How Hollywood keeps to a tried and true recipe

By Michael Cavna

Some viewers bemoan the domination of animated and comic-book films at the multiplex, but the current figures for this year bear out why Hollywood isn't markedly altering its recipe any time soon.

Of the top 10 new films at the North American box office this year, all 10 releases are either animated or almost entirely CGI, or a superhero-universe flick. Suicide Squad, which opened to US$135.1 million ($189.3m) over the weekend, now sits at the No. 10 spot, nudging out what would have been the lone exception to the comics-and-pixel sweep: Star Trek Beyond (US$127.9m).

Ahead of WB/DC's Squad are four other superhero-world flicks, four animated features and Disney's The Jungle Book, which is both a remake of an adapted cartoon and a film created almost completely "in computer", virtually animated.

Some non-fans of these films might harrumph with charges of a national "dumbing down" at the box office - a gripe that would undersell the more thoughtful and intelligent of these movies, including Pixar's Dory entry, which happens to be the biggest domestic release of the year.

Yet there are bigger conclusions to be drawn from this list.

1. Franchise branding is certainly good for business

Eight of the films on this list are sequels, remakes or part of a larger, connected series of films (even if Deadpool is a far cry from the Deadpool of X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The only fresh entries here are the animal-centric animations Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets.

In a crowded marketplace for building awareness, pre-branding breeds a built-in audience, which helps a film studio hedge its bets.

2. Animals are the fuzzy opiate of the masses

When trying to appeal to a massive general audience, it's tough to beat an animal act. All five animated and/or mostly CGI-painted films on this list are centred on critters, from marine life to domestic life, from an anthropomorphic metropolis to the jungle. It's also worth noting that in the domestic top 20 are two other creature-friendly films: No15, The Angry Birds Movie (US$107.1m) and No20, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Out of the Shadows (US$81.6m).

3. Animation and superhero franchises get blockbuster promotion

Of the year's top 10, it's highly likely that only Fox's Deadpool- which had a reported production budget of US$58m - had a pre-promotion price tag of less than US$60m. (Note: The official budget is not available for three of the animated films, but their high-end, CGI-visual quality points to budgets significantly higher than Deadpool's.) That means that most of these films are huge investments with double-digit promotion budgets, which only boosts a title with pre-awareness. And nine of the 10 films have a huge parent in either Disney, Warner Bros or Fox.

4. The power of the connected universe

2008's Iron Man really kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which of course includes this year's biggest live-action film, Disney/Marvel's Civil War.

All five comic-book films on this list are either sequels or part of connected superhero universes, with Batman v Superman sharing connective tissue with Suicide Squad as WB/DC builds toward Justice League. These days, even Disney/Pixar's deft sequel Finding Dory can feel like part of an evolving connected universe waiting to happen.

So until the next Star Wars film opens, prepare for superhero features and animated creatures to dominate this year's domestic list.

The Jungle Book.
The Jungle Book.

2016's top 10 releases (with domestic totals as of August 7)

1. Finding Dory (US$473.9m)

2. Captain America: Civil War (US$407.2m)

3. Deadpool (US$363.1m)

4. The Jungle Book (US$362.7m)

5. Zootopia (US$341.3m)

6. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (US$330.4m)

7. The Secret Life of Pets (US$319.6m)

8. X-Men: Apocalypse (US$155.4m)

9. Kung Fu Panda ($143.5 million)

10. Suicide Squad ($135.1 million)

- Washington Post

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