When Contagion opened in IMAX theaters on September 9, 2011, only a handful of films had previously been offered in that large-scale presentation that weren’t either part of a franchise, an original film with hopes of becoming a franchise, a work based on another text, or a prominent remake a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. From 2002 to September 2011, a total of 77 wide release films made their way to IMAX screens. Of these, and excluding animated and concert films, only three films (Eagle Eye, Inception, and Sanctum) opened over that nine-year span that didn’t fit the above qualifications. Certainly, these anomalous entries can be explained by their potential box-office appeal, but only Inception had directorial (let’s say auteur) pedigree, which is where my interest lies. We shall call such films art-house blockbusters (AHB), in accordance with our established definition.
As any taxonomist is prone to do, I feel obligated to compare the two films and say which is the “purest” AHB, in the sense that it most comprehensively achieves our definition. It should go without saying that an AHB need be a hit (let’s say more than double its budget worldwide) to fit the qualifications. While Inception certainly made more money, I’m inclined to say that Contagion, given Steven Soderbergh’s comprehensive proliferation within the independent scene (Sex, Lies, and Videotape arguably being the definitive independent film of the late 1980s and early 1990s) and the film’s rather radical departure from the filmmaker’s prior work, satisfies our definition best, especially since Christopher Nolan was riding The Dark Knight wave, which essentially afforded him any project he wanted and all but guaranteed a worldwide sensation.
So, Contagion is the reigning champion—at least, until Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity opens in IMAX 3D this Friday, the first AHB to open in the two-plus years since. As such, even just from the preceding hype and pedigree, Gravity is likely the most unprecedented IMAX release of the 21st century—a film that not only comprehensively fulfills the established AHB requirements, but perhaps adds an even deeper layer, in that Cuarón hasn’t directed a film in seven years, since Children of Men. That film made just over $35 million domestic and barely scraped past 1,500 theaters in its widest release. Certainly, Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a hit, but purely within the confines of a multiple-director franchise, where directorial flourish is often frowned upon. It’s Y Tu Mamá También where Cuarón originally made his name with critics and cinephiles, though the modest $13 million domestic gross is hardly substantial outside its art-house confines. Were it not for stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, Gravity might outwardly look like an oncoming train wreck. And yet, even with them, it may still. Bullock, though a considerable draw in comedies, has arguably never had a dramatic hit where she wasn’t part of an ensemble cast. And Clooney hasn’t previously had much luck in outer space, starring in Soderbergh’s Solaris: a financial disaster. Surely all of these factors signal a quick death for the latest AHB, right?
Certainly not, since Gravity’s marketing campaign and the proliferation of overwhelmingly positive reviews have saturated the market with identical ferocity to any mid-budget summer blockbuster you could care to name. The IMAX trailer featuring a single, unbroken take gets to the core of what makes Cuarón’s film so curious as a mainstream release: its avid attention to formal construction. Nevertheless, like, say, the Paranormal Activity films, Warner Bros. has wisely decided to make form its primary marketing tool—to promise “thrills” without revealing any narrative duration. Such a tact has proven gangbusters for horror films of late; remember back to the “Bloody Mary” trailer for Paranormal Activity 3, featuring nothing but a short, creepy clip…that wasn’t even in the actual film! By placing form at the fore, Warner Bros. has relegated its stars to the background, but that’s precisely what needed to be done, given that audiences don’t need convincing of Clooney and Bullock’s appeal. What they do need convincing of is that Gravity is distinct and new enough to warrant their attention. By applying horror-film advertising techniques to an A-lister sci-fi AHB, Warner Bros. has ensured a significant opening this coming weekend. Anything less that $30 million would be shocking, but I’m thinking upward of $40 million is more likely. Warner Bros. and Cuarón have made their title bid for “reigning AHB champion,” and by all accounts, they’ll get the knockout.
Box Office Weekend Predictions
1. Gravity: $43.2 NEW
2. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2: $23.1 -32%
3. Runner Runner: $11.7 NEW
4. Rush: $6.3 -37%
5. Prisoners: $6.2 -43%
6. Baggage Claim: $5 -45%
7. Don Jon: $4.2 -51%
8. Insidious: Chapter 2: $3.3 -49%
9. Enough Said: $2.7 +29%
10. Instructions Not Included: $2.4 -30%