This Weekend In Box Office History: Pirates, Will Smith, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, Forrest Gump, Transformers, & More Summer Classics

Photo Credits: Disney, Universal, Sony / Columbia, Paramount, Hasbro, Marvel, 20th Century Fox, TriStar Pictures, Amblin

We’re officially into the second half of the year and summer movie season as the calendar has turned to July. This column has already covered a number of classic releases, and this weekend stands up as one of the biggest blockbuster frames yet from prior years thanks to its proximity to the United States’ Independence Day and Canada Day holidays.

Prior to COVID-19 delays, this particular 2020 weekend would have seen the release of Universal and Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru, as well as 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds (not to mention the sophomore frames of Top Gun: Maverick and In the Heights). The Minions prequel has since been pushed to July 2, 2021, while Free Guy is currently set to debut on December 11 later this year.

Below is look back at some of the top box office stories from the 27th frame of the calendar, followed by a ranking of the top ten debuts and an additional list of notable openings from yesteryear.

Pirates Rule the Seas

It may have missed out on the Fourth of July holiday with its July 7, 2006 debut, but as of 2020, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest remains captain of this weekend’s box office performances even after fourteen years of blockbuster summer movies.

Three years before, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl turned into one of the biggest surprise mega-hits to hit cinemas in years. Despite mixed buzz from early trailers and doubt that Disney could turn a theme park ride into a viable summer tentpole, the swashbuckling adventure leveraged its seasonally appropriate, popcorn plot and excellent ensemble cast into a $305 million domestic and $654 million global run in 2003. It was one of the biggest sleeper hits in modern moviegoing times, driven in large part by the popularity of Johnny Depp’s iconic Captain Jack Sparrow.

That goodwill translated into massive anticipation for a sequel over the next three years, one which didn’t disappoint at the box office. Dead Man’s Chest was marketed as the event film of 2006 and delivered on that promise with an all-time opening weekend record of $135.6 million, ending Spider-Man‘s four-year reign of that title (it bowed to $114.8 million in May 2002).

Just as impressively, Dead Man’s Chest wasn’t quick to burn out like many sequels to beloved films do. The follow-up with its larger scale, higher stakes, and cliffhanger ending grew sea legs out to $423.3 million domestically (a multiple of 3.14x, which was on the high end for franchise sequels even in 2006). That easily won the domestic box office year ahead of Night at the Museum‘s second-place $250.9 million, while also topping the global charts with $1.07 billion (again, far ahead of second place that year, which was The Da Vinci Code‘s $760 million).

In fact, at the time of release, Dead Man’s Chest represented just the third film in worldwide box office history to reach the $1 billion threshold, following in the footsteps of Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. At the time, the first Pirates sequel also registered as the fifth highest-grossing film in domestic history behind only Titanic, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

While the Pirates franchise has since extended to five films as of 2017’s most recent entry, it was the original “trilogy” of Black Pearl, Chest, and 2007’s At World’s End that became immensely popular and represented one of the most popular blockbuster franchises to hit the big screen in the past quarter-century.

Will Smith Weekend

Fourth of July, moviegoing, and Will Smith became synonymous with each other in the mid-to-late 90s thanks to a string of earth-shattering blockbusters led by Smith, himself on a rapid rise to stardom at the time thanks to success in the television and music arenas.

The trend began in 1996 with Independence Day, a modern classic disaster / alien invasion film that changed the marketing game when it came to big budget sci-fi tentpoles. Smith’s co-starring presence alongside Jeff Goldblum, fresh off his memorable supporting role in 1993’s Jurassic Park, provided a charming duo that moviegoers couldn’t resist.

The film’s massive pre-release hype resulted in a giant $50.2 million three-day weekend, not far behind Batman Forever‘s standing all-time record of $52.8 million at the time. “ID4“, a marketing moniker assigned to the film that stuck with moviegoers of the time, actually opened on Tuesday, July 2, though — earning $45.9 million before the weekend even started.

The film banked a $104.3 million six-day start domestically, crushing almost every box office record at the time. (For comparison, Jurassic earned $74.1 million in its first six days just three years earlier.) ID4 went on to spend fifteen weekends in the top ten.

