Box Office Sabermetrics: A Rock and a Hard Place

 

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Earlier this year, the much anticipated box office juggernaut Furious 7 was released, and proceeded to break box office records on it’s way to a whopping $1.5 billion worldwide gross. This was great news for two of the film’s stars, The Rock (Never Dwayne Johnson, just The Rock) and Vin Diesel. They had just been a part of a groundbreaking money machine, so surely this success would carry over to their solo efforts, right? Yes and no. Both action heroes had come from similar narratives – good money in franchises, but failure with solo efforts (and both have two of the most entertaining social media presences, for what it’s worth) – but only one would overcome their woes. The Rock finally broke his cold slump at the box office, but Vin Diesel remained stale. 2015 has had plenty of interesting box office narratives, but none quite so Shakespearean as that of The Rock and Vin Diesel.

As I’ve written about before, The Rock had both a blessing and a curse in the fact that he could make any franchise extremely profitable, yet couldn’t recreate the same effect on films he led. He was an integral part in the box office resurgences of The Fast & the Furious franchise, the G.I. Joe franchise and even the Journey to the Center of the Earth films. But on his own, he couldn’t land a box office hit in the pilot’s seat the way he could as a team member. Even as he gained a reputation for franchise rescuing, almost the exact opposite was happening in films he led. Consider this: the only full blown box office hit that he led up until this year was The Scorpion King, over ten years ago. While his ensemble work was raking in the big bucks, films like Faster, Snitch and Hercules couldn’t create the same effect, all of them doing middling returns at best, if not flat out bombing. That all changed with this year’s disaster film wet-dream San Andreas, which grossed a massive $155 million at the domestic box office, with foreign markets pushing that total to $473 million worldwide. All of this against a $110 million budget made San Andreas the first full blown box office hit from The Rock in over a decade. The Rock was harder than he’d ever been, rock-hard if you’ll excuse the cheap pun.

Meanwhile, the other shaved head in Furious 7 wasn’t having the same follow-up success. Vin Diesel has a history of box office wins and losses that starts to look cyclical when viewed from a distance. He’ll have a franchise hit with each Fast & Furious film, then use that renewed goodwill to fund an expensive passion project which will then bomb, setting him back at square one until the next Fast film. After his career initially took off with the first Fast & Furious film, as well as xXx, he used his newfound marketability to get the sequel to the cult film Pitch Black made, The Chronicles of Riddick. With a bloated budget of $105 million, the film would make a sour $57 million domestically, foreign markets only upping the number to a barely break-even $115 million. After a string of three Fast & Furious hits with entries 4-6, Diesel seized the opportunity to once again resurrect the Riddick character in the appropriately titled Riddick. The film did moderately better than its predecessor, but really only because it had a much lower budget to hit. Made for $38 million, Riddick hit $42 million domestically with foreign markets pushing it to $98 million. Certainly a modest victory, but still not enough to make a studio boardroom erupt into applause.

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Diesel took the goodwill instilled by the Fast films to get the fantasy actioner The Last Witch Hunter made this year, and after the monster numbers of Furious 7, it looked like Diesel might be able to join The Rock in the limelight of solo box office success. Unfortunately, The Last Witch Hunter deflated upon arrival, only grossing $10 million its opening weekend, and topping out at $26 million domestically. Foreign markets would do their part, but would still only put the film at $105 million worldwide against a large $90 million budget. It seems the world of solo box office profitably only has room for one muscled guy without hair.

Right now, it’s greater than it ever has been to be The Rock. He’s finally become a true box office king on his own. Meanwhile, Diesel waits for the Fast & Furious 8 to come out in order to get The Last Witch Hunter 2 made. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what made San Andreas a hit while The Last Witch Hunter wasn’t; trying to make sense of that would be like Matthew McConaughey’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street explaining how the stock market works – it’s fairy dust. Only time will tell if The Rock can sustain his current box office hold, and only time will tell if Vin Diesel will one day join him.




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