For those with memories of Tom Hanks in the '90s and early 2000s, he was Hollywood's great hit machine. A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away. All films that not only defined the period in movies, but also made boatloads of money.
Yet, since the 2006 release of The Da Vinci Code, Tom Hanks has been on somewhat of a cold streak. The table below reveals that Tom Hanks isn't the surefire box office draw he once was.
|Captain Phillips||2013||Opening this week|
|Cloud Atlas||2012||$27.1 million|
|Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close||2011||$31.8 million|
|Larry Crowne||2011||$35.6 million|
|Angels & Demons||2009||$133.3 million|
|Charlie Wilson's War||2007||$66.7 million|
|The Da Vinci Code||2006||$217.5 million|
You partially have to judge an actor by the kinds of roles they're taking. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close isn't a blockbuster targeting $200 million at the box office, yet a $32 million haul isn't very impressive even for a film aimed at a limited audience. Likewise, while Angels & Demons made $133 million, it's disappointing in the context that it was such a steep drop from The Da Vinci Code.
Part of Tom Hanks' problem is that his recent films just aren't very good. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tried to strike a chord with audiences, but instead felt ham-fisted and pretentious. Larry Crowne was cited as bland, Cloud Atlas as incomprehensible. No film caught audience buzz, and all fizzled out shortly after hitting theaters.
Yet, Tom Hanks' newest film, Captain Phillips, looks to be his best shot at a box office hit since The Da Vinci Code.
What is Captain Phillips?
Captain Phillips is based on real-life events. It follows the events of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama off the Somalia coast. Pirate activity in the area has fallen dramatically; according to the International Maritime Bureau, there were 14 ships hijacked off Somalia's coast in 2012. But back in 2009 when the events of Captain Phillips take place, 46 ships were hijacked. The hijackings captured the attention of the nation not just because of their brazenness, but also because the very idea of unlawful piracy at such a scale seemed like something ripped from the 1700s.
The release of Captain Phillips comes hot on the heels of several successful films that were based on true stories and centered in the Middle East. Last year, Zero Dark Thirty pulled in $95 million domestically and grabbed a Best Picture nomination. Argo, another tense, based-on-a-true-story thriller in the region, won the Oscar for Best Picture and pulled in $136 million domestically.
Captain Phillips is directed by Paul Greengrass, no stranger to movies based on real-life events. In 2006 he directed the well done yet gut-wrenching film United 93, which carefully recreated the events on the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11, where passengers fought back. In 2010, he directed Green Zone, another film set in the region based on a nonfiction novel.
So Captain Phillips is right in its director's wheelhouse. Greengrass also helmed a commercial megahit, The Bourne Supremacy. And the genre is doing well at the box office in recent years. All signs points to a film that could reverse Hanks' cold streak.
Good early traction
Early reviews also are strong; it's received 94% approval from critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes. That speaks well to its word of mouth and potential longevity.
Overall, the biggest threat to derail Captain Phillips is that it's going head-to-head with Gravity, a film that set the box office record for October opening weekends last week. With its great word of mouth and must-see-in-3D buzz, it's likely that Gravity will hold onto the top spot for a second week.
But Captain Phillips doesn't necessarily need to dominate the box office to snap Tom Hanks' losing streak. With a modest reported production budget of $55 million, a $25 million weekend with an outside shot at reaching $100 million would put the movie on a similar track as films like Zero Dark Thirty.
Sony (NYSE:SNE), which is distributing Captain Phillips after distributing Zero Dark Thirty last year, would be ecstatic if the film could cross $100 million this year; the studio only had two films top that milestone this year after distributing several disappointing summer films such as After Earth and White House Down.
Importantly for Hanks, such a figure would break his streak of tepid box office totals. With Captain Phillips' poster emphasizing Hanks' name above the movie's title, his inclusion in the film is a key drawing point.
Do stars still play?
Tom Hanks has had a successful enough career that his legacy isn't in any doubt. Nor is it in doubt that his name can be a huge draw with the right film. Yet, one of Hollywood's main weapons when investing big sums of money upfront for movies is securing stars who audiences reliably want to see.
With Sony already having seen After Earth bomb this year with one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, the company knows that no actor is immune to a box office swoon if the movies they're in are terrible. With Tom Hanks finally back in a movie that's critically adored and poised for box office success, Captain Phillips looks set to be the solid performer both he and distributor Sony need right now.
Eric Bleeker, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.