Sign of the times? 10 biggest 2016 US box office hits so far are superhero, animated or CGI films

The nearer film studios get to a sure bet the more likely they are to make a lot of money. That’s why ‘franchise’ films, comic adaptations and cutesy animal films are so popular, and so heavily marketed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2016, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2016, 1:16pm

Some viewers bemoan the domination of animated and comic-book films at the multiplex, but the current figures for 2016 bear out why Hollywood isn’t markedly altering its recipe any time soon.

All of the top 10 new films at the North American box office this year are either animated or almost entirely CGI, or a superhero-universe flick.

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Suicide Squad , which just opened to US$135.1 million 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$127.9 million).

Ahead of Suicide Squad, the newest DC Comics release from Warner Bros., are four other superhero films, 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.

Here are the year’s top 10 releases in order (with US sales totals as of August 7):

1. Finding Dory (US$473.9 million)

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

3. Deadpool (US$363.1 million)

4. The Jungle Book (US$362.7 million)

5. Zootopia (US$341.3 million)

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

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

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

9. Kung Fu Panda 3″ (US$143.5 million)

10. Suicide Squad (US$135.1 million)

Some non-fans of these films might look at this list and 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.

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It’s a stark reminder: 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 animals, from marine life to domestic life, from an anthropomorphic metropolis to the jungle.

It’s also worth noting that in the US top 20 are two other creature-friendly films: No. 15, The Angry Birds Movie (US$107.1 million) and No. 20, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Out of the Shadows (US$81.6 million).

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$58 million - had a pre-promotion price tag of less than US$60 million. (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.

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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 list of US box office hits.