When will the Sleeping Giant wake up?
In the second half of every year for the past 10, the grown-up audience has opened its eyes, stretched its legs and gone to the movies in numbers big enough to make a certified hit of at least one non-animated, not-too-scary, non-sequel drama.
If ascent to the year-end box office Top 15 is a fair though somewhat arbitrary measure of hit status, the giant — who rarely rises in the first half for anything but action, comedy and the occasional fright drama like Us or Get Out — has consistently delivered. But not on a reliable schedule.
Last year, A Star Is Born, released on October 5, and Bohemian Rhapsody, which followed on November 2, both made the Top 15 with help from that large, 40-and-older audience, which manages to account for about 42% of domestic ticket sales, despite its seasonal habits. The year before, only Dunkirk, released on July 21, made the cut. The year before that was a close call. Hidden Figures, at No. 14, was the only second-half non-thriller drama in the top rank, and it wasn’t released until Christmas.
In 2015, The Martian, released on October 2, finished at No. 8 for the year, while The Revenant was Number 13. In 2014, American Sniper opened late — again, on Christmas — but went all the way to the top, with more than $350 million in domestic ticket sales. Gravity, an October release, was No. 6 in 2013, while Lincoln, released in November, ranked 13th in 2012, and Django Unchained, which leaned toward action, was No. 15. In 2011, the giant’s favorite was The Help, released on August 10. In 2010, Inception, from July 16, and True Grit, from December 22, both ranked high. In 2009, Avatar (but was it animated?), released in December, and The Blind Side, from November, were winners.
Looking back at that decade, it seems clear that the mature audience gets very hungry by July, but won’t bite at just anything. Niche movies — those tailored for a certain taste or demographic segment — don’t fill the bill. Even films as well-received as the hip-hop biography Straight Outta Compton or the musical La La Land or the war drama Lone Survivor finished outside the year-end Top 15.
But, with that said, the giant is something of an omnivore. The 10-year buffet of drama hits includes Westerns, science fiction, World War II, black history, female leads, a gay rocker, battle damage, sports and blue people (unless, of course, those shouldn’t count because they were more or less animated).
All of which brings a shiver of anticipation to that original question: When will the giant wake up this year? Will it be on July 26, when Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens? Or on November 8, when Roland Emmerich offers Midway? Or a week later, when James Mangold delivers Ford v. Ferrari?
Given the current state of the domestic box office, down about 9% in the first half, sooner would be better than later. But even a very late arrival — say, for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women on Christmas Day — would be better than none at all.