On Sunday morning, the stats mavens at Paramount Pictures handed out a nice, round number — $100,000,000 — for the domestic weekend revenue of its blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction. That figure would make Michael Bay's fourth excursion into the Hasbro toy-robot universe the top-grossing movie of 2014, topping the $95 million tallied in early April by Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But even more impressive to Hollywood numerologists, Trans4mers would become the first picture to reach the magic $100-million three-day-opening mark since last Thanksgiving, when The Hunger Games: Catching Fire premiered to an incendiary $158.1 million.
But wait one minute. Studios base their Sunday-morning estimates — guesstimates, really — on grosses from Friday and Saturday and an educated stab at what the movie in question will earn on the weekend's last day. Occasionally the final figure, released Monday, is higher than the estimate; more often it's a few ticks lower, especially with a front-loaded action picture. So industry savants looked skeptically on Trans4mers' $100-million prediction. As Deadline Hollywood's numbers-cruncher Anita Busch wrote Monday morning, "By all accounts (have not yet heard from Paramount) Transformers: Age of Extinction fell short of the $100M mark and we were right to question it; $97.5M for the three-day weekend looks like the better bet."
(READ: Corliss's review of Transformers: Age of Extinction)
Paramount is sticking to its story, now touting a Trans4mers weekend gross of $100,038,000. If it's accurate, that number would do more than save the studio from embarrassment: it would prove to an antsy Hollywood that the reboot of a stone-cold franchise, whose first three episodes grossed nearly $2.8 billion worldwide, could become the 27th movie to register the hallowed nine-figure opening.
The industry needs giant hits, in a summer that, as The Wrap reports, is about $2 billion, or almost 13%, below the same period last year. It's true that four films have opened to at least $90 million at North American theaters: the Godzilla remake plus Marvel's sequels to Captain America, The Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men. But none of these has even approached a $300-million domestic take. There are two other factors in the seasonal slump: Pixar's decision not to release one of its big animated features this year — Toy Story 3 opened to $110.3 million four Junes ago — and Sony's postponement of the seventh Fast & Furious movie because of co-star Paul Walker's car-crash death last November.
Paramount's rivals remain wary of the $100-million claim for Trans4mers. As Busch writes:
'They’re lying,' said one distribution head at a major studio. Said another, 'I don’t get it. Is it just arrogance? What is the point of inflating your box office numbers? So they can claim the first $100M movie opening of the year? Oh please, who cares? It’s a great opening anyway.' One insider at Paramount with knowledge of the financials told Deadline that there [have] been concerns that there could be more layoffs if Transformers 4 didn’t hit the $100M mark. So maybe that’s what’s going on. Even so, everyone in town and I mean everyone has it much less than $100M.
Either way, it'll still be the strongest domestic opening of 2014. But it's the strongest debut in what now looks like a weak summer. In 2011, the year's halfway point came and went without any $100-million debuts. Then, on July 15, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 premiered to a wizardly $169.2 million. In the mid-Julys of 2008 and 2012, the second and third chapters in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy were immediate sensations, each earning about $160 million its first three days. Those franchises are finished, and few monster hits loom on the summer calendar.
The sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (opening July 11) and Marvel's launch of Guardians of the Galaxy (August 1) could open to big business, but not $100-million big. Hope for gargantuan debuts must await the last months of the year, when theaters will welcome Nolan's Interstellar, Peter Jackson's conclusion of his Hobbit trilogy and, easiest to predict, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. Watch Jennifer Lawrence grimace her way to another smash.
In fact, the most reliable nine-figure openings over the past few years are not for Marvel movies but for films based on young-adult best-sellers, aimed at teen and tween females. Consider the last two Harry Potter installments, the last three Twilight Saga episodes and the first two chapters of The Hunger Games: these seven movies scored an average opening of $146.7 million. Girl power rules.
These films may not always be better than the superhero special-effects extravaganzas, but they are dramas of teenagers undergoing profound traumas and evolving emotions; and those stories lure Hollywood's most reliable customers to congregate en masse on the first weekend. The Twilight and Hunger Games films also tend to be more front-loaded: The flash mob shows up early, while Marvel's and other big fantasy action films have a greater staying power — and ultimately, often, a higher final domestic gross. (One femme-oriented movie that climbed to $400 million in North American theaters: the Disney animated musical Frozen.)
The guy-oriented movies, including the Transformers series, also tend to do better business abroad. Foreign markets accounted for 69% of the $1.1 billion earned by the previous Transformers episode, Dark of the Moon. And the new movie has already grossed a rousing $202.1 million overseas, including a record-breaking $92 million — nearly as much as the initial North American take — in China. Hollywood will be more than satisfied if this turns out to be the Asian century.
(READ: Michael Bay talks Trans4mers)
So let Deadline Hollywood's Busch blow off the $100-million claim for the Trans4mers domestic opening — writing, "Sorry, Paramount, but our Box Office chart will reflect what we believe is the more accurate three-day gross" of $97.5 million. The studio, anticipating the first billion-dollar worldwide movie since Frozen, can laugh all the way to the international bank.