Our look back into the archives of May marches on this week with a cornucopia of big summer releases that kicked off their runs in the middle of the month, the 20th weekend of the calendar year.
The Star Wars Prequel Era Concludes
Until Disney’s era of Star Wars films began, the franchise’s go-to release window had always been in May — and always the week before Memorial Day weekend during George Lucas’s prequel era. The last two films of Anakin Skywalker’s descent to the dark side and transformation in to Darth Vader, Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, each debuted on this exact weekend 18 and 15 years ago, respectively.
Attack of the Clones had the challenge of overcoming Phantom Menace‘s divisive word of mouth upon its debut, but it did so with a strong $80 million first weekend (after a Thursday debut). At the time, its start seemed slightly quaint given Spider-Man had just achieved the first $100 million+ weekend in history two weeks earlier, but Attack‘s final $302 million tally still sealed it as the third highest domestic earner of 2002 behind Peter Parker’s origin story ($403.7 million) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers ($339.8 million), north of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ($262 million).
Three years later, though, Star Wars returned to the thrown. Revenge of the Sith scored a $108.4 million weekend — excluding a $50 million opening day on Thursday. The latter figure was the first $50 million+ day earned by any film in box office history, and immediately led many in the industry to speculate that Sith could have topped Spider-Man‘s then-standing $114.8 million weekend record had Lucas and Fox opened the highly anticipated trilogy-ender on Friday instead.
Nevertheless, Sith delivered the best reviews and reactions of the prequel trilogy with the long-awaited conclusion to Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s friendship leading up to the original trilogy. Sith won its box office year handily with $380.3 million domestically and over $868 million worldwide in 2005.
Nineteen years ago, Shrek took the world by storm with its frenetic blend of animated adventure, comedy, and pop culture references. The film elevated DreamWorks Animation into the top tier of the medium’s studios — which, at the time, was already dominated by the early days of Pixar. Even with a stellar roster of talent and revolutionary animation techniques behind it, no one could have predicted the eventual impact of the big green ogre.
The first Shrek was a hit out of the gate with $42.4 million on opening weekend, going on to stay virtually flat in its second frame (Memorial Day weekend) and remaining in the top ten for its first eight weeks of release and earning more than any other summer release.
Ultimately finishing with $267.7 million domestically, the film topped Pixar’s own Monsters, Inc. as the biggest animated title of 2001 and landed in third place overall behind only Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ($317.6 million) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring ($313.4 million).
The first sequel in the Shrek franchise was a massive event in 2004, something we’ll cover in an upcoming edition of this column, but the franchise’s success rolled onward in 2007 with Shrek the Third. By then, the first two films had established a base of fans that spanned all four quadrants and multiple generations thanks in part to voice and creative stars Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz. Expectations were so mighty for the third film that it was grouped with Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End as “the big three” anticipated releases of 2007 — all of which happened to open in May.
Shrek the Third set a new animated record with its $121.6 million on opening weekend, a benchmark which stood for an astonishing nine years until Finding Dory‘s $135.1 million debut in 2016. Its box office run ended with $322.7 million stateside (second only to Spider-Man 3‘s $336.5 million that year) and $813 million worldwide.
R-Rated Blockbusters Prove Summer Viability
Just one year ago, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum busted expectations with its $56.8 million opening weekend, an 87 percent increase over its predecessor’s $30.4 winter debut two years prior. Parabellum further solidified the Wick franchise as the latest Keanu Reeves-led brand to capture the attention of pop culture, going on to earn $327 million at the global box office and earning the series a planned fourth installment (scheduled for 2022).
One year before that, in 2018, Ryan Reynolds returned as the “merc with a mouth” in the second highest debut ever for an R-rated film with Deadpool 2 bowing to $125.5 million — trailing only its predecessor’s $132.4 million holiday weekend launch in February 2016. The sequel went on to become the highest earning R-rated pic in global history with $787 million, eclipsing the first film’s $783 million.
The coming weekend also marks the fifth anniversary of one of the most widely praised action films in modern (if not all of) movie history, Mad Max: Fury Road. The film rocketed to a solid $45.4 million weekend on the back of strong marketing, pent-up demand among series and George Miller fans, and stellar reviews. The film’s staying power led to a $153.6 million domestic ($375 million globally) finish, capping off with ten Oscar nominations — six of which it won.
