This Weekend in Box Office History: Apollo 13 Turns 25, Transformers Sequels Invade, Superman Returns, WALL-E Debuts, & More

Photo Credits: Paramount, Disney / Pixar, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Janusz Kamiński ("War of the Worlds")

This week, we officially reach the midpoint of the 2020 calendar with the 26th weekend of the year. It’s a period with notable blockbuster releases in past years as studios have capitalized on the midsummer / pre-Fourth of July corridor with some of their biggest family-friendly and popcorn releases.

Prior to COVID-19 delays, the weekend ahead was originally slated to see the return of Tom Cruise in the highly anticipated Top Gun: Maverick as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. The former of those is now scheduled for a December 23 release later this year, while the latter has been shuffled to June 18, 2021.

The Age of Transformers

Nearly one-third of the top ten openings on this frame are quickly summarized by naming one franchise. Following the 2007 breakout of Michael Bay’s Transformers adaptation, the director rolled out another four sequels between 2009 and 2017 — three of them debuting on this exact weekend.

The period’s record-holder is the first sequel in the franchise: 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The insta-blockbuster was one of the most anticipated films of the year thanks to the goodwill of 2007’s predecessor, going on to earn $62 million in its first day of release (a Wednesday). That was second only to The Dark Knight‘s $67.2 million first day among all-time records. Fallen also secured the second-best five-day start in history at the time time with $200.1 million, also trailing Dark Knight ($203.8 million). Its actual three-day weekend start registered at $109 million.

Ultimately, word of mouth wasn’t as strong for the first sequel (something Bay himself blamed on the 2007 writers’ strike), but it still drew an impressive $402 million domestically and $836 million worldwide — second only to Avatar‘s historic $749 million run on the former front, while landing in fourth place globally in 2009.

Bay wasted no time churning out the next two sequels. 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon held to the mid-week release pattern of its two predecessors, drawing a $97.8 million three-day weekend leading into the Fourth of July holiday. Opening week numbers weren’t as potent as Fallen‘s near-record tallies, but Moon won back many fans of the first film as it displayed better staying power than Revenge and earned $352.4 million domestically — second best of the year again, not far behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($381 million) this time.

In fact, Dark of the Moon ultimately leveraged global market expansion and its 3D offering to become the best performer of the franchise in global terms. The three-quel earned $1.12 billion, trailing only the Potter finale ($1.34 billion) in 2011.

Three years later, Bay recast the series with Mark Wahlberg in the lead — a move that probably helped helped stave off more significant franchise fatigue than it ultimately endured. Transformers: Age of Extinction shifted to a traditional Friday release and bowed with $100 million over its first weekend. The film capped out at $245.4 million stateside, a franchise low at the time that led to a 7th place finish for 2014. Still, the franchise continued to excel internationally as Extinction became the first (and only, so far) of the series to win the global box office year with $1.1 billion.

Animation Domination Continues

It wouldn’t be midsummer without a tentpole animated release in the mix, and the benchmark for this weekend belongs to Illumination’s Despicable Me 3. As the fourth film in the franchise, including 2015’s Minions spin-off, some diminishing returns were naturally expected for the most recent chapter. Still, the pic debuted to a healthy $72.4 million domestic weekend and finished with $264.6 million, ranking ninth for 2017. Globally, the sequel eclipsed the $1 billion threshold ($1.035 billion) and ranked fourth for the year.

A fifth entry in the series, Minions: The Rise of Gru, was delayed from release this summer to July 2, 2021.

Not to be left far behind, though, is the reliable Pixar. Two more of their entries landed on this weekend in back-to-back years, starting with 2007’s Ratatouille. That original film debuted to $47 million, and while respectable in the grand scheme of things, it represented the lowest Pixar debut yet for a traditional three-day weekend opening. The film represented one of the studio’s early shifts toward more mature storytelling, but still proved accessible enough to kids and legged out to $206.5 million domestically.

Ratatouille is one of the few Pixar titles not to finish among the top ten for its year, ranking 11th in 2007, but it did finish 6th with $623.7 million worldwide. Writer/director Brad Bird ultimately took home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

One year later, Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E delivered a more Pixar-like $63.1 million debut as the cutesy appeal of an adorable robot attracted kids and parents alike. It proved to have long-term appeal with audiences, even if the largely silent nature of the film’s early scenes again pushed the attraction into older-than-typical demographics for Pixar films. WALL-E earned $223.8 million domestically, good enough for fifth place in 2008, while landing in ninth place that year with $521.3 million globally.

Like his colleague one year before, Stanton, too, won the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

Live Action Hits

This weekend has been dominated by franchises and animated films catering to kids and families, but a quartet of other releases are responsible some of the ten best debuts during the frame.

Highest among them is Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise, which drew a $64.9 million three-day weekend launch as part of a $100.6 million five-day opening. The midweek release was the biggest launch of Cruise’s career up to that point, while ranking second for Spielberg (behind The Lost World: Jurassic Park‘s $72.1 million weekend). The remake drew big numbers with $234.3 million domestically and $603.9 million globally, ranking fourth on both fronts that year.

One year later, the big pre-Fourth of July tentpole spot went to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. The director’s success with the X-Men franchise, as well as the growing goodwill for comic book films in the wake of the Spider-Man films and Batman Begins, resulted in big expectations for a return to one of the biggest icons of the genre.

