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The niche blockbuster: If it’s summer movie fun you’re after, look to the breakouts, not the pre-ordained hits

"American Sniper" is the perfect example of a "niche blockbuster" movie, one that doesn't target itself toward males between the ages of 11 and 25.
"American Sniper" is the perfect example of a "niche blockbuster" movie, one that doesn't target itself toward males between the ages of 11 and 25.

Already killing it in England, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and beyond, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opens in the U.S. with evening screenings Thursday and an official May 1 bow. Expectations couldn’t be larger. Its success is predestined; it will be one of those mass-market blockbusters stockholders enjoy so much. Some are predicting an opening weekend box office take of $240 million. The first “Avengers” movie started off with a $207 million opening weekend en route to a $1.5 billion total worldwide. Might “Age of Ultron” overtake the reigning money champs, “Avatar” ($2.7 billion) and “Titanic” ($2.1 billion)?

Writer-director Joss Whedon has given interview after interview in recent months regarding how damn tired he is, physically drained and spiritually depleted in the run-up to launching this quarter-billion-dollar-budgeted corporate entity that, he hopes, has some wit and personality to go with the packaging. The early reviews are mostly strong, and “Age of Ultron’s” future seems secure bordering on arrogant.

It is a film, as Whedon told the Guardian newspaper, designed for fans and superheroically ignorant newbies alike. “You need to be thinking about everybody all the time,” he said. Mass appeal, at any price.

But the niche blockbuster is another story. The odd and, I think, extremely heartening thing about the movie year 2015 so far is how many niche blockbusters have asserted themselves in the marketplace, whatever you happen to think of the films themselves.

Take, for example, the one no one saw coming: “American Sniper,” released late last year. On a $60 million budget, director Clint Eastwood’s honorific portrait of U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle has made nearly $550 million worldwide. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” (nearly $570 million worldwide on a $40 million production budget) was a more anticipatable smash, filling its own niche. Both “Sniper” and “Grey” disprove the hackneyed, late-20th Century notion that movies must be targeted to males between the ages of 11 and 25. Both carried an R rating and were not aimed at everyone, but rather certain subsets of everyones.

The reigning early 2015 box office champ, “Furious 7,” will dominate the multiplexes right up until the second before the first Thursday evening screening of “Age of Ultron.” Its success – rightly; it’s big, dumb, frantic fun – has been subjected to a flurry of statistical and philosophical analysis. One oft-repeated statistic: Seventy-five percent of the opening-weekend “Furious 7” U.S. audience was non-white. The movie’s ensemble is all over the place ethnically, and without any self-consciousness, just as the picture itself ranges all over the place geographically.

“Everybody’s efforts,” Universal Studios distribution head Nikki Rocco said, to figure out “what the hell is going on with this franchise were phenomenal.”

The first “Fast and the Furious,” released in 2001, was a mid-range film (production budget: $38 million) that did very, very well ($207 million worldwide). “Furious 7” cost a ton ($250 million) but will soon pass the $1.2 billion mark. This, after the third “Fast and Furious” movie did poorly enough to put the franchise in jeopardy. A niche blockbuster franchise has miraculously transformed into a safe mass-market bet.

There are stories behind stories here. As Keith Noonan wrote recently on the Motley Fool financial website, “Furious 7” made nearly $70 million in its opening day in China, a record. It’ll likely overtake that country’s No. 1 hit, “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” The Chinese box office grew by more than a third last year, and in a few years it may zoom past the U.S. as the premier movie market. Hooray for Hollywood. But, really, for Hong Kong and Beijing. Already “Furious 7” has passed the quarter-billion box office mark in China. It’s “Avatar” with gasoline and biceps. And come to think of it, maybe the secret blockbuster ingredient is Michelle Rodriguez, who acted in both “Avatar” and is a staple of the “Furious” series.

“Furious 7” cut co-production deals with various Chinese corporations, which didn’t hurt, either. Now, thanks to that film’s success there, a sequel has been announced to “Need for Speed,” which made a so-so $43 million in America but nearly four times that overseas.

“Furious 7” went from niche to mass-market for a lot of reasons. Fans of the franchise were compelled to bid farewell to the late Paul Walker, one of the co-stars, whose performance was completed through the use of doubling and digital face replacement in post-production. Also, the action in “Furious 7” is amped up to a hyperbolic, grandiose scale rivaling a James Bond picture; it’s halfway to “Transformers,” even, and then the movie brings out the big guns — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and automatic weaponry borrowed from the Schwarzenegger arsenal — turning into an entirely different sort of movie. (Less interesting to me, that last half-hour, but whatever; I’ve sort of had it with assault-weapon hijinks.)

There’s another story going on with “Furious 7”: its broad appeal among women. The more we see huge hits on the order of Disney’s recent live-action “Cinderella,” or “The Fault in Our Stars” last year, the more wilfully stupid the studios appear as they fail to capitalize on that ready audience while continuing to throw dollars at the eternally coveted 11-to-25 male demographic.

National Association of Theater Owners head John Fithian said last week at the CinemaCon in Las Vegas: “2015 will rock at the box office because it will be the year of women.” Already, hopes are high and the festival response has been great for the comedies “Spy,” starring Melissa McCarthy, and the niche-ier Amy Schumer vehicle “Trainwreck.” Both enjoyed a warm embrace from audiences at the recent South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Neither is a sequel, or part of a franchise. Yet.

“Ultron,” needless to say, is a different beast. And with an average of five new superhero pictures scheduled for each of the next five years, there are moments, even among superhero obsessives, you can detect early-onset genre fatigue in synch with the sleep deprivation Whedon is acknowledging. As a critic, I hate how directly and quickly one or two big-budget franchise prospects can clobber a studio’s stock price and cramp that studio’s output. Not to mention its taste for risk and portfolio diversification.

Also as a critic, and as a fan, I’m fascinated by other things. The “Star Wars” reboot arrives in December. People are so hungry for this one, the drool is becoming a national problem. They’re obsessed with the new trailers, especially the one in which Harrison Ford’s Han Solo sits alongside Chewbacca, that ageless hairy wonder, and says, “Chewie … we’re home.” Entire generations of “Star Wars” fans are swooning en masse, as one, a single sentimental organism.

Is this why “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” our imminent, preordained mass-market blockbuster, already feels like last season’s story? We’re living in perpetual, paradoxical nostalgia for what comes next, as long as the next thing takes us back home to when we were kids. The traditional blockbusters take care of themselves. Meantime we wait, eagerly, for the next niche blockbuster, a movie able to expand its target audience before our eyes, stunt after delirious stunt, the way “Furious 7” did. Cheap thrills and heart — that’s the formula.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

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