The Nine Biggest Box Office Surprises of 2015

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I've been remiss at updating this section lately, but as I have literally 136 Lists of 9 in various stages of completion, I promise that I haven't run out of ideas. It's just a matter of timing, a matter of not repeating other people's lists on the Internet, and a matter of finding just the right nine examples for each list. Anyway, predicting a movie's financial success or failure is a crap shoot. Sure, in 2015, one could guess that Minions would do well and that Jem and the Holograms would not. But you never really know what audiences will go for until they go for it. The past movie year was filled with unexpected turns. To wit:

  1. American Sniper. Though technically a 2014 film, Clint Eastwood's Iraq war drama wasn't released nationwide until January 2015 – and it soon broke all kinds of records, ultimately grossing $350 million domestic and becoming 2014's top moneymaker. That's incredible for a standalone drama, and a reminder that, once in a while, cranky old right-wingers do turn out en masse to see a movie, if they feel it appeals to their sensibilities. (I saw American Sniper on DVD and did not find it to be especially patriotic or pro-war.)
  2. Jurassic World. 2001's Jurassic Park III was a bona fide dud. So who could have guessed that this sequel, directed by an unknown with only one indie feature to his credit, would gross $652 million domestic and $1.67 billion worldwide, becoming one of the biggest movies of all time?
  3. Avengers: Age of Ultron. This superhero blockbuster was certainly no slouch, earning $459 million domestic and $1.4 billion worldwide. But given the success of its predecessor – $623m domestic and $1.5b worldwide – it was a step down, especially given the hype. Certainly, no one predicted that Age of Ultron would get trounced by Jurassic World.
  4. Straight Outta Compton. Liberal whites may be singing the same tune – "television is better than movies these days!" – but the success of this N.W.A biopic – $161 million domestic on a $28 million budget – made it clear that black folks still like to go to the pictures. 2015's other modestly-budgeted "urban" sleepers: CreedWar RoomThe Perfect Guy.
  5. Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. Most Pixar movies enjoy commercial and critical praise. But Inside Out's stellar performance – even adjusted for inflation, it's outgrossed every other Pixar release besides the Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc. – was unexpected, given its supposedly risky subject matter (read: not a sequel, female leads, no cut-and-dried audience demographic). Yet The Good Dinosaur, Pixar's second 2015 release, fizzled – even though it too had an original storyline that went for the heartstrings. Perhaps audiences were scared off by bad press about the production's multiple delays and director and cast replacements, which made it sound like a mess. Middling reviews didn't assuage any doubts, and the film became Pixar's first and only bomb.
  6. Fantastic Four. There were plenty of underperforming, poorly-received movies this year: PixelsMortdecaiJupiter Ascending... In each of these cases, bad scripts were the main culprits, but there were also issues with casting, marketing, and good old studio interference. Still, one film stands out: the Fantastic Four reboot, which had all the aforementioned problems and then some. Poised to become one of 2015's biggest hits, it turned out to be one of its biggest turkeys.
  7. Terminator: Genysis. That it flopped stateside is no surprise: post-governorship, Arnold Schwarzenegger has become box office poison. But this film's phenomenal box office in China and other countries, which made up nearly 80% of the film's entire gross, is evidence that it no longer matters so much how a blockbuster fares in the US.
  8. A lackluster autumn. At the beginning of 2015, certain fall titles looked like surefire smashes: Spectre, the final Hunger Games installment, and the aforementioned Good Dinosaur. But after eight months of 2015 being potentially the best year ever for ticket sales, most films released between September and December were disappointments – including the hits! – and the year's domestic sales total rested at 1.32 billion tickets. That's better than 2014's dismal 1.27 billion, but not as good as 2012 or 2013 (to say nothing of 2002-2004, with over 1.5 billion domestic tickets sold each year – to a smaller population). Maybe moviegoers were saving their pennies for...
  9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It's a no-brainer that this would do boffo B.O. Yet early in the year, believe it or not, prognosticators were betting that J.J. Abrams' ballyhooed sequel wouldn't make as much as Age of Ultron, due to its cast of no-names and old-timers and Abrams' uninspired last outing, Star Trek Into Darkness. Only as the year progressed, with fans going ape over the trailers, BB-8, etc., did it become clear that The Force Awakens would be the juggernaut that it has proven to be.