In case you haven’t heard, as of last week, ‘Jurassic World,’ has topped 2012’s ‘The Avengers’ to become the third highest grossing film of all time, as well as the highest grossing film that James Cameron didn’t have any involvement with. Granted, that’s not adjusting for inflation or 3D boosts or any of the other things that make it difficult to directly compare various films’ successes, but for all intents and purposes (and given that ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’ really do seem to be on their own separate plane from normal box office reality) we have a new financial bench mark for your typical blockbuster to aspire to.
What’s most interesting about this unprecedented success for ‘Jurassic World’ is that no one, it seems, really saw it coming. Granted, estimates for the film weren’t low, but most seemed to place it around the $1 billion range, as opposed to the $1.5+ billion it currently has (and with Japan still awaiting a release, it’s quite possible we’ll wind up with something more like $1.6 billion when all is said and done). And unlike its fellow members in the $1.3 Billion-and-Up Club, there wasn’t an easily identifiable reason for ‘Jurassic World’s prosperity: this wasn’t a long anticipated superhero team-up, or the last time we’d see a beloved action star on screen, or the unnecessarily drawn out conclusion to the premiere young adult fantasy series of our times; no, ‘Jurassic World’ was none of that. It was a nonessential, production-hell-enduring, fourth installment in a franchise, and those run the gambit from quite good to disappointingly mediocre; so the fact that ‘World’ is playing at so high a level is rather impressive, if a bit of an oddity. What, then, made this dino-flick utterly destroy the worldwide box office? I have no concrete answers, but it’s fun to speculate; so here are my reasons for why ‘Jurassic World’ might have been the success that it was.
1. The concept was easy to sell.
As much as we like to think that mystery and intrigue in a film’s marketing campaign can help spur interest in it; a lot of times people won’t bother seeing a movie if they aren’t sure what it’s about. As an example, cryptic marketing was one of the multitudinous factors that plagued this summer’s ‘Tomorrowland’–movie goers knew very little prior to entering a showing for the film, and what they discovered was hardly worth all the secrecy.
By contrast, the elegance of ‘Jurassic World’s promotion was that people knew immediately from the title and tagline (“The Park is Open”) what this picture was going to entail. Nobody had any questions about what would basically happen in the film, and that ability for audiences to know with relative certainty what they were getting in to, I think, created a kind of confidence in expectations that encouraged many to commit to seeing it.
2. Cross-generational appeal.
Let’s be honest here: there isn’t anyone reading this that hasn’t scene the original ‘Jurassic Park.’ While some initially popular films are forgotten in the next generation, ‘Jurassic Park,’ has really stuck around through the years, having had a successful life on cable television, home video, and even the Internet, where it’s still the subject of many a fan video review or analysis. It remains a movie families like to watch or give each other as gifts; and to this day, it is among the first introductions to dinosaurs that kids get. All of this has worked to both maintain the existing audience for the movie (those who saw it when it first came out) as well as win new fans who were too young (or not even born yet) to have experienced it first hand.
Accordingly, the fact that the appeal of this movie is so wide and reaches such a diverse age group means that when ‘Jurassic World,’ came out, it was a genuine picture for the whole family: not in a corny Disney sense, but in the sense that everyone in a house hold– parents, grandparents, children– had some interest in this sequel. And nothing drives grosses quite like getting everybody in a family into the theater.
3. The New Coke effect and the power of nostalgia.
Flash back to the mid-eighties, when Ronald Reagan, video arcades, Deloreans, hair metal, and Pepsi were the coolest things in the world. For the sake of this article, let’s hone in on that last one: Pepsi had been gradually stealing marketshare away from Coca-Cola at the time, and Coke, in an effort to compete more directly with the hip, sweet taste of their rival, introduced New Coke, intended to replace their original formula. It wound up being an unqualified disaster as folks wholly rejected the new taste and image; demanding the original soft drink back.
To make a long story short, Coca-Cola saw the error of their ways, reintroduced their original formula as Coca-Cola Classic, and more or less immediately saw a huge spike in sales of the drink, leading some to speculate that the company had intentionally introduced an inferior new-product with the idea to make everyone long for the original.
Well, that, in a nut shell, is not entirely dissimilar to what we have with ‘Jurassic World.’ ‘Jurassic Park,’ is regarded by most everyone as an entertaining classic, but its sequels, ‘The Lost World,’ and ‘Jurassic Park III,’ really left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. The ‘Lost World’ took us to a different island, had a very different cast, a very different ambience (the film has no real charm to speak of) and despite some genuinely entertaining sequences, earned a collective “meh” from the film-going community at large. ‘Jurassic Park III,’ while a little bit more lighthearted and closer in tone to the original, had the downfall of being underwhelming as pop-corn entertainment, which would have been the only thing that could have made up for some really contrived moments and a story that almost intentionally tries to undermine well-received aspects from the original.
