Warner Bros. has had a middling 2019 so far, but the two iconic clowns from Joker and IT Chapter Two may be able to save them. It's been a weird Summer at the box office in 2019. As the season comes to an end and the major studios count up their profits - or lack thereof - it's evident to all who the big winner of the bunch was.
The Walt Disney Company hit heights essentially unheard of for any studio this Summer, thanks to the billion-dollar successes of The Lion King, Aladdin, and Toy Story 4, and that doesn't even count the record-breaking successes of films released earlier in the year, like Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. As of the writing of this post, Disney has five of the highest-grossing movies of 2019 so far (six if you count Sony's Spider-Man: Far From Home, which Disney don't get the profits from but did help produce have a merchandising interest in). The rest of the list has places for two Chinese distributors and Universal.
One noticeably missing studio is Warner Bros. Last year, they had two of the highest-grossing films of 2018: Aquaman and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. In 2019, however, the studio has seen notably softer grosses and more than a few box office disappointments. Shazam!, the latest addition to the DCEU, performed well enough but was a smaller success than prior additions to the franchise. Pokémon Detective Pikachu scraped into the top ten of 2019 with a worldwide gross of $431.5 million but was quickly knocked out by Universal's Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which was rumored to have cost around $200 million to produce, only grossed $385.8 million worldwide, which is a serious downturn from the $529.1 million the previous Godzilla title made.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Warner Bros. Reliable small-budget horror titles like Annabelle Comes Home and The Curse of La Llorona did their job and then some, but those were exceptions to the rule. Other smaller movies like Shaft, The Kitchen, and The Sun is Also a Star couldn’t find their audiences or the ticket sales. Warner Bros. aren’t the only studio struggling right now - anyone who isn’t Disney is having a pretty tough time in Hollywood these days - but given their historic status and the number of seemingly viable blockbuster options they released this year, the expectations for them are somewhat higher than the likes of Paramount.
But Warner Bros. has two alternative aces up their sleeve for the coming Fall season that could seriously turn things around. Neither is a standard, four-quadrant crowdpleaser, yet both are two of the major pre-Thanksgiving movies. And, coincidentally, they both feature clowns.
Why It: Chapter Two Could Be a Smash Hit
2017's IT, based on one of Stephen King's most popular novels and directed by Andy Muschietti, was expected to do well when it premiered in September of that year. However, few could have predicted just how big a deal it would become. The film set numerous box office records and grossed over $700 million worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing horror movie ever. On top of that, reviews were enthusiastic, with some heralding IT as one of the best King adaptations ever made. Not bad for a movie with no stars and a $35 million budget.
For the sequel, which covers the parts of the book where the Losers Club grow up and return to Derry, Warner Bros. has pulled out all the stops. IT Chapter Two's cast is starrier, with James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain headlining. This will invariably have increased the budget due to actors’ fees and increased stakes, but the studio has been building a steady stream of hype over the past year to keep audiences hungry with anticipation. It looks like it’ll pay off, with IT 2 projected to gross between $95-120 million in its opening weekend domestically. That’s a little below what the first film, but given how tough a year it’s been at the box office, that’s still nothing to sneeze at. When all is said and done, IT Chapter Two will surely be one of the biggest horror movies of all-time.
How Big a Hit Will Joker Be?
While Warner Bros. has different expectations of success for Joker than IT Chapter Two (it’s not expected to be anywhere near the same sort of commercial success), their goals remain extremely lofty in fascinating ways. Todd Phillips' comic book re-imagining of Batman's most iconic villain has been much discussed since its announcement, and now it's aiming for especially prestigious heights. The movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is making its world premiere at the end of August in competition at the Venice Film Festival. This is unheard of for superhero movies, and shows the level of confidence Warner Bros. has in the film. Comic book movies have, of course, been nominated for and won Oscars before, but they are seldom positioned first-and-foremost as awards bait in the manner Joker is being.
But Warner Bros. also has high hopes for Joker making a solid profit at the box office. With an estimated budget of $55 million, the movie won’t have to make billions to break even, and it opens in a week with no real mainstream competition. Early box office projections for Joker place it in the $70 million range domestically, higher than mega-hit Aquaman and easily covering production costs. Finances aside, this could reaffirm the company’s creative commitments with DC and some of their riskier choices with upcoming releases, which would be a great comfort given how tumultuous the past few years of the DCEU have been.
Can Warner Bros. Ever Truly Compete With Disney?
The battle between the major studios used to be a lot more evenly played than it is today. In an age where Disney has become such a dominant media force, with control over Marvel and Star Wars and 21st Century Fox, the race isn’t remotely close now. Disney has already made five $1 billion hits this year and no studio can truly compete with that. It’s a cold new reality that Hollywood has yet to truly embrace, for obvious reasons. In this new system, making a solid amount of money seems insignificant compared to the gargantuan and record-breaking grosses Disney has accumulated.
Realistically, no studio can truly compete on the same level as Disney at this moment, at least in terms of finances. That’s not to say that studios like Warner Bros. are doomed to failure, but it may mean that they will have to recalibrate what counts as a success now. IT Chapter Two and Joker probably won’t make The Lion King levels of money but they can provide a safety net of sorts for the company and show the benefits of making the sorts of films Disney won’t (primarily R-rated, adult-oriented titles that don’t cost the world to make). Just because they - and everyone else - can’t be Disney-size successes, that doesn’t mean they can’t be successes full stop.