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The Minimal Appeal of ‘Die Hard’ Knockoffs

‘Skyscraper’ bombed at the box office, but that shouldn’t be surprising.
By  · Published on July 16th, 2018

‘Skyscraper’ bombed at the box office, but that shouldn’t be surprising.

There is little rhyme or reason to the box office performance of Dwayne Johnson. His movie choices are all over the place, and his ability to draw crowds to such a variety of projects is inconsistent. Maybe he’s just not a summer release guy. Skyscraper came in just third place in its debut over the weekend, pulling in only 2.7 million people. That’s the actor’s worst opening since his May 2017 comedy tentpole, Baywatch (2.1 million). Or perhaps he just should stop taking gigs looking to the late ’80s and early ’90s for inspiration.

Studios should also probably stop spending so much money on movies without established franchise appeal. Skyscraper reportedly cost as much as $129 million. Still, its appeal and its extensive marketing seemed to be priming Universal for a better showing. Back in May, Box Office Pro forecast its opening weekend attendance as around 4.8 million. Last week, the site lowered the anticipated number to 3.6 million. Everyone predicted Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation to top Skyscraper but not by so much.

Skyscraper may have underperformed because it’s so clearly — and admittedly so — a Die Hard knockoff (or tribute, if you want to be nice). Never mind just being unoriginal in general, the practice of specifically copying Die Hard has rarely been successful enough for it to keep going. But it is an easy formula, and audiences have sort of gotten used to it, just as they’re warming to Groundhog Day copycats. Of course, going so similar to Die Hard as Skyscraper does by also being set in a tall building could be too close for comfort.

It also can’t help that Skyscraper came out the same weekend as Die Hard‘s 30th anniversary, which has brought even more attention to the influential action movie. Many fans probably just stayed home and watched the real deal. Die Hard is now recognized by the Library of Congress as a significant American classic. The thing is, even the original was a slow success at the box office. Die Hard was never #1 at the box office. It wasn’t even among the top five grossers of 1988. And really, its sequels were never huge openers either.

Many lists of Die Hard knockoffs qualify its own first sequel, Die Hard 2. The follow-up, labeled as “Die Hard in an airport,” did have an increase in theaters to start, and it had the appeal of an established property and star, neither of which the original could offer. While the sequel opened in first place, ultimately it was only the eighth biggest movie of the year. Die Hard with a Vengeance was barely in the top 10 for 1995 (though it was in second place worldwide). Live Free or Die Hard was barely in the top 20 for 2007, and A Good Day to Die Hard wasn’t even in the top 50 for 2013.

Throughout the 1990s, Die Hard scenarios were common, but they also weren’t huge tentpoles and were rarely monster hits. But they also didn’t have to cost much. They starred lower-tier action stars like Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sylvester Stallone in the declining years of his career. When they broke out as blockbuster success stories, they deviated from the mold somewhat. Speed, for instance, is just barely Die Hard on a bus. The thrill isn’t in Keanu Reeves going after terrorists, it’s the speeding bus stuff.

Others do have the benefit of bigger star power back when that could matter to audiences. The Rock benefitted in having Sean Connery as an aged James Bond alongside Nicolas Cage’s wimpier version of John McClane. Air Force One was a Harrison Ford vehicle more than it was a Die Hard knockoff, and it was interesting because the president of the United States was the McClane in that. Cliffhanger caught Stallone fans on the edge of his waning appeal and did well enough for its extreme stunt-driven setting.

Below is a look at the opening weekend and total ticket sales (the latter in parentheses) in North America for the main Die Hard knockoffs. Besides the first Die Hard sequel, I’ve excluded sequels to these titles since they had the added interest of an existing intellectual property (the first Die Hard has two opening weekend figures listed since it debuted in limited release; the second is its wide release opening).

Die Hard (1988) – 0.1M / 1.7M (20.2M)
Die Hard 2 (1990) – 5.1M (27.8M)
Toy Soldiers (1991) – 1M (3.6M)
Under Siege (1992) – 3.8M (20.1M)
Passenger 57 (1992) – 2.5M (10.6M)
Cliffhanger (1993) – 3.9M (20.3M)
Speed (1994) – 3.5M (29M)
Sudden Death (1995) – 1.1M (4.6M)
The Rock (1995) – 5.7M (30.3M)
Executive Decision (1996) – 2.7M (12.8M)
Daylight (1996) – 2.3M (7.4M)
Air Force One (1997) – 8.1M (37.7M)
Olympus Has Fallen (2013) – 3.8M (12.1M)
White House Down (2013) – 3M (9.1M)
Skyscraper (2018) – 2.8M

The only surprise in the bunch is the success of Under Siege, which is probably the closest to the original Die Hard in its scenario. And it made almost exactly the same amount of money, domestically — and even more than Die Hard worldwide. But it was one of the very first knockoffs and so could get away with being so similar but with slight changes, such as in its setting. The movie caught the wave before it crashed with an overload of wannabes. Of course, then there was a sequel, and it was not as successful.

What did Skyscraper have going for it that could appeal to moviegoers? A CGI crane jump stunt that we saw in all the marketing materials already? Johnson’s attraction as a movie star is typically a decent factor. When he lacks a popular co-star (as in Central Intelligence, which was made by the same director) or a special effects-driven fantasy premise (Rampage, which just came out in April, sold a million more tickets its opening weekend) or established franchise (the Fast and the Furious series, of course), what does he have? Well, San Andreas drew more than double in its debut.

Maybe there’s also some Johnson fatigue. Fans have already seen him in two movies this year if we count the late 2017 release of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Rampage hit home video just as Skyscraper was hitting theaters. The more-accessible of his vehicles would certainly be the more appealing to casual fans of the actor. They can also look forward to more Johnson at home in a few weeks when the HBO series Ballers returns for a fourth season.

As for Johnson’s fanbase, the ones who go see his latest movies on opening night, that’s the crowd that gets polled by CinemaScore. And Skyscraper received a grade from them on the lower end of his history with the service: ‘B+.’ That’s the same as Baywatch and Hercules. Most of his movies receive an ‘A-,’ which would seem to be almost the same but in terms of box office success, those grades are millions of miles apart. Reviews for Skyscraper weren’t too hot either, though not really any worse than those for Rampage and San Andreas.

Fortunately, Johnson now has a long break, as his next theatrical release isn’t until a year from now, with the Fast and the Furious spinoff Hobbs and Shaw due in July 2019. That will do very well, and then he has the promising Disneyland ride adaptation Jungle Cruise in the fall of 2019 and a Jumanji sequel out that Christmas. Skyscraper might be his last vehicle that isn’t tied to a popular IP (besides this one’s copycat status) for a while. And it might also be the last Die Hard knockoff for a while, again, too.

Here are the past weekend’s top 10 titles by the number of tickets sold with new titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation – 4.8M (5M)
2. Ant-Man and the Wasp – 3.2M (14.5M)
3. Skyscraper – 2.7M (2.7M)
4. Incredibles 2 – 1.78M (58.5M)
5. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – 1.77M (39.7M)
6. The First Purge – 1M (5.4M)
7. Sorry to Bother You – 0.5M (0.6M)
8. Sicario: Day of the Soldado – 0.42M (4.7M)
9. Uncle Drew – 0.35M (4M)
10. Ocean’s 8 – 0.32M (14.4M)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.