The Number One Movie in America: Meet the Fockers
By Sean Collier
February 26, 2021
Occasionally, when looking at a past hit’s box office, the story is just how much more money it made than I would’ve figured. While we can rattle off the names at the very top of the all-time chart, for every “Titanic,” there is an “Incredibles 2” ($608 million, 10th all-time) — a film that doesn’t feel like it was as big of a hit as it was.
“Meet the Fockers” is just such a case. Inasmuch as the Focker trilogy is remembered today, it’s usually for the fairly charming original installment, 2000’s “Meet the Parents.” The sequels, despite adding Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman as Ben Stiller’s parents, were mostly retreads, bringing back bits and gags from the first film to diminishing returns.
Yet “Meet the Fockers,” the 2004 sequel, is the series’ biggest hit — by a margin of more than $100 million. The middle act in the trilogy made $279.2 million, where the original wrapped up with a bit more than $166 million and the concluding chapter, 2010’s “Little Fockers,” earned less than $150 million.
“Meet the Fockers” is the fourth highest-grossing film of 2004. Guess which of the following five films had the highest domestic total: “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “National Treasure,” “Meet the Fockers,” “The Polar Express” and “The Incredibles.”
It’s the Fockers. Yes, they outgrossed Pixar and Potter.
More incredibly, “Meet the Fockers” briefly set some all-time records. It was released just before Christmas, on December 22, 2004; on Christmas Day, it earned $19.5 million. At the time, that was the most any film had pulled on what’s always a heavy box-office holiday, breaking a one-year record set in 2003 by “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”
Let me restate: More people went to see Greg Focker on Christmas than had gone to see the Oscar-winning, concluding chapter of the Tolkien saga a year prior.
While the Fockers have slipped a bit down the all-time Christmas Day list in intervening years, it’s not as far as you’d think; that haul remains the eighth largest yule total in history, with “Meet the Fockers” holding the top spot until “Avatar” took it in 2009.
That’s not even the biggest holiday-related laurel affixed to these Fockers: The film still holds the #3 spot on the all-time best New Year’s Day grosses. As 2005 dawned, the film earned a further $18.2 million. Only “Avatar” and “The Force Awakens” have managed more on a January 1st. With comparable release dates, “Meet the Fockers” had a bigger New Year’s Day than the last three “Star Wars” movies.
So yeah: It was a hit.
The explanation may have more to do with broad demographic appeal than any other factor (save, perhaps, lingering star power). “Meet the Fockers” is a prototypical PG-13 comedy, bawdy enough to make teens and young adults willing to see it without containing any Farrelly-esque humor that would offend the parents or grandparents. Over the part of the year when families are frequently looking for activities that will eat up a few hours, many end up at the multiplex; in 2004, “Meet the Fockers” was a nice, non-intimidating choice, not too long, not too busy, not much of anything, really, just something to watch. It also didn’t have any obvious competition for families looking for a compromise choice. Its rivals were “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (of no interest to Mom and Dad,) “The Aviator” (weighty, and by no means a family film) and “Fat Albert” (forgot this was a thing). (“National Treasure” and “Ocean’s Twelve” were still in the Top 10, but both had been out a while longer.)
“Meet the Fockers” does nothing in particular to earn its inflated box-office total; it’s an unimaginative comedy, with occasionally effective scenes interspersed with flat retreads of the original’s jokes. There’s certainly more than enough star power to go along (thank god Barbra is here), and you’d never make a fuss about having to watch it, but that’s about it.
With the right formula, though, a movie that no one is going to reject can be a big hit.
“Meet the Fockers” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: Will Smith has a bit of a mixed record when playing superheroes. Wait — do we count the Men in Black as superheroes? No? Then he has a bad record when playing superheroes.