Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Best Summer Ever: Starting With the Worst

Best explosion ever.

As someone that writes about pop culture on the internet, I have an innate need to rank films. Couple that with a nerdy if somewhat haphazard and unscientific love for analyzing statistics, and you get the genesis of Best Summer Ever, where I’ll be trying to determine which was the best summer movie season of the last 31 years.

I have a lot of time on my hands.

Why rank summer movies grouped by their release date rather than individually? For starters, because Independence Day would win. Welcome to Earth, etc. Sorry Empire Strikes Back fans, but there’s no discussing this. Maybe if we went back and digitally recast Will Smith as Luke Skywalker. But what about summer ’96 (or summer ’80, if you insist)? Every person with a beating American heart obviously loves Independence Day, but does anyone have cherished memories of escaping the hot summer sun to catch Dragonheart? Or Striptease?

Summer movie season has become an event onto itself. It’s when Hollywood makes all their money, so it’s logical that their most “crowd-friendly” properties release here. When analyzing blockbusters year-to-year, patterns begin to emerge (hopefully interesting ones!), not just around what kind of films make money, but what films Hollywood thinks will make money, and thus, how Hollywood esteems the ticket-buying public. Each year of summer movies is a time capsule, reflecting on the state of mainstream cinema and, pardon my reach, pop culture (society!) as a whole.

Anyway, it’s not like I’ve put much thought into this or anything. We’re talking about trashy summer movies here! Geez.

My methods:

First, I plugged the 20 most profitable films from each of the last 30 summers into my data. The summer season technically runs from the first weekend of May to Labor Day – usually about 18 weeks – so capping at 20 captures most films that made money, and also allows for profitable films that might not have been huge tentpole releases. Also, round numbers.

It felt wrong to exclude 1980, so I ended up analyzing 31 years. My OCD would’ve had me going all the way back to 1976 for Jaws but Box Office Mojo, where I obtained all my data, doesn’t go back that far.

Then, to get a better idea of exactly how many people went to the movies in a given summer, I adjusted each film’s total gross for inflation.

Scientific proof of your awesomeness is forthcoming.

Next is the arbitrary part. I graded each of these movies on quality, using both my own opinion and critical consensus. Mostly my own opinion. Because everyone was wrong about Waterworld. Not everything needs to be scientific, ok?

Combining box office take with cinematic quality gave me a rough score for each year. I then introduced some modifiers, like bonuses for Oscar nominees and penalties for high-financed flops.

Finally, I tallied up everything, and produced what is a scientifically unimpeachable ranking with only the minor flaw of being heavily biased toward my personal tastes.

So that’s what I’m doing here. Anyway, enough boring spreadsheet talk. Let’s talk about movies!

As a result of my exhaustive research, I can safely say that 2006 was the worst summer for movies, ever.

"I hid my artistic integrity in this tiny box."

(#31) -2006-
Tickets Sold: 421.6 million (15 of 31)
#1 at the Box Office: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ($423,315,812 gross)
Most Critically Acclaimed: Superman Returns

There’s been a lot of critical anxiety recently about 2011 being a record year for sequels (it weighs in at 27, if you’re making your own spreadsheet). This week, Roger Ebert wrote a piece for Newsweek where he doesn’t bemoan sequels so much as he worries that Hollywood’s reliance on lucrative franchise-building is going to squeeze out fresher (read: riskier) creative endeavors.

But summer has always been dominated by sequels and franchises – even going back to the 80s and 90s, before the current super-hero craze that deserves much of the blame for sequel-rama, Hollywood gave us an average of 4-5 sequels per summer. For instance, summer ’83 had a whopping 7 sequels, only 3 less than we’ll get this summer. We needn’t worry about sequels snuffing out Tinseltown’s creative flame until they start invading our non-summer months (eek) and/or they start really, truly sucking (uh oh).

So maybe we should start worrying.

