Lionsgate’s original action series is one of Hollywood’s biggest R-rated franchises
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Lionsgate has officially noted that the four “John Wick” films have topped $1 billion at the global box office. Its new cume, $1.011 billion in all, comes from a combined production budget of just $245 million, for a 4.12 times rate of return just through theatrical revenue. It again shows the value of at least trying to create new or outright original IP amid a sea of revamps and revivals.
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That total gross includes $87.8 million for “John Wick” in 2014, $171.5 million for “John Wick: Chapter 2” in 2017 (plus 97% from “John Wick”), $326.7 million for “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” in 2019 (plus 90%) and a running total of $425.3 million for “John Wick: Chapter 4” (plus 30%) which opened in late March of this year.
Commenting on the announcement, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group chair Joe Drake said, “This milestone is a testament to the incredible work of [director] Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves, alongside [producers] Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee, who have made it their mission to outdo themselves with each successive film in this franchise. We could not be more grateful to global moviegoers for bringing us to this incredible achievement.”
The R-rated, original, star-driven action franchise is the stuff of legend in terms of how Lionsgate acquired the original “John Wick” and marketed it into a big-deal theatrical release in just over a month between the pickup and its late October 2014 opening. Anecdotally speaking, the perception of that first installment went from “Oh, Keanu Reeves is getting his direct-to-VOD ‘Taken’ knock-off,” to “Oh, this movie is going to be in theaters,” to “Oh, this is getting a wide release!” to “Wait a minute, it’s getting the Imax Experience?”
Back in the early 2010s, it still qualified as an event, especially for a lower-budget, non-franchise flick to get an IMAX engagement. It was a way of showing that the likes of “The Hunger Games” or “American Sniper” were big-deal releases. Lionsgate parlayed the Thunder Roads/87Eleven production into a modest big-screen event thanks to strong reviews and a marketing campaign that implicitly anointed the film as a kind of generational coronation for Keanu Reeves. The kids who had grown up on “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Speed” and “The Matrix” were the adults in the room now, and thus Reeves was getting his proverbial flowers as a definitive onscreen presence and one-of-a-kind movie star.
It helped that the film, helmed by former stuntmen Stahelski and David Leitch, was an innovative, primal and visually engrossing action movie built around a ghoulishly primal premise: A retired hitman goes back into action on a path of vengeance after Russian mobsters kill his new puppy. Who wouldn’t cheer on the carnage? Cue rave reviews, especially from in-the-know action junkies, and a $14 million opening weekend. That was double the pre-release projections, and the $30 million flick legged out to $44 million domestic and $88 million worldwide.
It would earn an additional $48 million in domestic physical media sales and gain additional fans. So when “John Wick: Chapter 2” opened in early 2017, the stage had been set (good reviews, decent box office, long legs, great word-of-mouth and strong post-theatrical discovery) for a breakout sequel akin to — relatively speaking — “Lethal Weapon 2,” “Scream 2,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Dark Knight” and “Pitch Perfect 2.”
The sequel, directed by Stahelski while Leitch went on to helm “Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2,” “Hobbs & Shaw” and “Bullet Train,” would open with $30 million and leg out to $92 million domestic, followed by $51 million in physical media sales.
“Little was expected from the original film at the box office,” noted Box Office Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins, “and even its quiet sleeper run went somewhat unnoticed until the film continued gaining momentum weeks into release and years into at-home rentals, streams and broadcast airings.”
Two years later, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” would overperform yet again, earning $171 million domestically from a $56 million opening weekend, staking a claim as the go-to adult-skewing event flick of the early summer amid “Avengers: Endgame,” “Detective Pikachu” and “Aladdin.” It would earn $70 million in physical media sales, a huge showing (“Avengers: Infinity War,” for example, would earn $104 million in DVD and Blu-ray sales) amid a time when consumers were shifting to digital rentals and purchases.
The size of the box office jumps between installments is almost without precedent, especially for a film franchise that didn’t really go hard on added value elements and arguably required audiences, due to the sequels’ expanding mythology and cliffhanger finales, to have seen the prior chapters.
That “John Wick: Chapter 4” earned “just” 8% more domestically than its predecessor is contrasted with a strong 55% jump in overseas earnings. That’s often how it works for fourth installments for popular action franchises, as we saw with “Jason Bourne” (up 17% from “The Bourne Ultimatum”), “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (up 83%), “Fast & Furious” (up 213%) or the 3-D enhanced “Resident Evil: Afterlife” (up 247%)
Moreover, the franchise is just the ninth entirely R-rated franchise, sorry to “Terminator” ($2 billion), “Alien” ($1.63 billion) and “Die Hard” ($1.43 billion), which snuck a PG-13 entry or two into the mix, to pass $1 billion worldwide.
Among all R or unrated franchises, “John Wick” currently sits behind the ongoing “Conjuring” Universe ($2.1 billion), the four “Matrix” movies ($1.79 billion), two “Deadpool” movies ($1.57 billion), China’s unrated but war violence-filled “Battle at Lake Changjin” duology ($1.53 billion), “The Hangover” trilogy ($1.404 billion), China’s “Detective Chinatown” trilogy ($1.365 billion), the “Fifty Shades” trilogy ($1.324 billion), “Resident Evil” ($1.23 billion over six films), the two “It” films ($1.17 billion) and the nine-and-counting “Saw” series ($1.02 billion).
“What would have been a solid success story for a singular film has turned into a global blockbuster mythos,” stated Robbins, “one that many can argue has usurped ‘The Matrix’ as Keanu Reeves’ signature career franchise.”
Lionsgate had a hell of a run in the 2010s with original or new-to-cinema franchises. “The Expendables,” “The Hunger Games,” “Gerard Butler’s “Has Fallen” franchise, “Olympus Has Fallen,” “Now You See Me,” “John Wick,” “Sicario,” “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” “Wonder” and “Knives Out” all qualify as either entirely new or source material that hadn’t been adapted to the screen which spawned at least one theatrical sequel.
This frankly towering success shows the value of hitting the jackpot with an original franchise instead of trying to coast on existing IP, nostalgia or revamps of previously successful films or brands. Lionsgate took a chance on this one, amid a time when Keanu Reeves wasn’t exactly at his peak of fortune and glory, and now they have a four-film franchise, an Ana de Armas-starring spin-off and a three-part “The Continental” TV movie event on the way.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” will open in Japan later this fall, and it has continued to play well theatrically despite a crowded marketplace and despite only having those premium large format (PLF) screens for a week or two in most marketplaces. It’s worth remembering that Hollywood tends to make more money from creating”Yellowstone” than from trying to find the next “Yellowstone.”
Before joining The Wrap, Scott Mendelson got his industry start in 2008 with a self-piloted film blog titled "Mendelson's Memos." In 2013, he was recruited to write for Forbes.com where he wrote almost exclusively for nearly a decade. In that time he published copious in-depth analytical and editorialized entertainment industry articles specializing in (but not exclusively focused upon) theatrical box office. A well-known industry pundit, Mendelson has appeared on numerous podcasts and been featured as a talking head on NPR, CNN, Fox and BBC.