Not to be forgotten, of course, is The Matrix Reloaded. The highly anticipated sequel set the R-rated record back in 2002 with its $91.8 million opening weekend, going on to become the top grossing R-rated film in history with $739.4 million globally — a title that stood for 13 years until Deadpool claimed the crown. Reloaded‘s $281.6 million domestic take was also top among R-rated pics until The Passion of the Christ‘s $370.8 million took over one year later.
For fans of 80s and 90s action franchises, this is also the weekend which hosted Die Hard With a Vengeance ($22.2 million debut in 1995) and Lethal Weapon 3 ($33.2 million in 1992). Both films were major franchise successes behind stars Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, respectively, during the heyday of their action prowess. Likewise, both were among the top R-rated earners of their years.
More Notable Performers
Sharing its debut frame with the aforementioned Mad Max sequel, Pitch Perfect 2 was the film that actually took home the box office trophy five years ago this weekend. After the first film became such a grassroots success in theaters, and ultimately a pop culture phenomenon during its home video release, the sequel arrived with big expectations and an audience eager for more of the Bellas. The result was a $69.2 million domestic opening, leading to $184.3 million stateside and $287 million globally — all on a production budget of around $30 million.
One year earlier, the dormant Godzilla franchise was brought back to life by director Gareth Edwards. Its extensive and buzzy marketing campaign drew major social media attention leading up to release, resulting in a big $93.2 million debut. Unfortunately, reception was mixed and the film proved quite front-loaded as it finished with $200.7 million domestically and $525 million worldwide, but it still spawned a new franchise that has since continued with Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, with Godzilla vs. Kong coming down the road.
Four years after J.J. Abrams revived the Star Trek brand, he returned to the director’s chair with Star Trek Into Darkness. Capitalizing on the goodwill of the 2009 reboot and a returning cast (plus Benedict Cumberbatch joining as the lead villain, though many argue he was unnecessarily marketed in a mysterious way), this sequel performed in line with its predecessor with a $70.2 million domestic start and $228.8 million finish.
Notably, though, Into Darkness was able to build on the previous film’s $386 million global take with $467 million of its own. The recent Trek films have boasted major production price tags that made the actual financial results seem a little ho-hum compared to other tentpole releases, but they still drew equal or higher attendance levels than the vast majority of the first ten Trek films starring previous casts. The box office results here were enough for Paramount to push ahead with 2016’s Star Trek Beyond.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides also debuted on this weekend nine years ago with $90.2 million. While marking a step down from the performance of the two sequels before it, its run still showcased the enduring popularity of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow as he anchored a follow-up that otherwise lost much of its major cast from the original trilogy.
That aspect was a major factor in domestic returns declining to $241 million, the lowest of the first four films. However, with international appeal soaring as overseas markets boomed in the early part of the decade, Tides brought in $1.05 billion worldwide and amassed the third highest gross of 2011. It remains the second highest grosser of the franchise, just behind Dead Man’s Chest ($1.07 billion in 2006).
Hanks and Howard Bring Robert Langdon to Life
During the mid-to-late 2000s, Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels were incredibly hot topics across pop culture and faith-based circles. When Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and Hans Zimmer stepped in to lead, direct and compose, respectively, an adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, it was clear the film would have major box office potential.
That picture lived up to the hype with a $77.1 million debut weekend in 2006, ultimately banking $217.5 million in North America — good enough for fifth place that year. Globally, the film was an even bigger hit with $760 million worldwide — second most of the year behind Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.
That creative team returned with Angels & Demons on this same weekend in 2009. The follow-up (which was a prequel to Da Vinci) showed some diminished returns with a $46.2 million start and $133.4 million finish domestically, though that was mostly attributable to the fact that its source novel didn’t ignite the same kind of controversial headlines and debates as its Code counterpart. Angels ultimately ran its course with $486 million worldwide, providing another solid financial hit.
Tom Cruise, Top Gun, and 34 Years to a Sequel
Concluding this week’s edition, we jump all the way back to 1986. On this weekend thirty-four years ago, Top Gun soared into the eyes, ears, and hearts of a generation with one of Tom Cruise’s most popular films of his sensational career thus far. The original film opened with a relatively modest $8.2 million at the time, but it remained in the top ten for an incredible 23 consecutive weekends into October (even returning to tenth place two more times later in the year).
The original Top Gun finished its juggernaut performance with $176.8 million domestically, enough to become the highest grossing film of 1986. In modern day ticket prices, that would translate to approximately $440 million in domestic ticket sales.
After decades of anticipation, and an early marketing campaign that has already ignited huge buzz, Cruise will return to the danger zone in Top Gun: Maverick this December.
You can find previous editions of this column in our archives.