If this weekend’s number one movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — the second entry in the rebooted Apes franchise — has a spiritual sibling in the original series of films, it is 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. While Conquest was the fourth movie in the franchise to arrive in cinemas it is, like Dawn, the second according to the interior timeline of its series and, again like director Matt Reeves’ new film, features an apocalyptic showdown between apes and humans. Thus, it seems appropriate that this weekend Dawn of the Planet of the Apes comprehensively conquered the domestic box office by earning an estimated $73 million, exceeding both expectations and the $54.8 million opening weekend of its predecessor, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
In many ways, however, Conquest and Dawn represent a study in contrasts — and anyone wanting to understand just how much Hollywood’s business model has changed over the past four decades, particularly when it comes to sequels, could do worse than consider the differences between the way Hollywood executives handled the Apes sequels of the ’70s and the manner in which Dawn has been carefully shepherded to the big screen.
Forty years ago, movie sequels were regarded for the most part as a bargain basement business of diminishing returns with very few exceptions (notably the Bond and Pink Panther movies). If you hadn’t seen a film on the big screen there was very little chance of you seeing a sequel, given the lengthy delay before movies turned up on TV and the fact that being able to control your home entertainment viewing via DVDs or even videotapes was itself still the stuff of science fiction as far as most consumers were concerned.
With less and less people going to see each sequel in a series it made sense to executives to spend less and less money on each entry. 1968’s series-inaugurating Planet of the Apes boasted a huge star in the bare-chested form of Charlton Heston and a substantial-for-the-era $5.4 million budget. Apes proved to be a blockbuster, grossing $32 million. But the budget for the second film in the series, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, was substantially less and featured only a cameo from a reluctant Heston. By the time director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, the original Cape Fear) came to make Conquest he was forced to depict his ape uprising for the Hollywood equivalent of pennies, a decision which would have been justified in the minds of studio financiers by the movie’s profit-turning but comparatively unimpressive $9 million domestic gross.
The contrast with today could hardly be greater. While the original, Heston-starring Planet of the Apes was regarded by all concerned as destined to be the commercial high point of the series, Fox treated 2011’s James Franco-starring Rise of the Planet of the Apes as a launchpad for a franchise which executives hoped would become bigger with time. Rise cost around $90 million, but a reported $170 million was lavished on the sequel, whose cast boasts Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, and of course, the ape-playing Andy Serkis. The studio further primed the pump with an astute marketing campaign, including a trio of short films which bridged the events between director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise and Reeves’ new movie. Add in the by-no-means-inconsequential fact that people actually seem to be enjoying Dawn (which earned an A- Cinema Score) and you can understand why the film has done so well. You can also understand why the next person to make an Apes movie will be given a King Kong-sized budget while poor J. Lee Thompson made the fifth and final entry in the original Apes series, 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, for roughly the same amount of money Michael Bay pays for a haircut.
Speaking of Bay, this weekend saw the second-placed Transformers: Age of Extinction take in $16.5 million at the box office, which easily sends the director’s robot fourquel over the $200 million mark domestically. There’s not a whole lot of exciting news elsewhere in upper reaches of the chart, although it is notable that 22 Jump Street has clambered its way back into the top five a month after the movie’s initial release. Whether that is a testament to the long box office legs of the Channing Tatum- and Jonah Hill-starring comedy or the more truncated commercial limbs of other recent films is open to debate. (Personally, I’m reminded of the time the great Norm Macdonald hosted Saturday Night Live not long after he was fired from the show by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer for — depending on who you believe — either not being funny or for making too many jokes about Ohlmeyer’s acquaintance O.J. Simpson. “They fired me because they said I wasn’t funny,” the returning Norm explained during his opening monologue. “But it’s only a year-and-a-half later, and now they ask me to host the show. So I go, ‘Hey, how did I go in a year-and-a-half from being not funny enough to be even allowed in the building to being so funny that I’m now hosting the show?’ Then it occurred to me, I haven’t gotten funnier, the show has gotten really bad.”)
Finally, Richard Linklater’s more-than-a-decade-in-the-making movie Boyhood opened at five locations this weekend, raking in an encouraging $359,000. We’ll have to wait and see whether this extremely well-reviewed film can cross over and become a genuine hit. But the signs are looking good — and if anyone is at home to the idea of waiting-and-seeing, it is Linklater.
Here’s the top five.
1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – $73 million weekend ($73 million domestic total)
2. Transformers: Age of Extinction – $16.5 million weekend ($209.03 million domestic total)
3. Tammy – $12.91 million weekend ($57.35 million domestic total)
4. 22 Jump Street – $6.7 million weekend ($171.96 million domestic total)
5. How to Train Your Dragon 2 — $5.87 million weekend ($152.07 million domestic total)