With the summer box office season coming to a close, it’s pretty clear which films are going to wind up as the biggest movies of the year. Jurassic World, Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Minions, Spectre, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens look to be the titles destined to top end-of-year lists of the top grossers for 2015. Which means attention for the rest of the year shall focus on awards season, whether Star Wars can dethrone Avatar on the all-time box office list, and — inevitably — the fortunes of next year’s crop of blockbuster contenders. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think we can predict with some degree of accuracy which movies are going to rule 2016′s box office, and why. Superheroes, sci-fi and fantasy, and animated family fare will top next year’s charts in a big way, all of them either sequels, spinoffs, remakes, or adaptations of some sort.
I suspect the four top contenders will be Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Captain America: Civil War, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Too bad Warner didn’t title the last one Fantastic Beasts: Where To Find Them, then we’d have a battle of subtitled cinema. But that said, there are several others that demand attention and cannot be ignored as powerful contenders, many of which could indeed challenge the position of those other four movies at the top of the 2016 box office list.
Let’s look at the whole slate of rulers of next year’s releases, and what they have to offer. So, in no particular order…
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — Opening in March, the full kickoff of the DC Comics shared cinematic universe is going to do monster business. Batman is a billion dollar brand, having topped that box office high-bar twice in a row with his last two films. Putting him alongside other superheroes seems like an easy bet for continuing that trend. Superman himself rebooted to the tune of $668 million in 2013′s Man of Steel, a figure restrained by the previous Superman reboot/revival’s relatively tepid response and fine but not spectacular $391 million. However, keep in mind that $668 million is what “slight underperforming” looks like to the last son of Krypton, and that we not only have the added value of Batman but also the first-ever big screen Wonder Woman and Aquaman showing up, not to mention probably a Flash cameo and Cyborg in the mix.
It would be absurd and unreasonable to expect those bonuses to produce anything less than a big box office boost. Even if Batman v Superman were bad, I don’t believe that could prevent it from enjoying a blockbuster financial performance north of $800 million, since it’ll open massive around the world and just by the sheer power of the concept and Batman’s presence it should have at least moderate legs. So if it’s good or better, it should break $1 billion. If it’s great, then we’re probably talking Avengers level numbers or better. If it’s great, then I think it can match or top Avengers: Age of Ultron, and possibly The Avengers. But even if it manages that feat, can it beat Marvel’s next super-team blockbuster that opens just six weeks later?
Captain America: Civil War — I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this will be Marvel’s biggest film yet. Yes, it’s a Captain America sequel, and Cap’s last movie performed at $714 million globally, making it the fifth-highest grossing Marvel Studios movie to date. However, that was a huge leap over his previous star-spangled outing, which clocked $370 million around the world just a few years earlier, and the same team from Winter Soldier in the driver’s seat for Civil War. More to the point, though, this is a Cap sequel that’s really an Avengers-level movie. It features a large cast, including some major newcomers in the form of Spider-Man, Black Panther, and more. Marvel is going to promote this as an event picture, something larger than just a Captain America sequel, because it can in fact be both.
The ace up Marvel’s sleeve is of course Spider-Man, who will interact with other heroes on the big screen for the first time. So it’s a sequel to that awesome Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie you loved, AND it’s got all of the Avengers, AND they fight each other, AND it introduces Spider-Man. If it’s as good as it looks, and as good as the creative team has the potential to make it, then we’re looking at a film that should achieve the same must-see repeat-viewing status of the original Avengers film, but with more theaters and more 3D receipts. I anticipate this will be the movie that performs the way everyone expected Avengers: Age of Ultron to perform (not to suggest Age of Ultron underperformed, it was a massive hit by any measure; I’m merely noting that it was for quite a while assumed it would pass the box office of its predecessor), and will become the highest grossing superhero movie in history. Meaning, yes, even if Batman v Superman surpasses the two Avengers movies on the all-time box office list, I still believe Civil War will end up the reigning champ.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — There are probably only two films that might sneak past the superhero battle royal movies mentioned above and steal the title of highest grossing film of the year, and a Harry Potter spinoff is probably one of them (the other being a spinoff of an even bigger franchise, but we’ll get to that in a moment). J.K. Rowling’s world of wizards brought in $7.7 billion at the worldwide box office and another $2+ billion in home entertainment, with five of the franchise’s eight entries topping $900+ million and the last movie topping $1.3 billion. Suffice to say, this is among the most popular and success properties in cinema history, with more films under it’s brand belt than most other modern film series.
