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Civil War: A Reflection on the (In)Significance of $1 Billion Worldwide as a Box Office Milestone

Posted on the 21 May 2016 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm

Remember the first Austin Powers movie when Dr. Evil explains his plan is to use a stolen warhead to hold the world ransom for one million dollars, and his second in command quickly interjects, “Don’t you think we should ask for more than a million dollars? A million dollars isn’t exactly a lot of money these days.”

Is that kind of how it is for us every time we hear about the latest blockbuster movie reaching some box office milestone? That number we used to think of as being remarkably significant and rare now seems somewhat ordinary.

Quick note: I say that from the outside looking in. Obviously, to anyone actually working in the film industry (as well as to the worldwide theaters who keep at least a 50% cut of ticket sales) a billion dollars is still an insane amount of money for any one movie.

So, what are we to make of the recent headlines announcing Captain America: Civil War as the first film of 2016 to cross $1 billion worldwide? Cool, but didn’t five movies do that same thing last year? Why is Forbes greeting Civil War’s accomplishment with a “Yeah, but it still won’t make as much as The Avengers” reminder? Wasn’t much of the discussion of Batman v Superman‘s (perceived) financial failures centered around its surprising inability to cross $1 billion worldwide, a milestone everyone had somehow assumed to be easily within that film’s reach? It’s sort of like, “You know how bad that movie is? It didn’t make one billion! Even Jurassic World and Transformers: Age of Extinction did that!”

Inevitably, the goalpost keeps getting pushed back for box office milestones, but when Titanic became the first film to cross $1 billion in 1997 that stood out as being the most impossible of all impossible box office dreams. Now, well, let’s do the numbers:

Including Civil War, only 25 movies have ever crossed $1 billion worldwide (full list at BoxOfficeMojo), but 19 (or 76%) of them have come out since 2008.

When The Dark Knight joined the $1 billion club in 2008 it was written about at the time as being an unbelievably big deal. That feat had only ever been accomplished by four other movies (obviously Titanic, plus Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Return of the King and The Phantom Menace; 1993’s Jurassic Park eventually joined the club thanks to its 2013 3D re-release). Well, five did it last year alone (The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Age of Ultron, Furious 7, Minions), and four in 2012 (Avengers, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey).

Why the explosion of such monumental success?

Short answer: Ever-rising ticket prices. 3D. Imax. The booming international market (insert obligatory reference to economic globalization). China. Hollywood making more blockbusters than ever before. Comic book films (they account for 6 of the top 25, all since 2008).

There are plenty of unfortunate consequences related to this ongoing quest for the box office brass ring (be it $1 billion worldwide or some other once-thought impossibly high figure). These consequences are largely tied to what exactly grossing a billion worldwide does to the mentality of Hollywood executives and their success benchmarks as well as to the related expectations of stockholders and corporate board members.

Disney, for example, has been rather candid that at this point it has no interest in swinging for singles or doubles anymore, e.g., cutting loose a low-budget, already completed family movie like Earth to Echo (later picked up by an indie) because it’s not worth their effort anymore to invest in such small-stakes affairs.

Furthermore, the super-saturation releases (putting each new blockbuster in as many theaters as humanly possible) and year-round scheduling isn’t leaving much real estate (both on the release calender and in multiplexes) for smaller movies, as DenOfGeek recently profiled in relation to Sing Street.

And, yet, as someone with a passing curiosity in the business of Hollywood I can’t stop wondering how many more 2016 movies might join Civil War in the $1 billion club. Does Zootopia (currently: $972m) have just enough juice left? Is Jungle Book (currently: $836m) finally starting to wind down or does it have a fighting chance at it? What about the new Harry Potter (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Star Wars (Rogue One) movies as well as Finding Dory? It seems insane to suggest Independance Day: Resurgence could hit that big, but Jurassic World caught every box office prognosticator off guard last year.

I’ve previously asked how many movies you thought Disney would have in the year-end top 10 (here’s the link). This is a somewhat similar question: How many movies do you think will cross $1 billion worldwide this year? At the moment, I’m staying conservative and guessing three (Civil War, Finding Dory, Rogue One). You? Or are you disinterested in guessing and more concerned about what this race to the top means for the film industry?

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