For many years now Hollywood executives have believed that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is a box office draw; a movie star so popular, that people will buy tickets for a film based solely on his involvement. This is wrong.
A quick examination of Johnson’s box office track record shows that the actor’s career has been in a period of stagnation since his 2002 debut in The Scorpion King, thus making the failure of Baywatch this weekend entirely expected to the canny observer.
The Scorpion King had an opening weekend in the United States of $36 million, and Johnson has struggled to surpass this mid-30 debut in the fifteen years that have followed. In fact, the early years of his career were riddled with films that actually performed much worse.
Johnson-led action films such as Walking Tall and Doom both opened with a mere $15 million, while family-friendly features The Game Plan and Race to Witch Mountain fared slightly better with debuts between $22-24 million.
By 2010, Johnson had seemingly lost his sheen with even the family crowd when The Tooth Fairy opened to just $14 million. That same year he hit a new low with the action film Faster, which opened at number seven with a paltry $8 million. But Johnson’s luck was about to turn in a major way, when he joined the cast of a B-level franchise that was about to make the A-List: The Fast and the Furious.
He joined the series for its fifth entry, Fast Five, which quickly out-grossed its predecessors at the box office by a significant margin, with a worldwide total close to double that of the fourth film. This huge success, along with the continuing rise of the franchise, has been attributed to the addition of Johnson but this conclusion is not only incorrect but also slightly bewildering.
It is important to note that Fast Five marked a huge change for the franchise far beyond Johnson’s inclusion, as Universal Studios shifted away from the original street-racing premise for the specific reason of chasing a broader audience. This combined with a fantastic marketing campaign propelled Fast Five to success in spite of Johnson, who as we have discussed had been largely rejected by American audiences up to this point.
As the Fast and Furious franchise grew bigger with its sixth and seventh installments, more credit was placed at the feet of Dwayne Johnson’s star-power, but his projects between the blockbuster franchise told a different tale. The former WWE star remained trapped underneath the $36 million debut his career had begun with, as Journey 2: The Mysterious Island ($27m), Snitch ($13m), Pain and Gain ($20m), and Hercules ($29m) all tried and failed to overcome it.
Only G.I. Joe: Retaliation was able to surpass that haunting number, but only just, when it debuted with $40 million in April 2013. This could be down to any number of factors including: the power of the G.I. Joe brand, the involvement of Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis, or interest from those who enjoyed the first movie.
Then came 2015, which marked the beginning of what some fans would consider the golden age of Dwayne Johnson. Furious 7 became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, an accomplishment made off the back of some strong reviews, momentum from Fast Five and Six, and of course added interest following the tragic passing of Paul Walker. The colossal $1.5 billion the movie brought in did contribute to Johnson finally breaking his $36 million curse.
Indeed, about two months later Johnson starred in San Andreas, which to date can be considered the only bona fide hit that he carried to the finish line. Opening with a respectable $54 million and finishing just shy of $500m worldwide, it appears the exposure Johnson received following the dominance of Furious 7 had some genuine benefits in the short-term. But alas, it was only the short-term.
The following year saw Central Intelligence released in theaters to a $35 million opening, once again sending Johnson below the figure he started with in 2002. The film still had a healthy performance both domestically and worldwide, but it is difficult to determine how much of that was Johnson and how much was co-star Kevin Hart.
Moana also was a strong performer, although notably grossed significantly less than Frozen and Zootopia, but given their respective histories this case is more a show of strength for the Disney brand than it is for Johnson himself.
The Fate of the Furious had the biggest worldwide opening ever back in April, although is unlikely to unseat Furious 7 as the highest-grossing entry in the franchise. Interestingly, the latest Fast and Furious film has had far longer legs internationally than it has at the domestic box office, where it has in fact seen declining returns.
This raises further questions about whether the franchise depends on Johnson, or whether Johnson depends on it. The Fate of the Furious has pulled in more money in China than it has in any other individual territory, and which cast member has the largest Chinese fanbase? Vin Diesel.
With this tumultuous history behind him, it is hardly surprising that Baywatch has under-performed this weekend. The notion that Dwayne Johnson is a box office draw seems to have been entirely fabricated by good publicity, and a large social media following. Ultimately though, these Facebook likes and Twitter followers have consistently failed to translate into ticket sales.
The message to Hollywood executives: rest the fate of your movie on Dwayne Johnson’s shoulders at your own risk.