hindenburg” was an easy target for critics, and so was director Robert Wise. “One gasbag meets another,” the New York Times review said.

ArmageddonDeep1Giant asteroids crashed into Earth twice in 1998, at least in Hollywood’s history. DreamWorks and Paramount’s “Deep Impact” starred Robert Duvall and Téa Leoni, and made $340 million. But Michael Bay’s “Armageddon,” with Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, opened two months later and topped that with $553 million at the global box office for Disney.

1170481 - The End Of The WorldSpeaking of Armageddon, James Franco, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s R-rated 2013 comedy hit “This Is the End” was set in a party at which the world comes to an end. Their next outing, “The Interview,” wasn’t a disaster movie per se, but don’t tell that to Sony.