Box Office - Decade at a Glance: September - December 2008

By Michael Lynderey

December 17, 2009

Must love dogs.

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And so, after that display of box office inactivity, filmdom headed into the post-Christmas weekend looking distinctly unenthusiastic. But something happened there, between weeks three and four, and box office analysts everywhere awoke on the morning of December 26th to some startling Christmas Day tallies. They looked a little like this: Marley & Me, a seemingly non-descript dog movie with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson: $14 million! The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a vaguely overrated near-three hour drama with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett - $11 million! Adam Sandler's latest, children's-aimed and effects-filled fantasy Bedtime Stories - $10 million (Only $10 million? Sandler coming in a mere third?)! Tom Cruise as an eye-patched, mixed review-receiving German in historical thriller Valkyrie - $8 million! And Frank Miller's great-looking if somewhat hollow comic book film, The Spirit - $3 million! (Well, actually, that was the only movie that pretty much flopped - finishing with $19 million, by the way).

Something had gone a bit haywire here - a holiday miracle that saved the box office right in the nick of time, perhaps. How else to explain the Cruise picture gaining such traction, and totaling $83 million, despite months of bad buzz and a somewhat ungainly premise? Or Benjamin Button inspiring enough audience interest to leg it up to no less than $127 million? (the film it was most reminiscent of, Burton's 2003 Big Fish, had finished with only $66 million). The box office of Marley & Me (eventually totaling $143 million), with its cute, furry title animal adorning posters everywhere, is perhaps a bit more understandable, but even that one seemed to make just a little too much money. And finally, the underperformance of the Sandler film (which totaled $109 million), the one I expected to rule above all, was distinctly unusual. Even with the late Christmas movie rush, though, 2008's December was the decade's only edition of the month that was not home to a single $200 million earner (or an $150 million earner, for that matter) - though the jury's still out on December '09, I admit. This fizzling out on December's part is to blame for letting Twilight take the fall lead (and surely, blame for that must be assigned somewhere).

As expected, December also dished out a hefty batch of limited releases that rolled out wide only in January. Chief among them was another $100 million title, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, which expanded wide on January 9th to a shocking $29 million weekend sum and amazing eventual $148 million total, Eastwood's highest ever. How this Oscar-bait drama about an aging factory worker's misadventures reached such dizzying heights, I do not know; ironically, the movie didn't get a single Oscar nomination, so some cosmic karma may have been at play here.


Other awards-baited titles included Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio feuding in Sam Mendes' '50s-drama Revolutionary Road (with its distinctly non-Titanicesque total of $22 million), Meryl Streep and Amy Adams conspiring against Philip Seymour Hoffman in searing drama Doubt ($33 million), Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson taking a romantic London stroll in Last Chance Harvey ($14 million), Winslet again, playing an illiterate Oscar-winning ex-SS member in The Reader ($34 million), and finally, Daniel Craig and co. fighting off Nazis (although they seemed to have spared the Winslet character) in critically-unloved drama Defiance ($28 million).

All good and well, but as 2008 ended, the real box office story was just beginning - what January 2009 had in store was a mad movie rush that put almost all fall months to deep, deep shame.

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