Anyways, these two films, to some extent, are our New Coke failures; which have only strengthened our appreciation for the original as a lightning-in-a-bottle moment in cinema. Then comes along ‘Jurassic World,’ which does nothing if not basically guarantee us that this will be the first sequel to ‘Jurassic Park’ that actually feels like a sequel to ‘Jurassic Park.’ This was seen in both subtle ways (the tone and setting of ‘World’ is the closest out of any of the sequels to the original) and quite obvious ways (some trailers literally used audio bits from ‘Park’ to fuel our love for the original). After two disappointing follow ups, the prospect of a sequel finally bearing some resemblance to the original was too much for most of us to resist; and in sheer gratitude for the filmmakers finally “getting it,” people showed up to the theater.
4. We really can’t get dinosaurs anywhere else.
Some successful films spawn entire cinematic sub-genres consisting of rip-offs, retreads, reboots, and remakes, all of which try to capture some bit of the popularity of a genuinely original film (see ‘Rambo’ or ‘Jaws’). What’s weird about ‘Jurassic Park’ is that, despite its sheer impact on cinema as a whole, it did not really lead to more dinosaurs on film in other franchises. Sure, we got some ‘Godzilla’ flicks out of the deal, and 2005’s ‘King Kong’ did have some dinosaurs in it (even if they weren’t the main event), but if you wanted prehistoric reptilian leviathans on the silver screen with any discernible quality, you pretty much still had only one franchise you could turn to, with any other movie, it seems, that is focused on dinosaurs being empirically unwatchable (I’m looking at you, 2009’s ‘Land of the Lost,’ and 2013’s ‘Walking With Dinosaurs: AKA How Fox Took a Respectable Documentary Series and Ruined It With Poop Jokes’). That being the case, people wanting good dino-action tend to perk up when a new ‘Jurassic’ movie comes out–it’s not like we can get our dinosaur cravings satisfied elsewhere.
5. It actually was a good movie.
This may be the most controversial claim of all, as despite a generally positive response from audiences, some critics have utterly bashed ‘Jurassic World,’ with whole articles– some of which are devoted entirely to individual scenes— explaining why the movie is a tone-muddled narrative mess and utterly un-entertaining. Many of these same critics argue that ‘Jurassic World’s’ success is either A) a marketing fluke; B) a result of the masses, blinded by pure nostalgia, flocking in droves to see a film they might otherwise have found lackluster; or C) a sign that general movie goers don’t even know what a good movie is anymore.
Maybe that’s true, or maybe that’s cynical. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic and accommodating; but a movie doesn’t make that kind of money if everyone secretly hates it; and I don’t think that nostalgia (or any of the other reasons I listed above) are enough to, on their own, adequately explain why general audiences are not bothered by this film the way many critics have been. This isn’t to say that you can always use a film’s gross to justify its quality as a piece of art; but for a movie to do this extremely well, $1.5 billion+ well, requires good word of mouth from those who’ve viewed it to prospective viewers; it requires people seeing it and recommending the film to their friends, who then proceed to recommend it to their friends, as that is the only social phenomenon that can explain the numbers ‘World,’ racked up. And that only happens when people like what they saw.
Put another way, nostalgia, generational appeal, good marketing, and a love for dinosaurs can explain a strong opening weekend, but after that the film has to deliver on its own merits, and if it can’t do that, then it quickly becomes a front loaded oddity with little legs (see last year’s ‘Godzilla’ as an example). And given that ‘Jurassic World,’ was not a front loaded oddity with little legs, I assume people liked it. Yes, it’s a little silly and contrived at times, and characterization is on the thin side; but audiences in general (including myself) appeared to find it to be a consummately fun, bright, rousing jungle adventure film*; one with amusing moments, entertaining action sequences, and (at least some) appealing actors (may Chris Pratt be offered the chance to play Indiana Jones). No, it’s not the greatest story ever told; but for most people it seems to have worked on the level it needed to; and clearly it has struck some notes just right with audiences. I don’t mean any disrespect to those who reviewed the film and disliked it– to some extent I get where you’re coming from, and I understand why you don’t want the success of this film to set an example for the future. But ‘Jurassic World’s popularity does mean something special happened to movie goers this summer, and it is wholly inadequate to conclude that it occurred due to audiences not being able or willing to realize they were seeing a “bad” film.
Therefore, we have to recognize this picture as significant, if for no other reason than it clearly got people who normally don’t see movies out of their homes and into the seats of their local theater. And if we’re not going to lionize the ability for film to influence us in that capacity; if we’re not going to lionize the way in which people can be so stimulated by a motion picture that they form a legitimate cultural phenomenon around it; if we’re not going to lionize that conveyance of emotion and excitement about what movies we see, I’m not sure what it is we’re pretending to do when we review them.
*Roger Ebert might have hit upon the appeal of jungle adventure films when he reviewed Congo back in 1995; although he is the only one who seems to have liked that flick as much as he did.