The anticipation for a new Harry Potter-related movie, and one written by Rowling herself no less, should help enhance this movie’s buzz immensely. All it has to do is be good. If it can do that, then I think it’s pretty reasonable to expect it to join the $1 billion club, and if it’s great then it could catch fire and be a breakout akin to this year’s Furious 7 or Jurassic World. Regardless, the franchise connection alone pretty well guarantees this one a spot among 2016′s biggest earners.
Finding Dory — I just explained the other day how Minions is on its way to becoming the second-highest grossing animated film in history, headed past $1 billion and destined to sit behind only Frozen on the all-time animation list. Well, this movie is the animated picture that will knock Minions right back out of that #2 position and could even challenge Frozen for #1. The first Finding Nemo made $864 million… in 2003… without 3D tickets. When it got a 3D rerelease a few years ago, it added $72 million to its coffers, raising its all-time total to $936 million. That’s $1.2 billion in today’s dollars, folks. Meaning if this sequel can match the popularity of the original, it’s going to give Frozen a run for it’s money for sure.
What it must do, however, is not only retain the same family-friendly appeal of its predecessor, but also reach out and appeal to the original fans of the first film who are now in their teens or even early-20s (and might have small children of their own). Meaning it needs to incorporate a bit more humor aimed at older sensibilities without losing the G-rated sensibilities that allowed it to benefit from apparently endless theatrical rewatching by parents and children. Few animated franchises outside of Toy Story seem like such sure bets for topping $1 billion, but this is definitely one of them.
The Jungle Book — It’s early to call this one a likely top performer, but if you saw the footage at D23 this month then you know why this film already looks likely to wow audiences and amaze critics. Jon Favreau knows how to deliver great entertainment, and the imagery from this film was mind-blowing. Nothing you’ve seen in visual effects and CGI work for animals, creatures, and outdoor settings will prepare you for what you’ll see in this film, if the sizzle reel Disney unveiled is any hint of what to expect. Not that crazy-great effects and talking animals in and of itself guarantees blockbuster success, of course. No, what the footage also revealed was a beloved classic story revisited not only with grand scale but also with deep emotions.
I’m betting the footage and buzz is an accurate reflection of what’s coming, and it could turn out to be Disney’s biggest live-action adaptation yet. How high might it climb? The live-action Cinderella topped $542 million this year, with a March release date. The April release date for this new film is slightly better in terms of kids being out of school for Spring Break, and it moves the theatrical run closer to the start of summer box office season. It has to face the competition from Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War, as well as The Huntsman, Alice Through the Looking Glass, X-Men: Apocalypse, plus perhaps Ratchet & Clank and The Angry Birds Movie. That sounds bad, but most of those films roll out after The Jungle Book releases, over a period of six weeks. That’s steady competition, but it leaves room for The Jungle Book to open big, hold strong, and get some legs under it. I expect a final tally north of $500+ million, more likely in the $700+ million range.
X-Men: Apocalypse — The X-Men franchise finally found the path to true box office glory last year with X-Men: Days of Future Past, by far the highest grossing entry in the superhero franchise at $748 million. That was a massive leap not only financially, but also for the size of the series’ fanbase. Audiences were so impressed they helped the movie perform like a Marvel Studios production, and next year’s new mutant picture is shaping up to provide audiences more of that comic book aesthetic wrapped around a dramatic, serious approach to superhero storytelling.
The franchise has a loyal following already, so the key is to retain the large influx of new viewers and turn them into solid fans who will keep coming back so long as the studio delivers the goods. Meaning Apocalypse seeks to deliver those goods in spades, and should have no trouble securing a healthy $700+ million for itself as it rides not only its own newly discovered coattails, but those of Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War if both of those films prove as good and as popular as seems likely. The audience good will coming off of those films will put theatergoers in the right mood to remember how much they enjoyed Days of Future Past and tune in to this new entry to complete the trifecta of early-summer superhero fun at the box office. My guess is this will happen, and it’ll result in the biggest win yet for the X-Men.
Alice Through the Looking Glass — Little doubt about this one, since fans fell in love with Tim Burton’s first outing in Wonderland. That movie topped $1 billion and got mostly decent reviews from critics while audiences rated it an A- (via Cinemascore). Talk of Johnny Depp’s recent box office woes (Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, and Mortdecai were all box office disappointments or outright flops) is frankly irrelevant here, because Alice in Wonderland’s success didn’t hinge on Depp’s or anyone else’s stardom per se, it captured people’s imaginations and Depp’s Mad Hatter was so deliciously amusing and visually stunning that the character himself is a draw now for viewers.