In his article, Ebert mentions the recent fan campaign to force Paramount to make an Anchorman sequel. The studio claimed to “have run the numbers” and found that such an endeavor wouldn’t be cost effective, which is odd not only because the original Anchorman raked in over $80 million when it released in 2004 and has only grown in popularity since, but because Anchorman already has a sequel.

You exist.

It’s called Talladega Nights. It’s Ron Burgundy in a racecar.

Although it’s more accurately thought of as a spiritual successor to Anchorman, and despite the fact that it nearly doubled what Anchorman did at the box office 2 years prior, Talladega Nights is a perfect example of everything that went wrong in 2006. It’s a sequel (of sorts) that grossed huge numbers but disappointed fans of the original.

The top grossing movie of 2006 was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a film that attempted to duplicate the joyful adventure of the original by having Johnny Depp get eaten by a giant squid. Granted, this was supposed to be the “dark” chapter of the Pirates trilogy – The Octopus Strikes Back, if you will – but whereas Empire led to a $40 million gross increase for Jedi, the third Pirates flick ended up taking in $87 million less as a result of the over-mythologized and boring Chest.

More disappointing, at least for me personally, was X-Men: The Last Stand. I love the first X-Men sequel and still consider it the best of the super-hero movies. Adding the likes of Kelsey Grammer, Ben Foster, and Vinnie Jones to an already spot-on cast seems great on paper, but then that paper is shoved into the sweaty hands of likely crystal meth abuser Brett Ratner. Last Stand is perhaps the most offensive example of a “kitchen sink” approach to a sequel in existence, where fan service becomes fan sadism.

And take your smart ideas with you, fancy boy!

Meanwhile, the man who first made me tear up during a super-hero movie (get back on that Black Bird, Jean, you’re breaking my heart), Bryan Singer, jumped from Marvel to DC, directing what always seemed like a doomed Superman sequel. I’m not a huge fan of Singer’s interpretation of The Man of Steel, but at least it’s interesting and, dare I say, intelligent. It’s also eerily prescient in that Lex Luthor’s real estate scheme predicts the subprime mortgage bubble (those bankers are using poor people’s money to build an island of kryptonite, right?).

Superman Returns is probably the most glaring example of that franchise-induced creative coma Ebert worries Hollywood might never wake from. Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews and grossing over $200 million, a planned Singer-directed sequel was canned because not enough Lexcorp robot suits exploded. Essentially, Superman Returns was too sensitive for summer.

2006 – the year where an exceptionally thoughtful sequel could make money and impress critics, and still be considered a black eye for a studio.

Let’s jump back to Talladega Nights for a moment, because it’s the highest grossing of an ugly litter of star-studded comedies. Adam Sandler gave us Click, a vapid family comedy about a magic remote control, remarkable only in that it’s the second in a string of four consecutive Sandler summer comedies  that would gradually erode his reputation (such as it was). Also intent on squandering comedic good will in ’06 was Jack Black (Nacho Libre) and Owen Wilson (You, Me and Dupree).

As a rule, summer is usually hit-or-miss for comedy, but it has to be a particularly bleak year if bankable stars like Ferrell, Sandler, and Black are all delivering duds. And then there’s Vince Vaughn, whose shrill-off with the inexplicably-considered-funny Jennifer Aniston, The Break-Up, left America asking the disconcerting question: is Vaughn really as charming as we’ve been led to believe?

Other uncomfortable questions posed by the atrocious 2006: What’s wrong with Michael Mann? What’s going on with Tom Hanks’ hairline? And should Cars really be the second biggest movie in a summer where An Inconvenient Truth was released?

At least Hollywood wasn’t financially rewarded for putting together such an awful season. 2006 was the worst summer at the box office since 1997. That could be viewed as a referendum by the public against shameless franchise cash-ins, if not for the near record breaking box office done by 9 sequels the following year, led by Spider-Man 3.

It’s odd timing that this summer we’ll get our first sequels about mutant teens and pirates since 2006. Maybe Roger Ebert is onto something after all.

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