American military genre plateaus with 13 Hours
Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi has underwhelmed at the box office, but does it suggest the popularity of US military dramas has waned?
13 Hours (pictured right) recounts twin terror attacks on US compounds in the Libyan city of Benghazi in 2012, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador to Libya, as well as several US security personnel.
True-life military dramas have been roundly embraced in recent years by US audiences, led by the massive successes of war films American Sniper (pictured below) and Lone Survivor.
Bay’s 13 Hours has been less successful. He’s brought his action-movie sensibilities to a grim subject matter and the film was heavily marketed to a conservative US audience. However, a full three weeks after the movie’s theatrical release in mid-January, it had only barely managed to recover its $50m production budget, according to figures from Box Office Mojo.
Hollywood won’t necessarily be concerned by the performance of 13 Hours, although the military sub-genre may find more success on the small screen. This at least seems to be the thought process behind two other upcoming productions in the genre.
The Weinstein Company is involved with TV drama Six, which tells the story of the Special Forces unit that killed Osama bin Laden, and producers now have filming incentive support to shoot in North Carolina.
Television drama The Reaper is also being shepherded by The Weinstein Company, and, similar to American Sniper, will focus on the true story of another notoriously effective US sharp shooter who served in Iraq in 2009.
Locations are limited but effective
The list of locations that can easily double for Iraq and Afghanistan is very short, especially in the US. However, American producers are lucky to have two of the top choices on their doorstep: New Mexico and California’s desert locations.
California can be an economic challenge because the state’s filming incentive still offers limited support, despite getting a big cash injection to its film fund last year.
Some can make it work however, and Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper shot much of American Sniper in the standing sets of Santa Clarita.
Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg followed the more generous filming incentives in New Mexico. They doubled the rougher terrain around Albuquerque and Santa Fe for Afghanistan in Lone Survivor (pictured above), a surprise box office hit.
Internationally, Morocco and Malta are the top choices, although producers’ decisions are dictated to an extent by their story demands.
Morocco’s flat desert landscapes and general film-friendly reputation have helped counter the lack of a formal filming incentive, although financial support was recently launched to further boost international interest. American Sniper filmed wide-angle vistas in and around Rabat to complement urban scenes shot in California.
Malta lacks Morocco’s wide-open plains but has the climate and the architecture to double for Middle Eastern locations, as well as strong incentive support. It was here that Michael Bay doubled the landscape for Benghazi in 13 Hours.
Given the globalised nature of the production industry Hollywood is increasingly reliant on international box office results, which could be a challenge for military dramas focussing on US forces.
Lone Survivor, like 13 Hours, was an unambiguous tribute to American soldiers in action on a specific real-life mission. While a big hit in the US, it had much less of an impact overseas.
American Sniper was a more complex look at the impact of war on the individual, making it a more universal movie experience that helped it travel easily – the film made twice as much of its cumulative box office from international markets as Lone Survivor.
American military drama features tend to be rarefied mid-budget productions, which releases some of the financial pressure that visual effects-heavy superhero franchise movies have to contend with. Still, the future of the military sub-genre on the big-screen is far from certain in a risk-averse industry.
13 Hours images: Paramount Pictures
Lone Survivor image: Gregory E. Peters/Universal Pictures
American Sniper image: Warner Bros. Picture/Ratpac-Dune Entertainment