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The Meaning of $100 Million

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Sunday, May 4, 2008


What does $100 million mean anymore? Not to the average person, who could bankroll said sum into a whole new life - or at least a pay-off of his (or her) zero down mortgage, and then some. No, what does the figure mean to Hollywood, and specifically, the studio suits and the talent behind the movies. Making that kind of scratch used to be a mind-blowing commercial concept. Ben Hur only made a staggering $39 million in 1959, while The Sound of Music raked in over $70 million. Yet it wasn’t until Jaws that a film officially made $100 million during its initial box office run (and that history has been hacked at quite a bit in recent years). Still, time was that the century mark for money meant something noteworthy. Now, the significance isn’t clear at all.


In 2008, $100 million is not really a milestone, Instead, it’s mandatory. A big budget blockbuster looks anemic without it. In fact, it technically can’t even exist. The faster you get to the number, the better, and it never hurts to do so in record time.  With Iron Man just eking out a $100 million dollar payday over the 2 May weekend (including some early screenings Thursday evening), it joins a very elite group. Few films have done the business it has done this early in the season. It could have taken five days to get there and few would have complained. In fact, reaching the magic number seemed impossible four days ago, according to most prognosticators. They were looking at something closer to $80 million - nothing to sneeze at, but not the cinematic slamdunk $100 million infers.


Of course, there is more cash to be had before Speed Racer and his family step in to rewrite the revenue rules, Wachowski style. Still., by coming in strong, Iron Man settles a lot of questions while raising a few more of its own, specifically regarding the various talents involved. Where does such a fiscal accomplishment lead the powers behind the movie, and better yet, does $100 million really mean much to individuals (and companies) used to dealing in such legitimately large numbers. Of course, we no longer consider a franchise a true blockbuster until it reaches a higher level of accomplishment - say triple the initial take - but in the case of Iron Man, $100 million is major, and here’s the how and why:


The Studios

Paramount
With this long time popcorn factory only handling the distribution, it’s more or less a mixed victory. Success always breeds an aura of same, but without a real stake in the outcome, there’s a hollowness to their dollar sign happiness. At least their next offering, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull flies under their production banner (as does Mike Myers upcoming The Love Guru), so they still have a chance to add real money to their commercial coffers.


Marvel
The decision to drop indirect participation (read: studio made movies) and set up their own projects appears to have paid off - at least for now. Iron Man is a solid mainstream event. The Incredible Hulk will be the real test, considering that there was already a big green meany project a mere five years ago, and the controversy regarding this version’s final cut (suits vs. star Edward Norton) has already tarnished some of its reboot sheen. Still, the new trailer appears promising, and the media’s myopic short attention span means that no one will probably remember the dust up come opening day.


The Producers

Avi Arad & Kevin Feige
As CEO of Marvel and their chief cinematic voice, respectively, Arad and Feige have a lot riding on this Summer. Iron Man is a wonderful first volley, and seems to support their decision to go pseudo-indie. But once again, the Hulk is still sitting out there, ready to divide the devotees and make Ang Lee look like a genius in retrospect. So they better hope Norton and director Louis Leterrier deliver, or this one time windfall will be all 2008 has to offer the duo.


Peter Billingsley
Yes, little Ralphie finally runs with the big dogs. As Favreau’s partner since their Dinner for Five days, he’s been on board for all of his pal’s directorial turns with the exception of Elf. He even gets a clever cameo role. As long as Favreau has a shingle, the star of A Christmas Story always has an awning to hang his burgeoning behind the scenes credentials.


The Director

Jon Favreau
For the actor turned auteur, $100 million means a lot…a whole Helluva lot. It means he can deliver the action goods when necessary. It means a studio can count of him to recognize the difference between art, artifice, and straight up commerciality. It means that film fans can finally embrace someone who shares their aesthetic needs without forgetting that Joe Sixpack also fills theaters seats. Iron Man‘s success may cause some Sam Raimi like repercussions (locked into the sequels, a designer label of his own to distribute subpar genre fare), but for someone whose made respectable, if not quite sensational movies, this opening is monumental. And oddly enough, he seems like the kind of decent, good natured guy who deserves the reward. 


The Actors

Robert Downey Jr.
He’ll never have to worry about money ever again. He can ride this puppy all the way to Westminster if he wants. Here’s hoping he doesn’t do a Michael Keaton and feign disinterest and a “need to grow” instead of hitching his wagon to this inevitable franchise gravy train. There will still be the challenging roles (including comedic controversies like August’s Tropic Thunder), and the ‘aimed at award season’ selections. Clout like this is impossible to come by, and since most reviews have pointed out his crucial role in Iron Man‘s triumph, he’s got more than a couple trump cards up his negotiation sleeves. Let’s hope the contract he signed is flexible, not fatal. 


Terrence Howard
As the next character to get the superhero treatment (along with Samuel L. Jackson, who makes a surprise post-credits appearance as Nick Fury), Howard can bank on gaining some of the series’ cultural buzz. He’s still a very unusual onscreen presence - laconic without being lost, casual while still showing command. While War Machine may be a geek mandate, the novices are still getting used to all the Iron mythos. If anyone can sell future scenarios however, it’s him. 


Gwyneth Paltrow
As Katie Holmes proved in Batman Begins, ladies in superhero films are readily replaceable. Still, Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is pretty great. As long as she doesn’t let the notices go to her head, and doesn’t suffer through another bout of “bored with acting/gotta be a mommy” syndrome, she could stick around for a while. Her cache won’t increase, but she’s already got an Oscar, so what more can she really want?


The Franchise

Marvel’s miracle here is taking a marginal character from their comic universe (unless you’ve followed Stark and his saga since the beginning, you probably only know the hero via the classic Black Sabbath anthem) and turning him into something solid and bankable. Unlike Batman or Superman (and in some post-modern ways, the X-Men), the icon had no real juice prior to the premiere, and they managed to deliver a jolt. Give it up for marketing as well as excellent mainstream moviemaking. If the film goes on to do gangbuster business, earning between $250 and $300 million (as some are predicting), we’ll be involved in this metallic crusader’s cause for years to come. Even with something less in the till, Iron Man is here to stay - that is, until the next tent pole production hits the Cineplex.

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