Jane Levy in TriStar Pictures' horror movie "Evil Dead." (TriStar Pictures / TriStar…)
People who offer their Monday-morning quarterback opinions in spaces like this -- yours truly included -- like to parse every number, every success or failure, for a larger meaning. And sometimes you have to look pretty hard to see a trend. Other times, like a possessed spirit in a dark forest, it just jumps out at you.
Consider the most recent box office numbers. Coming in to the weekend, "Evil Dead" and "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" seemed to be locked in a tight battle. Fede Alvarez's big horror sequel and Jon Chu's big action sequel each had a good shot to win the weekend. But when all was said and done Sunday, the race wound up not even being close, with "Evil Dead" solidly beating "G.I. Joe” by a tally of $26 million to $21.1 million.
Now, "G.I. Joe" is of course in its second week; the total of $40-plus million over its first Friday-Sunday period last week handily outdid "Evil Dead’s" totals this weekend. But that’s somewhat beside the point.
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"G.I Joe," with its enormous TV marketing campaign and major stars, is almost always going to beat a smaller production on the raw box-office totals. But using the more subtle metric of investment-to-return, it’s actually been pretty soundly defeated. With a budget of under $20 million, "Evil Dead" has already taken in, in its first weekend, more than it cost to produce. And “G.I. Joe?" Even after two weeks, it’s taken in barely half of its $135 million production budget in the U.S.
Ah, but there's the very significant matter of international box office. More on that in a moment.
The “G.I. Joe”-“Evil Dead” contrast illustrates what's been happening these past few months at the U.S. box office, a few months that are indicative of where these genres have in fact been heading.
In 2013 there has been a clear case of major overperformers and underperformers -- movies that did really well given their expectations and their costs, and movies that didn't.
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The movies that fit in the former category, more or less, are "Mama," "Warm Bodies," "Evil Dead," "The Call" and "Olympus Has Fallen,” all of which tallied more than forecasters had predicted and all of which will end up solidly in the black.
Now here are the clear domestic underperformers: "The Last Stand," "Bullet to the Head," "Dead Man Down," "The Host," "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," "Jack the Giant Slayer" and "A Good Day To Die Hard."
It doesn't take much analysis to see the first list is made up primarily of supernatural genre pieces, particularly horror films. The second is filled with action movies, either old-school ones like "Last Stand" and "Bullet to the Head," or newfangled ones like "Jack the Giant Slayer.”
In “Moneyball” or market terms, supernatural genre movies are undervalued while action movies are overvalued. In more layman terms: we want to see supernatural and horror films more than Hollywood thinks we do, and we want to see action movies less than it thinks we do.
Those are all relative numbers, of course, budgets-to-return and the like. When it comes to overall dollars, action still easily trumps the supernatural and other genre movies, right? Yes. But the gap is shrinking. A decade ago the collective annual box office of the top five action movies in the U.S., fueled by pictures like “Terminator” and “Bad Boys” sequels, reached $815 million -- nearly three times the $320 million taken in by genre-y stuff like “Gothika” and “Freddy vs. Jason.”
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But by last year that gap had significantly narrowed. The top five action films edged the genre pictures by a far smaller margin, just $725 million to $526 million. (“Skyfall,” “Taken 2,” “The Bourne Legacy,” “The Expendables 2” and “Wrath of the Titans” vs. “Breaking Dawn Part 2,” “Chronicle," "Underworld: Awakening,” “The Woman in Black” and “The Devil Inside,” if you’re keeping score.)
Americans will still go out to see action movies in great numbers. But it’s a lot less of a clear-cut choice than it once was. In a climate in which “Walking Dead” dominates the water cooler, where even adults are scarfing up supernatural-themed YA literature -- and, perhaps, in a time when we feel we’ve seen every action cliché and star out there -- Americans are turning away from action and toward the supernatural.