The box office is a peculiar place that, upon closer look, makes a lot of sense if you take into account the world as a whole. Thirty years ago, an action star ruled the box office with a comedy. Twenty years ago, a man got a glimpse into the mind of women, and ten years ago, a cult classic returned in visually stunning style.
I’ve looked at decades worth of box office data all year long. Each month we’ve witnessed the shifting patterns of movie audiences. Comedies once ruled, where now the epic action film has taken over like never before. Oscar-contending and winning films stood a chance to take the box office crown. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find much convergence, though 2019s The Joker bucked that pattern as did Black Panther.
So, who took the box office crowns in our analysis this month? Let’s take a look back ten, twenty, and thirty years ago at the biggest movies released in December.
1990 • Kindergarten Cop • 61.9 million
By December of 1990, action star Arnold Schwarzenegger was the undisputed king. Earlier in the year, he starred in the science-fiction hit Total Recall, and in December, he returned to comedy with Kindergarten Cop. The film unleashed the famous line “It’s not a tumor!” and further cemented Arnie as a supremely bankable star. Kindergarten Cop co-star Penelope Ann Miller was a rising star who also appeared in the second-place film on this list.
Awakenings came in behind Kindergarten Cop for second place. The film starred the late, great Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro with direction from A League of Their Own director Penny Marshall. The Godfather Coda, a “director’s cut” of the original Godfather, Part 3 from Francis Ford Coppola. Arguably, the most beloved film on this list is Edward Scissorhands, a film from Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp about that’s sort of gothic rom-com as only Burton could make. In fifth place is Look Who’s Talking Too, a sequel to the talking baby movie that brings back the original cast and adds two new voices in Roseanne Barr and Damon Wayans.
2000 • What Women Want • 110.1 million
Ten years after Schwarzenegger charmed us all with a comedy, fellow action star and Oscar-winning director Mel Gibson starred in a romantic-comedy-drama called What Women Want. In it, Gibson’s chauvinist advertising exec nearly accidentally kills himself. Instead of dying, he wakes up with the ability to read women’s thoughts. Co-star Helen Hunt helps Gibson learn to be a better man and succeed in reconnecting with his estranged daughter.
On the heels of What Women Want was a dramatically different film, the Oscar-nominated Cast Away starring Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt. Hanks is a FedEx employee trapped on a deserted island and spends most of the movie with a blood-stained soccer ball as his friend. December of 2000, third place starred Sandra Bullock as an FBI agent going undercover in the film Miss Congeniality. The Emperor’s New Groove, an animated hit from Disney, came in fourth while The Family Man starring Nicolas Cage in a Christmas movie about a man getting a glimpse of the life he left behind.
2010 • TRON: Legacy • 117.5 million
Ten years ago, Daft Punk unleashed the most outstanding long-form video for an entire album the world’s ever seen, and its name was Tron: Legacy. Of course, I’m talking about the sequel to Disney’s 80s cult classic Tron, which continued the story of life within the machine. Jeff Bridges returned, and Olivia Wilde lit up the virtual world as a co-star alongside Garrett Hedlund, who played Bridges’ son, Sam. Tron: Legacy was a hit, but talk of sequels didn’t surface until recently.
Tron: Legacy held a healthy lead over Little Fockers, the third (and final) chapter in the Meet the Parents film series, which took second place. In a close third, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Like Little Fockers, Voyage of the Dawn Treader was the third and final film of the series. From Narnia, we go to the old west for the fourth place film True Grit starring Jeff Bridges and Halie Steinfeld in a movie from the Coen Brothers, which received ten Oscar nominations but won zero. Yogi Bear, the lovable cartoon bear who steals food, got a 3D CG upgrade and came in fifth place.
December 2020 & Predictions
COVID sure made covering the box office an exciting thing in 2020. The virus devastated the cinema experience, which was already hurting from lagging domestic ticket sales for nearly two decades. As of this writing, Warner Brothers announced they’d be releasing all their 2021 films, things like Dune and Matrix 4, in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time. It’s a painful blow to exhibitors, but it’s also a self-inflicting wound that was inescapable. Streaming subscriber numbers cannot justify the cost of a film like Dune with an estimated budget of 175 million-plus marketing costs. But, you can’t shelf a movie like Dune for too long either. In the end, Warner Brothers may just be waiting out the virus before they open their own chain of branded cinemas meaning the current exhibitors are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The end of the theater chains we know may be nigh.
Which of these films do you still watch today?
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