Even as a "Pacific Rim" detractor, it's hard not to be impressed with the film's opening weekend. Guillermo Del Toro's blockbuster creature feature grossed $38.3 million over the three-day weekend, about $1 million more than "Oblivion" managed back in April -- and that one had Tom Cruise's name above the title and little relevant competition. "Pacific Rim" is already at over $90 million worldwide, and should easily surpass $200 million in global ticket sales when all is said and done (it might even crest above $250 million). For a movie with no stars and no pre-sold brand, that's really good.
The issue, of course, is that Del Toro spent a reported $190 million to make "Pacific Rim" -- not counting the untold millions forked over by Warner Bros. for marketing -- meaning the film needed to do a lot better than place third during its opening weekend in North America.
For all the talk about how Hollywood is afraid to take chances, this summer has featured tons of expensive Hail Mary passes. Few have been completed. "Pacific Rim" comes on the heels of Disney's flop "The Lone Ranger" and Sony's two flops, "White House Down" and "After Earth." All four films cost a ton of money; all four films were off-beat risks for the studios involved.
"The bigger the budget, the cleaner the concept needs to be," Adam Fogelson, chairman of Universal Pictures, said to The New Yorker last year. "Because you need to appeal not just to all four quadrants, but to people who speak every language under the sun. So ambiguity and darkness are tough."
More recently, Steven Spielberg, one of the founding fathers of summer blockbusters, predicted that the industry was coming to a breaking point. "That's the big danger, and there's eventually going to be an implosion -- or a big meltdown," Spielberg said during a discussion at USC's School of Cinematic Arts back in June. "There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm."
According to Spielberg, that would mean tiered pricing for blockbusters. "You're gonna have to pay $25 for the next 'Iron Man,'" Spielberg said. "You're probably only going to have to pay $7 to see 'Lincoln.'" Except what it really means is that Hollywood is actually going to take even fewer chances.
Earlier in July, Deadline.com's Nikki Finke wrote a piece about the comeback at Universal Pictures, following a string of high-profile flops like "The Wolfman," "Cowboys & Aliens," "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," "The Five-Year Engagement" and "Battleship." How did the studio manage to get out of blockbuster jail in the matter of a year? By making movies similar to "Pacific Rim" at a fraction of the cost.
"I've learned this short and stunning turnaround actually was the result of a plan by Universal execs to target overseas audiences who make up 70 percent of theatrical box office and intentionally create international franchises," Finke wrote.
That should have been "Pacific Rim," a movie with a diverse cast of non-stars and a global storyline. (Americans still save the day in "Pacific Rim," but Del Toro's film does at least acknowledge the existence of other cultures.) Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, the production company behind "Pacific Rim" and other Warner Bros. hits like "Man of Steel" and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, had the right idea here, it's just that the budget was off. If "Pacific Rim" cost $90 million, the sequel would already have a green light.
That's how Universal has righted itself. "If you look at their next two years, it is filled with sequels (10 in their 25 next pics) which should lead to terrific profits plus lower volatility. And they have event pictures and several brands such as 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' and 'Wicked' (touring in 40+ countries). It's an amazing run," an unnamed source told Finke. "I never expected this. To be honest, I'm not their biggest fan." (The irony here is that Legendary Pictures just signed a deal with Universal, a studio that has put hard brakes on films that cost as much as "Pacific Rim." As Jay-Z might say, it's time for new rules.)
All of which illustrates why movies like "Pacific Rim" often don't exist at that price point, and probably shouldn't at all: the reward is just too unattainable. (Don't even ask about the crumbled DVD market.) "Our owners don't need us to swing for the fences at all costs in hopes we can justify our existence," an anonymous studio executive told The New Yorker last year. "If we don't make smart decisions, they'll just reduce the number of films we make." The more movies like "Pacific Rim" that fail because of high budgets, the worse things will become for the consumer who wants more original blockbusters like "Pacific Rim."
"Today, we are canceling the apocalypse," Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost says during a high point in "Pacific Rim." Except maybe the opposite of that? This is how the blockbuster era ends: not with a whimper, but with a kaiju roar.