Michael Bay, the filmmaker behind “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” and the “Transformers” series, was once the lead architect behind large-budget explosive blockbusters. “Ambulance,” the director’s latest detonating action thriller, proves that times and tastes have changed in the days since chaos and Autobots ruled the box office.
Over the weekend, Universal’s “Ambulance,” a theft thriller set on a modular train, came to a standstill with $ 8.7 million from 3,412 North American theaters. It’s a disappointing domestic box office debut considering Bay’s track record of creating commercial hits. The R-rated “Ambulance” currently ranks as the worst opening weekend of Bay’s career, coming behind 2013’s huge action comedy “Pain & Gain” ($ 20 million debut) and 2016’s Benghazi war film “13 Hours” ($ 16 million debut). None of these films went on to set the world on fire.
You might say, “Hello! We’re still living through a pandemic, and the domestic ticket office has not returned to normal.” And that is right. But during the same three-day period in which “Ambulance” buzzed, the family-friendly “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” opened for a mighty $ 71 million. And older male cinemagoers, the demographic target audience for Bay’s films, have appeared in “The Batman,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and James Bond’s latest mission, “No Time to Die.” Several other films have still managed to sell tickets despite prolonged pandemic effects. Through Sunday, “Ambulance” earned just $ 2 million more than A24’s comedy-fantasy-sci-fi mashup “Everything Everywhere All at Once” ($ 6 million from 1,250 North American theaters), though the latter played in far fewer theaters.
Some box office analysts believe that the crowded marketplace – Jared Leto’s anti-hero adventure “Morbius” and Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s romantic comedy “The Lost City” ranked higher in the box office – worked towards “Ambulance”.
“Timing was the biggest factor counteracting ‘Ambulance’ this weekend,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro. “Although ‘Sonic 2’ is a family film, it drew strongly from a male audience up and down the age spectrum due to the brand’s generational appeal. It markedly cut into the usual wheelhouse for these types of films and Bay’s own cinema-goers.”
“Ambulance” cost $ 40 million, which is relatively inexpensive for Bay, whose previous films have carried price tags of well over $ 100 million. (The studio spent tens of millions more on marketing and other efforts to get the film on the audience radar.) For a major studio release, a $ 8.7 million debut is disappointing no matter how you cut it. But the blow could have been so much the more painful if the production budget had been closer to the nine-figure.
In the late 1990s and early aughts, there was no major filmmaker than Bay. His film may not be on the critics’ best of the decade lists (they were unlikely to gain access to the Criterion Collection), but Bay had an ability to turn adrenalized, physics-defying tent poles into pop culture-defining hits. That formula does not always work these days, especially not at a time when Netflix regularly broadcasts a library that plays as a tribute to Bay’s filmography. Audiences no longer have to leave home to watch “The Old Guard,” “Triple Frontier” and Bay’s own “6 Underground.” And although these films boasted big stars and (mostly) positive reviews, none of them managed to hold on to the spirit of the times in the same way as a “Bad Boys” or “Armageddon.” Netflix movie director Scott Stuber later admitted Variety that “6 Underground” did not live up to expectations.
In some ways, the Netflix fixation of rom-coms has come to get roaring action glasses. With rom-coms, an influx of satisfying meeting-sweet stories, people were trained to lower their expectations and stay home for any movie that is not a standout. “Ambulance” was half-heartedly embraced by critics and received an average rating of 69% Rotten Tomatoes. Ticket buyers – of whom 58% were men and 50% were 35 years or older – were more enthusiastic about the film, which secured an “A-” CinemaScore. “Ambulance” features Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in the lead roles as adoptive siblings who hijack an ambulance and hold the vehicle’s passengers hostage.
“Big-budget action movies were once the bastion of the big screen; only the cinema [could] make these expensive films profitable, ”said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore. “[Those films] now finds favor with audiences on streaming platforms, such as Netflix, which has the money to produce such movies. “
At the same time, COVID-19 continues to influence cinema habits. Sure, superhero adventures and video game adaptations can pack theaters, but some genres just do not resonate with ticket buyers like they used to. One-time action stars like Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, who drove sidecar with Bay in “Armageddon” and recently retired from acting, are no longer the driving force behind the box office’s triumphs. As evidenced by current theatrical winners, such as “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “The Batman” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” well-known traits are the real traits. Horror is another sure bet on the box office, and Bay has recently had more success as a producer, working on “The Purge” series and John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” movie.
“Today’s audience wants something special every time,” said David A. Gross, who runs the film consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “The kids are set higher now.”
For Universal, “Ambulance” extends an uneven start to 2022. After kicking off the new year with back-to-back duds, the woman-fronted robbery movie “The 355” and the religious drama “Redeeming Love,” the studio set Jennifer Lopez’s romantic comedy “Marry Me” day and date on NBCUniversals streamer Peacock, which likely slowed ticket sales to the box office. Holdover revenue from Illumination’s animated comedy “Sing 2,” which has grossed $ 162 million since December, has been a bright spot. And a stacked summer magazine, including “Jurassic World Dominion,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and Jordan Peele’s horror film “No,” seems to be turning these fortunes around.
Just do not expect Michael Bay-style action epics to come to the rescue. Those days are probably in hindsight.