The Savvy of Summit

The story surrounding the past two weekends’ box office returns was largely a negative one, with many crowning it the worst summer weekend in two years. Certainly, the haggard complexion of movie theaters and studios alike, barring some exceptions (GET OUT! WONDER WOMAN! BABY DRIVER! GIRLS TRIP! THE BIG SICK!), is definitely cause for concern.

Still, the top movie of the past two weekends — THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD, an irreverent action/thriller/comedy starring Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds — tells a slightly more encouraging story about one studio in particular, which has had quite the successful year even without its namesake franchises.

Summit Entertainment was founded in 1991 by producers Bernd Eichinger, Arnon Milchan, and Andrew G. Vajna. As an independent shop focusing on foreign sales, Summit found early success in selling overseas rights to films like AMERICAN PIE. After a rough few years with various domestic distribution efforts of its own that flopped, the studio found success with the TWILIGHT franchise (ever heard of it?), which propelled SUMMIT to stardom. With its fingers pressed firmly against the pulse, the studio proved itself with TWILIGHT that it could identify the makings of a hit.

Subsequent outings are even more impressive. In 2008, Summit released THE HURT LOCKER, which later went on to win Best Picture and Best Director, for Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman in history to accept the award. In 2010, Summit adapted the popular comic book series RED into a film, which went on to gross nearly $90 million at the US box office and get a Golden Globe nomination.

In 2012, Lionsgate successfully acquired Summit (after a failed attempt years earlier). Since, then the studio has maintained its reputation for good taste, a shrewd understanding of the market, and frugality. Let’s look at the past year as an example:

  1. Oscars and awards season success: LA LA LAND, HACKSAW RIDGE, DEEPWATER HORIZON.

I don’t think enough people talked about Summit’s success at this past year’s Oscars. First, LA LA LAND. For all that the film became a punching bag for frustrations regarding Hollywood’s whiteness, its success is still remarkable. It cost only $30 million to make and grossed over $151 million domestically and $445 million worldwide. The pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (a great save over the original plan of Miles Teller and Emma Watson, which probably would have been disastrous) displays an incredible amount of savvy, especially given their onscreen history which was appealing to many. It received 14 nominations and won 6. Despite the fact that the movie musical has been around in modern cinema, Summit positioned LA LA LAND as a triumphant return of the classic Hollywood musical, which made it something of an “event” film.

HACKSAW RIDGE also had similarly strong financial margins, costing only $40 million (before P&A) and grossing over $67 million domestically and $175 million internationally. It was nominated for 6 Oscars and won 2 — and was able to get the controversial Mel Gibson a Best Director nod. DEEPWATER lost money domestically but still nabbed 2 nominations — a testament to Summit’s marketing abilities.

2. The JOHN WICK franchise.

On paper, an original action franchise starring the divisive Keanu Reeves doesn’t sound like much of a money maker. But after a successful first outing ($43 million domestic and $45 million foreign against a $20 million budget), the studio went for round two. CHAPTER TWO uncharacteristically improved on the performance of the original, grabbing great reviews and making over $92 million domestically and nearly $80 million overseas, against a still modest $40 million budget. Many heralded the movie as everything that a sequel ought to be, a rare feat indeed.

3. THE SHACK: serving Christian movie-goers.

The religious movie-going demo is not to be overlooked, and has made films like MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN “surprise” hits. But this should be no surprise, especially in America, and Summit realized that. Despite rotten reviews, THE SHACK, which follows a man who meets God (Octavia Spencer) after a family tragedy, made over $57 million domestically and $39 million internationally, against a $20 million budget.

4. ALL EYEZ ON ME: a short-lived success for an underserved audience.

Predictions for the Tupac Shakur biopic ALL EYEZ ON ME were not rosy, especially as the film was hit with poor reviews. Still, the film opening to a very strong $26 million, which had the industry discussing once again how diverse audiences are underestimated and underserved. Subsequently, the film was hit with controversy and a law suit, and the film did not sustain great returns (perhaps for these reasons), dropping over 70% in its second weekend. Still, the stellar opening suggests Summit’s clear-eyed recognition of the power of diverse movie-going audiences.

5. THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD.

On the surface, this looks like another late-summer crappy action flick of yesteryear — poor reviews perhaps confirm this. Still, the Jackson-Reynolds combo is an inspired one, especially after Reynolds’ resurgence from DEADPOOL. The film just opened to nearly $21.5 million, despite expectations that were in the $15 million range.

Summit is also responsible for the NOW YOU SEE ME and DIVERGENT franchises; like all studios, it isn’t without duds like GODS OF EGYPT. Still, the studio has a remarkable capability of responsibly budgeting projects and releasing them to often unanticipated success. Its films at least from the past year, represent the most valuable assets in Lionsgate’s otherwise lackluster slate. At least in the past year, the studio has had a number of noteworthy successes at the intersection of marketability and cost.