There are now two precise moments that define the Hollywood portion of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s career so far:
1. The April 2011 release of Fast 5, when Johnson shook off Tooth Fairy to become a bona fide action star on a level of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and;
2. This weekend’s flat-on-its-face flop Baywatch, when the limits to that stardom became painfully clear.
Just as Johnson is realizing the height of his pop-culture powers even floating a run for the White House he suffers his first embarrassing box office bomb, an $18.5 million domestic opening weekend for a summer nostalgia comedy whose $40 million expectations weren’t so hot to begin with.
It was also the first film for which Johnson was an executive producer, meaning he had more skin in the game than ever before. Isn’t life funny like that?
Just as Johnson is realizing his pop-culture powers, he suffers his first box office bomb
Baywatch was dragged under by a rancid 19% Rotten Tomatoes score, which just proves the only rule in Hollywood that always applies: Make a good movie that people want to see, and you’ll sell tickets.
“No one is 100% bankable because no movie is 100% bankable and as every major movie star can attest (though they may not admit it),” comScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian told Mashable. “It’s about the quality of the movie, not the star power, that drives people to the movie theater. Even [Johnson] is not immune to these market forces and no amount of star power and goodwill can offset bad reviews and negative social media buzz.”
Sometimes you can razzle-dazzle a bad movie into opening well, though, a skill that Johnson has been sharpening for years. He has proven to be the consummate pro showman, a cheerleader who commits in full, and for Baywatch, he left no stop un-pulled.
A gushing profile in GQ confirmed that koo-koo work ethic and boundless positivity really is his default mode, and even germinated the idea of a run for President. And just when you thought he was kidding around, he affirmed that notion with Tom Hanks as running mate while kicking off Saturday Night Live … which also maybe was kidding around.
More likely that it was all in service of bringing attention to Baywatch, which Johnson put more visible energy into selling than any of his previous films. And for good reason: As a first-time executive producer, Johnson probably had a sizeable capital investment in Baywatch, and a big hand in getting it made at Paramount.
That level of investment got under Johnson’s skin, then bubbled up where it hasn’t before: He made his disappointment with the poor critical reception clear on Twitter, where he’s been tweeting nonstop about Baywatch throughout the holiday weekend.
Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) May 26, 2017
And as the disappointing box office receipts rolled in, he hasn’t let up on the gas.
But then that’s just not his brand.
The ‘Fast’ rise
It certainly seems like Johnson has been a Hollywood power broker for a good long while, but in many ways, he’s just arrived here. And that’s probably because his rise started with a long, slow burn, followed by a meteoric moonshot.
Johnson was still a major WWE star at the time of his first film role, as the Scorpion King in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, which made his appearance still feel like a lark. A knowing look and an arched eyebrow were about all we expected from the pro wrestler with a funny catchphrase for the next decade of cameos, uncredited appearances and other minor roles Tooth Fairy certainly seemed like it could have been career quicksand but then along came Fast.
Universal’s fourth entry, Fast and Furious, did respectable business at home and abroad, opening to $70 million in April of 2009 on its way to a $363 million global haul. But when they added Johnson two years later, Fast Five opened in the U.S. to $86 million and nearly doubled its global haul to $626 million.
Just like that, Johnson had a new nickname: “Franchise Viagra.”
In the context of those franchises, Johnson has indeed thrived. His four Fast films have all been global mega-hits, the Journey films did well worldwide, and while his appearance in G.I. Joe: Retaliation failed to re-ignite that franchise in 2013, it still made more money than the 2009 original did without him.
Breaking out of that franchise mold, however, has proven trickier. Since 2013, Johnson has toplined at least one summer film per year that’s not already attached to a blockbuster brand a strategy that so far peaked with the 2015 earthquake actioner San Andreas.
Opening-weekend domestic results for those films:
2013: Pain and Gain: $20.2 million
2014: Hercules: $29.8 million
2015: San Andreas: $54.5 million
2016: Central Intelligence: $35.5 million
2017: Baywatch: $18.5 million
Baywatch didn’t just flop it failed to beat out Pain and Gain, an odd-duck of a Michael Bay movie with one-third of the Baywatch production budget.
And it was right around the time of San Andreas‘ success that Johnson started lining up a dizzying number of projects many of which are similar to Baywatch in that they are things we’ve certainly heard of before … but are not blue-chip franchises by any means.
As a producer or executive producer on a number of his upcoming films, Johnson is about to enter a critical point in his Hollywood career a time that could define him as a proven hit-maker who belongs in charge (a la Sylvester Stallone), or just another popular action star who couldn’t quite turn the corner.
With Baywatch, Johnson clearly took a chance on a genre that perhaps just isn’t quite in his lane. And he’s no dummy. Don’t look for him to line up another raunchy comedy anytime soon.
“Baywatch may have strayed too far into R-rated territory for the true fans and nostalgia buffs to jump into the water and go along for the ride,” Dergarabedian said, “and that combined with the historically mixed track record forthese TV re-boots was too much for the film to overcome.”
Despite this setback, Johnson will still chart high on annual Hollywood power lists, make many more major franchise hits, host more episodes of Saturday Night Live and, for all we know, appear on the 2020 presidential ballot.
And make no mistake: He will learn from this.
“Johnson has one of the best reputations in the industry for being a great guy and a hell of a marketing machine,” Dergarabedian said, “so he will most certainly be back with a vengeance and also much the wiser having learned lessons from this soberingexperience.”