While critics and nostalgic fans praised the sequel’s return to the character-driven roots of Richard Donner’s original films, Returns missed expectations with a $52.5 million weekend debut ($84.6 million five-day) as it couldn’t reel in younger viewers with its nostalgic lean. The film finished with $200.1 million domestically and $391.1 million globally, ranking sixth and eighth for 2006, respectively. With a production budget estimated around $270 million, the film was unfortunately regarded as a financial disappointment that put the franchise back on ice for another seven years.

In 2008, counter-programming was on the menu for this weekend as Wanted debuted alongside the aforementioned WALL-E. The graphic novel adaptation generated significant interest with a strong ad campaign and star power from Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, and the lead-on-the-rise James McAvoy. It registered one of the top R-rated debuts in history at the time with $50.9 million on opening weekend, ultimately drawing $134.5 million domestically and $342.5 million worldwide on a $75 million production budget.

Rounding out the top ten, and actually ranking 7th on this list, is Seth MacFarlane’s Ted. The original comedy drew stellar buzz ahead of its 2012 release and resulted in one of the best R-rated comedy debuts ever. Following a $54.4 million first weekend, the film displayed excellent staying power as it finished with $218.8 million domestically and a whopping $549.4 million worldwide — 9th and 12th for the year, respectively.

Ted was MacFarlane’s directorial debut after years of pop culture impact with the successful Family Guy and American Dad television series, and its blockbuster success was made even more impressive with the context of a modest $50 million production cost. The comedy’s sequel, Ted 2, also debuted this weekend in 2015 with $33.5 million before it finished with $81.5 million domestically and $215.9 million globally.

Happy Anniversary to the Crew of Apollo 13

Last, but far from least, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 deserves a shout-out on this list. Granted, its $25.4 million debut in 1995 puts it far down the list of opening weekend box office rankings, but the modern classic based on the true story celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend while also following the 50th anniversary of the real-life event in April 1970.

With an all-star cast led by Tom Hanks during his unmatched run of box office success in the 1990s, Apollo 13 was and remains widely regarded as one of the most accurate on-screen depictions of the Apollo program and the near-disaster which befell the Apollo 13 crew.

Putting character first while also pushing the boundaries of visual effects during its era, the film went on to become a runaway blockbuster. Its debut ranked sixth for the year, but higher than any other original film outside of Disney’s Pocahontas ($29.5 million).

Legging out to a stellar $172.1 million domestically and $353.2 million globally, Apollo 13 finished in third place on both fronts for 1995 — not far behind the final tallies of Die Hard with a Vengeance ($100 million domestic / $366 million global), Toy Story ($191.8 million domestic / $363 million global), and Batman Forever ($184 million domestic / $336.5 million global).

The film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, winning two for Film Editing and Sound Mixing.

More Notable Debuts This Weekend

  • Annabelle Comes Home ($20.3 million 3-day in 2019)
  • Yesterday ($17 million in 2019)
  • Sicario: Day of the Soldado ($19 million in 2018)
  • Uncle Drew ($15.2 million in 2018)
  • Baby Driver ($20.6 million 3-day in 2017)
  • Independence Day: Resurgence ($41 million in 2016)
  • The Heat ($39.1 million in 2013)
  • White House Down ($24.9 million in 2013)
  • Magic Mike ($39.1 million in 2012)
  • Grown Ups ($40.5 million in 2010)
  • Live Free or Die Hard ($33.4 million 3-day in 2007)
  • The Devil Wears Prada ($27.5 million in 2006)
  • Fahrenheit 9/11 ($23.9 million in 2004)
  • The Notebook ($13.5 million in 2004)
  • Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle ($37.6 million in 2003)
  • 28 Days Later… ($10.1 million in 2003)
  • Mr. Deeds ($37.2 million in 2002)
  • A.I. Artificial Intelligence ($29.4 million in 2001)
  • The Perfect Storm ($41.3 million in 2000)
  • The Patriot ($22.4 million 3-day in 2000)
  • Big Daddy ($41.5 million in 1999)
  • Doctor Dolittle ($29 million in 1998)
  • Face/Off ($23.4 million in 1997)
  • The Nutty Professor ($25.4 million in 1996)
  • Sleepless In Seattle ($17.3 million in 1993)
  • The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear ($20.8 million in 1991)
  • Days of Thunder ($15.5 million in 1990)
  • The Karate Kid Part III ($10.4 million in 1989)
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit ($11.2 million in 1988)
  • Dragnet ($10.5 million in 1987)
  • Spaceballs ($6.6 million in 1987)
  • Full Metal Jacket ($2.2 million from 215 locations in 1987)
  • Pale Rider ($9.1 million in 1985)
  • St. Elmo’s Fire ($6.1 million in 1985)
  • Blade Runner ($6.15 million in 1982)
  • The Thing ($3.1 million in 1982)
  • For Your Eyes Only ($6.8 million in 1981)
  • Stripes ($6.1 million in 1981)
  • The Great Muppet Caper ($3 million in 1981)
  • Moonraker ($7.1 million in 1979)

Suggestions for films or milestones to cover in future weekends? Let us know!

You can check out previous versions of this column in our archives.

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