A Brief History of July Fourth Movies: The 10 Biggest Fireworks and Fizzles

9:10 AM 7/4/2016

by Pamela McClintock

The holiday can be the best time to launch a summer tentpole in the U.S. — that is, if Hollywood has the goods.

'Independence Day' (1996)

Exactly 20 years ago, Independence Day made history when opening midweek in order to capitalize on the July Fourth corridor. Ever since, the holiday can be the best time to launch a summer tentpole in the U.S. — that is, if Hollywood has the goods.

But the past three years have seen few box-office fireworks. This year, Steven Spielberg's The BFG is all-out bombing, while The Legend of Tarzan is not doing what it should when factoring in a production budget of $180 million.

"You need a big breakout debut over the Fourth of July holiday to power record or near-record box office for the frame and short of that, the holiday overall will tend to spark less than impressive revenue-generating fireworks," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

Dergarabedian adds that the vagaries of the calendar also make a difference. Last year, for example, the actual holiday fell on a Saturday, which may have negatively impacted the box office. This year, though, the holiday falls on a Monday, meaning a long holiday weekend in terms of the availability of moviegoers. Indeed, revenue for the three-day weekend (July 1-3) was up sharply over last year, or 40 percent.

Below, The Hollywood Reporter examines five of the biggest July Fourth box-office winners over the years, and five of the biggest holiday losers (ordered by date).

  • Fireworks: 'Independence Day' (1996)

    Courtesy Everett Collection

    Roland Emmerich's Independence Day forever changed the way Hollywood studios viewed the Fourth of July holiday, which thereafter became a multi-day event, with studios often releasing their event films midweek to take advantage of the holiday falling outside of a weekend. In the case of Independence Day — starring a young Will Smith — Fox opted to open the movie on Wednesday, July 3, 1996. (In the end, the studio even offered previews on the night of July 2.) Independence Day took in a record $96.1 million through its first Sunday, including a whopping $50.2 million for the weekend of July 5-7, on its way to becoming the highest grossing film of that year with $817.4 million in global ticket sales, not adjusted for inflation.

    Two decades later, Emmerich's sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, opted to open the week before the actual holiday. The movie, made without Smith, has disappointed thus far, earning roughly $76 million in North America in its first 10 days.

  • Fireworks: 'Men in Black' (1997)

    Arriving in theaters a year after Independence Day, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones' action-comedy Men in Black further cemented July Fourth as one of the most lucrative corridors of the year. It also solidified Smith's star status. Men in Black grossed $96.1 in its first five days after debuting July 2, including $51.1 million over the July 4-6 weekend.

    And in 2002, Men in Black II also set off fireworks, grossing $52.1 million over the July 5-7 weekend after rolling out midweek, putting its total five-day debut at $87.2 million.

  • Fizzle: 'Wild Wild West' (1999)

    Warner Bros./Photofest

    Barry Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West was a big miss for Will Smith, who starred opposite Kevin Klein, Kenneth Branagh and Salma Hayek in the big-budget adaptation of the 1960s television series. Boasting a massive production budge of $170 million, the movie took in $27.8 million over the July 2-4 weekend in 1999, putting its total opening through July 5 at $49.7 million (Wild Wild West rolled out in theaters June 30).

    The movie topped out at $221.1 million worldwide, including $113.8 million domestically, resulting in loss for Warner Bros.

  • Fireworks: 'Spider-Man 2' (2004)

    Courtesy of Marvel

    Spider-Man 2 amassed $88.2 million over the July 2-4 weekend in 2004, and $115.8 million for the four-day holiday weekend (July 2-5). Not only that, the sequel debuted midweek on June 30, putting its total earnings through July 5 at a massive $180.1 million. Spider-Man 2 ultimately earned $783.8 million globally, not adjusted for inflation.

  • Fireworks: 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' (2011)

    Paramount's third installment in Michael Bay's original Transformers film series paid off big time when unfurling over the holiday in 2011, earning a record $180.7 million in its first six days after opening nationwide on July 29 (the total included $5.5 million earned in exclusive 3-D and Imax previews on July 28). For the four-day holiday weekend (July 1-4), Transformers: Dark of the Moon grossed $115.9 million, including $97.9 million for the three-day weekend. The threequel was the final installment to star Shia LeBeouf, and went on to earn $1.123 billion at the worldwide box office.

    It wasn't the first time, the franchise energized the July Fourth box office. In 2007, Paramount and DreamWorks' Transformers opened to a record $155.4 million over the holiday, including $70.5 million for the July 6-8 weekend.

  • Fireworks: 'Despicable Me 2' (2013)

    Universal Pictures

    Illumination Entertainment and Universal's Despicable Me 2 ruled the holiday in 2013, earning $83.5 million over the July 5-7 weekend. But that was just for the three days — the sequel's five-day debut was $143.1 million after opening midweek on July 3. Despicable Me 2 ultimately earned $970.8 million globally, and today ranks as the No. 5 animated film of all time, not accounting for inflation.

  • Fizzle: 'The Lone Ranger' (2013)

    Disney Enterprises, Inc.

    Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger was quickly derailed when debuting in 2013. Starring Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger, the $215 million tentpole made $29.2 million over the July 5-7 weekend, and a total $48.7 million in its first five days after opening July 3. The Lone Ranger resulted in massive loss of as much as $190 million for Disney after topping out at $260.5 million globally.

  • Fizzle: 'Terminator: Genisys' (2015)

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    David Ellison's Skydance Productions spent many millions to acquire the film rights to the Terminator franchise in hopes of rebooting the marquee sci-fi series, but Terminator: Genisys was a wash at the July Fourth box office in 2015 despite the return of star Arnold Schwarzenegger, earning $27 million over the July 3-5 weekend and posting an overall five-day debut of $42.5 million (Paramount opened the film on July 1.) In Genisys, Schwarzenegger starred opposite Jason Clarke and Emilia Clarke.

    Skydance and Paramount subsequently took two subsequent installments off the release calendar even though Genisys ultimately made $440.6 million globally, thanks to a strong international run of $350.8 million (including $113.2 million in China.). The film's North America total topped out at $89.8 million, however.

  • Fizzle: 'The BFG' (2016)

    Courtesy of Storyteller Distributuion Co.

    Steven Spielberg's family film The BFG bombed in its North American debut over the July Fourth holiday this year, earning just $19.6 million for the July 1-3 weekend, and an estimated $23.6 million for the long four-day weekend. The BFG is the first family film Spielberg has directed for Disney, and is based on Roald Dahl's beloved book of the same name about a man-eating giant (Mark Rylance) who softens upon meeting a young orphan girl (Ruby Barnhill).

  • Fizzle: 'The Legend of Tarzan' (2016)

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    While The Legend of Tarzan fared better than The BFG, it still floundered considering its $180 million production budget, earning $38.1 million for the July 1-3 weekend, and a projected $43 million for the long four-day weekend. Its three-day take puts in far down on the list of July Fourth openings, and behind titles including The Perfect Storm (2000) even when not adjusting for inflation. Tarzan, from Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures, stars Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie.

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