As a result of capturing the zeitgeist in ways few original films ever do, Independence Day ran away atop the 1996 box office charts with $306.2 million domestically (topping Twister‘s $241.7 million) and $817.4 million worldwide. The latter figure blew away Twister‘s own second-place $494.5 million for the year, and represented a massive worldwide box office haul at the time — coming in second all-time behind Jurassic‘s $912.7 million.

Just one year later, Smith returned with co-star Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black — this time embracing the more comedic angle of sci-fi alien adventures. Similar to the year before, the big holiday event opened on Tuesday, July 1, ultimately drawing a stellar $51.1 million three-day weekend as part of its $91.6 million six-day haul.

History virtually repeated itself as “MIB” (again with the infectious marketing acronyms) spent ten frames in the top ten before the end of its run. This time around, Smith contributed the film’s lead musical track with a single that stands among the most popular film-specific songs — further adding to the movie’s pop culture imprint.

Men In Black would have won its box office year domestically with $250.7 million were it not for James Cameron’s Titanic releasing twelve days before New Year’s in 1997. Smith and Jones still provided a massive success, though, with $589.4 million globally (third behind Titanic‘s $1.84 billion and The Lost World: Jurassic Park‘s $618.6 million) — while spawning three more sequels in the years since.

Big Willie took 1998 off, but he returned in 1999 with Wild Wild West — helmed by MIB director Barry Sonnenfeld. The remake of the classic television western didn’t catch fire in the same way as Smith’s previous summer smashes, unfortunately, netting a $27.7 million three-day weekend and $49.7 million six-day debut before tapping out with $113.8 million domestically.

Produced for a sizable $170 million, the adaptation’s $222.1 million global haul that year was an unfortunate financial misstep. It finished 17th for the year both stateside and globally.

Three years later, Smith returned to the Fourth of July frame with his first sequel: Men In Black II. It was naturally one of the most anticipated franchise movies of its time, and the five-year wait — combined with the return of both Smith and Jones — helped generate another strong bow to the tune of a $52.2 million three-day frame and $87.2 million five-day debut.

Those figures weren’t significantly far off from its predecessor, but half a decade’s worth of evolving box office trends meant that it was viewed in a different light releasing in a summer that had already seen Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones deliver much higher openings.

In the end, Men In Black II was another big success, earning $190.4 million domestically and $441.8 million worldwide on a $140 million production budget — even if reception wasn’t as universally enthusiastic as it had been for the first film. It ranked eighth and fifth for the year on the stateside and global fronts, respectively.

Smith would take another six years off from the Independence Day weekend before he returned in 2008’s Hancock, a mature one-off take on the then-burgeoning superhero movie template.

Ironically, due almost entirely to time and ticket price inflation pushing his other films down the chart, Hancock is now the only film starring Will that still ranks in the top ten debuts for this holiday weekend (see the chart toward the end of this article). The film earned $62.6 million during opening weekend as part of an overall $112.4 million six-day bow.

Landing with $228 million domestically and $629.4 million worldwide, Hancock ranked fourth on the former front (first among original movies, though, behind The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull). It also ranked fourth globally that year behind Knight, Indiana, and Kung Fu Panda‘s $631.7 million.

Spider-Man Takes the Torch from Will

While the association with this weekend remains firmly in Smith’s corner at five films, a certain webcrawler has made it his home over the past two decades with four chapters of his own.

Sam Raimi’s highly anticipated sequel, Spider-Man 2, transitioned from its predecessor’s May release to the July holiday weekend in 2004. In fact, the Tobey Maguire-led follow-up set a record for the Fourth of July frame at the time with $88.2 million over its three-day weekend, part of a $180.1 million six-day opening that saw July 4 land on a Sunday that year.

Although Raimi’s first sequel fell a bit shy of its predecessor at the box office with $373.6 million domestically and $789 million worldwide (versus Spider-Man‘s $407 million and $825 million respective figures), it was another massive success for the genre and is still recognized among top tier comic book films.

Spider-Man 2 finished second for the year in North America behind Shrek 2 ($441.2 million), while ranking third globally behind Shrek 2 ($928.8 million) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ($795.6 million).

Eight years later, Sony rebooted the franchise with Andrew Garfield in the lead as the series took a gloomier tone in an effort to borrow from the pages of the massively successful Dark Knight franchise during the intervening years. The Amazing Spider-Man opened to a $62 million three-day weekend and $137 million six-day opening, respectable figures at the time but showcasing the franchise’s declining momentum after mixed reception toward Spider-Man 3 in 2007 and Amazing‘s own creative stalling (namely, retelling an origin story previously explored just ten years earlier).

