Even though True Lies wasn’t held to the same standards as his other films, besides Piranha Part Two: The Spawning of course, audiences were clamoring for James Cameron’s next giant film. And with a $200M budget (about $305M today) that was unheard of 20 years ago, they expected the best-looking Cameron outing yet.
Pushing back the film from a July to a December release and bloating its budget only helped spread its awareness as Cameron attempted to make a colossal and excruciatingly detailed movie. It was Cameron’s dream project to do this film, and he spent five years working on it. The delays only furthered the buildup, which may not have happened had it been a lesser-known director. Even up against James Bond’s Tomorrow Never Dies with a December 19th release, nothing was going to damper its momentum.
A December release rarely had the same hype as a summer flick, where the biggest blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and others made their mark. But this magnificent and equally doomed ship and the fictional story (with rising star Leonardo DiCaprio) within it was too much for viewers to turn down around the holidays.
It became the most profitable movie (unadjusted) in history. That is until Cameron went to Pandora.
Not many directors can boast the sort of success James Cameron has had. Not only had his last creation become the most profitable movie in history, but he also spent 13 years without releasing a movie. And that movie just so happened to be bringing brand-new technology to the screen in the biggest way.
Avatar promised adventure, the exploration of a vast and immersive new world. It promised us the look of enhanced motion capture technology, state-of-the-art software, and a view from groundbreaking 3D cameras. And it was coming to you via the guy who’d made Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, and Titanic. He’d delivered on the massive hype for the last of those three movies, so there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t this time around.
James Cameron himself was more into hyping the technology than he was the movie itself, as the first teaser for the film didn’t come out until August 2009, just four months before release. Compared to Star Wars or Marvel movies, that’s insanity.
The movie itself has been called dull, preachy, and overlong. But general audiences loved it enough around the world to make it the all-time box office champ. It also surpassed Titanic with the most unadjusted domestic earnings, something that’s only been trumped by The Force Awakens since.
3. The Avengers
Though the introductions of the X-Men and Spider-Man were the beginning of an era, and The Dark Knight trilogy gave a wonderful twist on the superhero genre, The Avengers was the pinnacle for many comic book fans.
Marvel’s readers and viewers had waited years for the assembling of their cornerstone characters, and they finally got everyone and thing they could want on-screen. Though Iron Man was the only well-established member up to that point, the openers for Captain America and Thor hadn’t been too shabby and fans seemed to be taking well to the casting of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk.
Another huge selling point was bringing in Joss Whedon to direct, as he was already a fan-favorite for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly on television, the latter’s movie Serenity, and his previous line of X-Men comics.
The buildup had been going forever. There was a teaser for the Avengers at the end of Iron Man, and that happened four years before the actual movie was released. All that time in between was filled with rampant speculations and a hype not even Age of Ultron got anywhere near. And its possible neither Infinity War movie will either.
2. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
It’d been a decade since Star Wars graced the screen. Despite the prequels being disgraced, the magic of the original trilogy still left fans in wait for a literal new hope.
Whether you believe it delivered on that or not, the Disney hype train was at full capacity. After they purchased LucasFilm for $4 billion in 2012, they promised as much Star Wars as the world could handle, with new releases scheduled for every year starting in 2015.
If there wasn’t enough Star Wars merchandise already, the lead up to The Force Awakens brought along hordes of it. And don’t even get started on where they advertised. Everything from Campbell’s Soup to Coffee Mate, Band-Aid’s to eyeliners all had Star Wars on them.
But because of how anticipated the movie was, exhaustion in its marketing could never overlap the awareness Disney was trying to build. Many people treated poster reveals like they were free four-course meals and trailer drops like they were holidays. All the favorite characters were back, there were new adventures to be had, and there was no Hayden Christensen or Jar-Jar Binks in sight.
And sure enough, opening weekend brought home the motherload for the Mouse House. It nearly grossed $250M opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada alone. It was the largest opening in domestic box office history and, at the time, the biggest worldwide.
1. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Star Wars was the greatest trilogy of all-time, with incredible worldbuilding, memorable characters, and intimate storytelling. Those films became a memorable experience for an entire generation of cinemagoers, and it defined an entire era of film that was broadening itself with groundbreaking directors.
And after 16 years on the shelf, Star Wars was back. The cultural phenomenon. The most popular series of movies in the history of movies. It was back with new stories to tell, and with George Lucas himself to tell them. We’d get Darth Vader, Obi-Wan, the Emperor, and Yoda’s past, among others. And there were all kinds of technological advancements that would help spice up the incredible sets Lucas was already capable of making. So you can at least understand why it was so hyped.
And then it was, to quote Obi-Wan, “as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.” Yes, The Phantom Menace was for the most part a dumpster fire. But the lead-up to it was unlike anything cinema had ever seen.
Not only was there a 16-year wait for more Star Wars, but LucasFilm didn’t release the film until six years after they announced in Variety that they were doing the prequels. All the special editions were released in 1997 to kick off the next phase of the madness.
People flooded Toys R Us on May 3rd, 1999 for figurines. Star Wars Celebration went on in Colorado despite the Columbine shootings having happened there days beforehand. You couldn’t go to Pizza Hut without seeing Darth Maul on your Pepsi products. It was immoderate in its purest form, but it was incredible growing up in such a time.
Even if the movie sucked.
Honorable Mention: The Matrix: Reloaded
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was capping off the greatest fantasy series of all-time. Finding Dory was scheduled to be Pixar’s next massive critical and box office hit. And Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was nearly marketed to death.
But none of these financial giants could match the opening weekend hype and sales of the R-rated Matrix: Reloaded.
This was supposed to be the Star Wars original trilogy of its time. Seriously, go look at all the old message boards and see for yourself. The fanbase for 1999’s The Matrix was monstrous, one based upon the love for brand new concepts and a stylistic flair that was completely its own. In a time where Star Wars, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, and Planet of the Apes were disappointing sci-fi/fantasy fans, this Keanu Reeves-led franchise was something for them to hold on to for dear life.
Unfortunately, the film was middling at best, with lifeless dialogue, convoluted themes, and CGI worse than its predecessor four years before it. The Chicago Tribune went as far as to compare its hype and actual substance to the McRib, as “processed, not fresh, and masked with a secret sauce of special effects.”
After making $90 million-plus domestic opening, more than any other movie in 2003, the box office numbers plummeted immediately after. While the Matrix trilogy wouldn’t hit rock-bottom until Revolutions, this was the disappointing step backward that took the air out of the franchise.
What else should be on the list? Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man? Terminator 2? Perhaps Return of the Jedi? Godawful Twilight? There’s a lot to choose from, so let us know any personal experiences you had.