Any performance under $800+ million will be surprising, as it should take off overseas and pile up mountains of foreign receipts easily, so long as it repeats the basic formula of the first film, even if it does so without offering anything fresh. If it’s any better than its predecessor (which I disliked for many reasons, despite the fact it was admittedly visually marvelous most of the time), then there’s really no excuse for this movie grossing less than somewhere just above or barely below $1 billion.
Independence Day: Resurgence — The fact Jurassic World came in and revived an old franchise with record-breaking results doesn’t inherently mean the same thing will work for other old movies. On the other hand, it’s Independence Day and while it’s missing Will Smith (an admittedly big name to leave out) it has most of the rest of the main cast returning, and Roland Emmerich is returning as director. The first film took a colossal $817 million in box office receipts worldwide, and pretty much kicked off the modern city-destroying disaster film trend with its stunning visual depictions of Manhattan’s obliteration and the White House being pulverized.
The anticipation for a sequel has been extreme, and an alien invasion disaster movie on the scale Emmerich typically delivers sounds like a pretty sure bet at the box office. Emmerich’s disaster films always deliver north of $500 million, and I think fans of the original film will obviously show up (in droves, most likely) to sit alongside new audiences ready to see the world blowed up real good again. If San Andreas can do $468 million despite being awful and offering nothing besides realistic shots of everything falling apart, then I trust Emmerich to at least get the standard disaster film soap opera melodrama right (he always does) and deliver as much character spectacle as visual spectacle. My guess is it’ll fall far short of Jurassic World’s monstrous consumption of box office dollars, but will still do north of $700 million as long as it lives up to the hype.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — This one is a no-brainer. The word “spinoff” isn’t remotely important, the only words that matter are Star and Wars here. This should be among the biggest films of the year, unless by some incredible twist of fate Star Wars: The Force Awakens is bad and underperforms and then Rogue One gets terrible reviews and is disliked by audiences worldwide. I may as well throw in “and unicorns from the Moon invade Earth” too, because that’s as likely to happen as this film failing to finish somewhere in the top two or three movies for 2016. My actual guess is that the crown will come down to a fight between Rogue One and Captain America: Civil War, the deciding factor being whether The Force Awakens tops $2 billion and whether Rogue One is great or not. If both of those things turn out to be true, then Star Wars will probably end up ruling two years in a row.
But even without winning the entire year, this movie is going to wind up among the $1 billion elite, I’ve no doubt. We’ve been so many years without Star Wars, there is a hunger for it even among young viewers who only know it from Blu-rays and cartoons. And the Christmas release window is going to once again allow the series to dominate the box office even more than it otherwise might. That this film is a prequel set during the original trilogy’s days will provide a huge added nostalgic boost for audiences too, especially on the heels of the nostalgia-fest this Christmas when The Force Awakens leaves adults everywhere weeping from sheer joy at reliving our childhood all over again.
Suicide Squad — After Batman v Superman starts the year with a gigantic bang, Warner brings Batman back to the big screen in a face-off against the Joker himself. Of course, that’s only a small part of this film, which features a terrific cast and what looks to be a standout entry in the superhero genre. But while the rest of the film and cast — particularly Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn — will enjoy plenty of attention, ultimately one of the big selling points for this movie to audiences is that we get Batman twice in one year on the big screen, and a brand new Joker who looks like he could be as memorable as Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal.
I cannot imagine a cinematic situation where a superhero movie featuring Batman and the Joker fails to deliver major money into the studio coffers. I’d easily expect the movie to perform as well as Man of Steel or better, if it’s at least pretty good. If it’s great, then I don’t think it’ll have trouble bringing home $700+ million. If you doubt this, I remind you again: Batman and Joker. Sure, if Batman v Superman is a letdown and the early buzz on Suicide Squad is mixed, that will lower the financial outlook, but I simply don’t see any reason to expect that to happen.
Now, there are some films that might manage to bump one or two of the above titles aside and sneak past to become top-ten contenders as well. There are three in particular that are best positioned for such a run at a top spot…
Warcraft — If any video game movie in coming years has a shot at major box office glory, this is it. Based on one of the biggest games of all time, with a global fanbase somewhere in the neighborhood of “everyone,” the movie might not join the $1 billion club but it’s definitely got the pedigree to soar to $500+ million if things go right. How high will depend on how good it is, and it certainly opens against tough competition already in the field or following immediately after. But the fantasy genre’s inherent strength plus the large fanbase for the game should factor in its favor. Director Duncan Jones at the helm gives it an added layer of credibility that transcends most other video game adaptations, too.
Box office data via Box Office Mojo, TheNumbers.