The Amazing Spider-Man webbed $262 million domestically and $757.9 million globally, figures that translated to seventh place rankings for 2012 on both fronts and earned a direct sequel in 2014. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ultimately under-performed, though, and prematurely ended Garfield and director Marc Webb’s time with the franchise.

Spidey’s third try in July proved to be another charm, though, in 2017. Following a landmark deal between Sony and Disney for the former to allow the latter’s usage of the Peter Parker / Spider-Man character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, budding star Tom Holland took over the character in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Marvel Studios’ mastermind Kevin Feige had previously introduced him in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, a launching pad for his first solo film — well, aside from a supporting role from Robert Downey, Jr. and Tony Stark / Iron Man himself.

Homecoming was an instant hit thanks to the MCU tie-in and its shift back to a storytelling tone that appealed more favorably to a variety of audiences (particularly kids and teens). The film opened to a $117 million traditional three-day weekend as the Fourth of July landed mid-week on a Tuesday that year. Legging out to $334.2 million domestically and $880.2 million globally, the MCU’s first dedicated Spider-Man film ranked sixth for the year on both fronts.

Two years later, Holland and director Jon Watts returned for the follow-up, Spider-Man: Far From Home. Not only did the sequel benefit from the goodwill of its direct predecessor, it also caught the tailwinds of the historic conclusion from Avengers: Endgame (released two months prior) with an emotional storyline for Peter that picked up immediately in the aftermath of that ensemble film.

Far From Home opened two days before the holiday with a Tuesday, July 2 release, earning $185.1 million in its first five days (inclusive of a $92.6 million three-day weekend). The sequel finished higher than Homecoming on all fronts afterward with $390.5 million stateside and $1.13 billion globally, ranking seventh and fourth for 2019, respectively.

The film notably showcased the power of the MCU brand after having to forego a traditional months-long marketing campaign due to the necessity of having to avoid spoiling Endgame.

Bay’s Transformers and Armageddon Break Out

Nine years before Michael Bay’s first $300 million box office powerhouse (more on that below), he achieved his first $200 million grosser with the star-studded Armageddon.

Hot off the success of other 90s sci-fi smashes like Independence Day and Men In Black (not to mention fellow disaster pic Titanic just months earlier), the asteroid pic launched with its Bruce Willis / Ben Affleck / Liv Tyler / Billy Bob Thornton-led cast — not to mention Aerosmith’s hit single “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” — to event-level results in 1998.

Armageddon bowed with a strong $36.1 million three-day weekend as part of a $54.2 million five-day launch from its Wednesday, July 1 start, going on to share box office glory for the year with Saving Private Ryan. The Bay disaster epic finished second domestically in 1998 with $201.6 million versus Ryan‘s $216.5 million, while the results flip-flopped in favor of Armageddon ($553.7 million) versus Ryan ($481.8 million) on the global front.

Notably, Armageddon was the last original film not based on a pre-existing property or representing part of another franchise to win the global box office title for any given year until 2009’s Avatar. Since then, only 2013’s Frozen has achieved the same feat.

Recently, we covered a weekend that has been dominated by Transformers sequels in recent years, but it all started on this particular frame in 2007 with the first live-action movie of the franchise.

Not unlike the aforementioned breakouts of movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Men In Black, Independence Day, and others, Bay’s first Transformers film exceeded all expectations and won over moviegoers in a wave of summer popcorn fun. The film’s marketing campaign was buzzy enough to drive it as the midsummer event film, and its Monday night/Tuesday opening helped word of mouth snowball into (and beyond) the July 4 holiday on Wednesday.

Transformers bowed to a $155.4 million seven-day opening, including $70.5 million during the proper three-day weekend itself. Legging out to $319.3 million domestically and $709.7 million worldwide, the film turned out to be a sleeper blockbuster hit after years of failed-to-middling adaptations of nostalgia and toy-related properties in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s.

In the end, Transformers upset its fair share of other anticipated franchise movies in 2007 — out-earning pics like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ($309.4 million) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ($292 million) at the domestic box office to rank a very close third for the year behind Spider-Man 3 ($336.5 million) and Shrek the Third ($322.7 million).

