July 20, 2017
If you’ve ever taken a high school or college class on film, you likely came across the auteur theory of movies.
This school of thought, developed by the leading minds of the French New Wave in the 1950s, holds that directors are the authors of their films. A generation of American filmmakers, the New Hollywood directors, grew up with this belief in the 1960s and 1970s, creating some of cinema’s most celebrated and consequential motion pictures.
In 2017, however, the auteur theory is being severely tested. The unceremonious firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller from the Han Solo movie was the starkest example yet that producers like Kathleen Kennedy and Kevin Feige are sacrificing bold, experimental visions for safer stories and assured results. At the moment, the producer is king (or queen) of cinema.
For decades, Steven Spielberg was the only director with the ability to lure moviegoers. Sure, maestros like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have large fan bases, but no one else was quite able to fully cross over. Until the arrival of Christopher Nolan. The half-British, half-American director made his name with 2000’s “Memento.” His first major release set the template for his future work: original and ambitious, while also able to seamlessly blend blockbuster entertainment with unorthodox storytelling methods.
Nolan’s reputation gradually grew with hits like “Insomnia” and “The Prestige,” but his big break was when he convinced Warner Brothers to hand him the keys to their most precious franchise. 2005’s “Batman Begins” was a game-changer and unwittingly became the textbook for reboot-hungry studios to follow. The movie brought in $48 million over the opening weekend and legged it out to $208 million in North America and $374 million worldwide.
The real turning point, though, came with 2008’s sequel “The Dark Knight.” Good will from the previous installment as well as fascination with recently departed Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker led to a then-record $158M opening. Even more amazingly, it was one of the few films to not only live up to, but actually exceed the hype. It became a true cultural event, and is still regarded almost 10 years (and several dozen imitators) later as the greatest comic book movie of all-time. By the end of its run, this Batman story had brought in $533M domestic and $1B worldwide. At that moment, “The Dark Knight” ranked second all-time in domestic box office grosses behind only “Titanic.”
Off the heels of that mammoth success, Nolan bet it all on an original script he’d been working on for years concerning dreams. Despite the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio, “Inception” was considered a major risk by Nolan and WB. A $62M start alongside eventual totals of $292M/$825M domestic/worldwide proved that gamble paid off.
In 2012, Nolan finished his superhero trilogy with “The Dark Knight Rises.” Despite the infamously tragic midnight shooting, which caused a temporary slowdown in trips to the theater, the series’ conclusion still managed an opening of $160M as well as $448M domestic and $1.08B worldwide.
For his next outing, Nolan sought to take on an even more daunting challenge. 2014’s “Interstellar” was a sci-fi epic that heavily involved theoretical physics. Nevertheless, it still made $47 million during its opening weekend along the way to $188 million in North America and $675 million around the globe.
This weekend, the director is tackling the subject of war with his newest release “Dunkirk.” The film is based on the true story of the evacuation of the British military forces after the fall of France to Nazi Germany during World War II. Meanwhile, the cast is made up of mostly young unknowns although singer Harry Styles is making his acting debut in a supporting role.
Nolan’s reputation, plus the popular WWII subject matter, are working in the movie’s favor. The director also has a wonderful relationship with IMAX, meaning “Dunkirk” has a hold on the increasingly valuable format. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is at 97%, with particular praise for Nolan’s suspenseful handling of air, sea and ground warfare. Perhaps Hollywood’s foremost champion of the theater-going experience, his movies are made for the big screen.
“Dunkirk” is tracking for about $40 million and I expect it to outperform expectations and have strong legs in the days and weeks to come.
Prediction: $47 Million
Director Luc Besson, on the other hand, is an auteur who’s never quite broken through (ironic considering his French roots). Besson is a master of films that you heard were good or ones you caught on cable years later and enjoyed. Movies like “Nikita,” “The Professional,” “The Fifth Element” and “Lucy.”
His latest, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” is based on a French sci-fi comic that Besson’s wanted to make for years. After viewing “Avatar” in 2009, he finally believed it was possible to make. It ultimately took $180 million, but Besson was able to complete his vision. The problem? All that money came from his own production company EuropaCorp. On top of this, EuropaCorp just reported a $136 million loss and its hopes are riding on “Valerian.”
Furthermore, “Valerian” doesn’t have any big stars in the cast beyond a cameo from Rihanna.
The leads are played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. DeHaan is an up-and-comer most known for his fantastic work in “Chronicle” and his less than satisfactory work in the superhero flop “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Delevingne conversely is actually rather famous, but as a model, not an actress. Her role in last year’s “Suicide Squad” was pilloried by fans and critics.
Although “Valerian”’s biggest problem is arguably that it’s opening up against another director-driven outing, the previously mentioned “Dunkirk.” Nolan’s decision to pick July 21 as his premiere makes sense as some of his most successful entries, “The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” opened in the third week of July.
What’s difficult to understand is why Besson stuck “Valerian” on the same date. The movie’s trailers are selling it as a visually-stunning work of art, yet it won’t benefit from the bigger screens and ticket prices of IMAX. Those are going to “Dunkirk” instead. The first weekend of August has lately been a valuable spot since there’s less competition in the dog days of summer. “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Suicide Squad” both did exceptional in this slot recently. Yet “Valerian” never made the move and “The Dark Tower” ended up taking it instead.
The only explanation I can imagine is that Besson is not especially worried about how the film does in North America. Usually, studios will focus all their attention on the NA and Chinese markets, but perhaps the Frenchman is more worried about his native Europe. All the while, the reception for “Valerian” is mixed with a RT score of 72%. It’s tracking at just $20 million and could get lost in the shuffle of summer popcorn fare.
Prediction: $16 Million
A quintessential example of counterprogramming, “Girls Trip” stars Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett-Smith as long-time friends heading out on a road trip. This offering from Universal Studios cost just $28 million, so it doesn’t need to post blockbuster-like numbers.
“Girls Trip” is currently at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and is well-positioned to be the sleeper hit of the weekend.
Prediction: $27 Million