Globally, the film finished fifth for 2007 behind the third Pirates, Potter, Spider-Man 3, and Shrek the Third. Of course, it went on to spawn a massive franchise consisting of four sequels and a spin-off throughout the 2010s.

Classic Blockbusters from Zemeckis and Cameron

Box office figures only tell part of the story as time goes on and dollar figures become inflated, but the popularity of some films are utterly timeless and their achievements of a certain era shouldn’t be forgotten.

Director Robert Zemeckis’s first entry here occurred in 1985 with another of those sleeper blockbusters that would go on capture the cultural zeitgeist. In fact, Back to the Future was one of the original examples of that cinematic phenomenon when it opened to a then-strong $11.2 million three-day weekend in the midst of an overall $14.8 million five-start from its Wednesday, July 3 release.

Future ultimately spent an incredible 24 consecutive weekends in the top ten through the second half of 1985, plus three return trips to that chart the following year. Included in that run were 12 finishes in first place as the iconic sci-fi comedy ultimately earned $210.6 million stateside and $381.1 million globally, winning the box office titles of 1985.

By the mid-1990s, Tom Hanks was in the midst of what would become one of the most remarkable runs by any actor of any era. Following his Oscar win for Philadelphia in 1993, Hanks upped the ante with a career-defining role in Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Forrest Gump.

The Oscar-winning film bowed to $24.45 million on opening weekend (just edging out the $24.43 million fourth frame of The Lion King) and ultimately spent 23 weekends in the top ten during its ten-month theatrical run, including a streak of 16 in a row between opening weekend in July 1994 through to October 1994.

On top of its Oscar wins and cultural impact, Gump soared to the peak of 1994’s domestic box office chart with $329.7 million domestically (topping Lion King‘s $312.9 million), while coming in a close second behind King‘s $763.5 million with $677.4 million worldwide.

In a rarity among box office achievements, 1991 was championed by James Cameron’s R-rated sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. By far the most successful R-rated feature of its time, the pic bowed to $31.8 million during its three-day weekend as part of an overall $52.3 million five-day start after a Tuesday, July 2 opening.

The influential film was a massive hit for Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger at the top of his box office game, going on to win both the domestic and global box office year with $204.8 million and $517 million, respectively, ahead of other blockbusters like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Beauty and the Beast.

Top 10 Three-Day Weekend Grosses for Weekend #27

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ($135.6 million, 2006)
  2. Spider-Man: Homecoming ($117.0 million, 2017)
  3. Spider-Man: Far from Home ($92.6 million, 2019)
  4. Spider-Man 2 ($88.2 million, 2004)
  5. Despicable Me 2 ($83.5 million, 2013)
  6. Ant-Man and the Wasp ($75.8 million, 2018)
  7. Transformers ($70.5 million, 2007)
  8. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse ($64.8 million, 2010)
  9. Hancock ($62.6 million, 2008)
  10. The Amazing Spider-Man ($62.0 million, 2012)

More Notable Three-Day Openings on Weekend #27

  • Fantastic Four (2005) ($56.1 million, 2005)
  • Terminator: Rise of the Machines ($44.0 million, 2003)
  • Scary Movie ($42.4 million, 2000)
  • Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs ($41.7 million, 2009)
  • The Last Airbender ($40.3 million, 2010)
  • The Legend of Tarzan ($38.5 million, 2016)
  • The Purge: Election Year ($31.5 million, 2016)
  • The Lone Ranger ($29.2 million, 2013)
  • Horrible Bosses ($28.3 million, 2011)
  • The Firm ($25.4 million, 1993)
  • Public Enemies ($25.3 million, 2009)
  • Legally Blonde 2 ($22.2 million, 2003)
  • Die Hard 2 ($21.7 million, 1990)
  • Cats & Dogs ($21.7 million, 2001)
  • Tammy ($21.6 million, 2014)
  • Scary Movie 2 ($20.5 million, 2001)
  • Lethal Weapon 2 ($20.4 million, 1989)
  • Zookeeper ($20.1 million, 2011)
  • The First Purge ($17.4 million, 2018)
  • Species ($17.2 million, 1995)
  • Phenomenon ($16.2 million, 1996)
  • A League of Their Own ($13.7 million, 1992)
  • Boomerang ($13.6 million, 1992)
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut ($11.3 million, 1999)
  • Weekend at Bernie’s ($4.5 million, 1989)
  • About Last Night (1986) ($3.2 million, 1986)

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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