5 Spy Movies That Prove the Genre Is Recession-Proof


Reading about the economics of moviemaking in 2013 leads back to the same pair of facts — films are expensive, and theater attendance drops every year. Blame Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) for bringing convenience to the consumer, blame the studios for an apparent stream of rehashes and sequels, blame the apathy of the modern cinephile. Blame whomever you want, but don’t blame spy movies.

Yes, spy movies — one of the last real genre pictures left, having outpaced the Western, the Kung Fu flick, the gangster movie, and all those superhero films as indisputable cash cows. That’s not to say that other films cannot be successful: That’s obviously not correct. But since the Great Recession started to rear its head in 2007, there have been 18 spy films released, and all of them have raked in the dollars. (Dollars refers to the amount of money a film brought in against its production budget. Money spent on advertising is a much harder beast to track down.)

In, fact, you’d have to go back to February 2007 to find the last spy film that didn’t make its budget back — that dubious honor goes to Breech, which is actually quite a good movie, and well worth watching on Netflix.

What follows are five spy movies that span the gamut of critical acclaim, runtime (how long a film was in theaters), and width of release — the number of theaters that screened the title. Some have stars; some don’t. None feature James Bond. Remember, all of these films made their money back.


1. Haywire

Hot dinner tip: Any time you try to rescue a damsel in distress from her counterpart by offering her a ride home and she tells you that she works for a company that handles “operations,” watch out for flashbacks. That’s gender-neutral advice, by the way. Flashbacks can happen to anyone.

Haywire, helmed by outspoken king of mixed critical and commercial success Stephen Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike), cost $23 million to make. In the parlance of film finance, that’s relatively low-budget. It features MMA fighter Gina Carrano, Michael Fassbender, and Ewan “have you forgiven me for Star Wars I and II yet?” McGregor. Running for nine weeks in roughly 2,400 theaters, it took in $18.9 million during its stateside run.

As the astute readership has already noticed, no, the film didn’t break even. What gives? This is supposed to be a piece about films that made money, right? Right.

The beauty of marketing films and one of the reasons that so many movies seem to aim broadly and play to wide tastes has to do with the international market. Genre films, more so than their dramatic or comedic counterparts, play exceptionally well overseas. A film like Haywire can get away with only making 58 percent of its budget back in its country of origin because it went on to earn an additional $14.4 million overseas. You only have to make the movie once, after all.

At the end of the day, Haywire garnered positive reviews from critics (it holds an 80 percent fresh rating from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes) and earned a tidy $10 million more than its production budget. Game, set, Soderbergh.



2. Killers

When a project is being pitched, one question that’s always addressed is whether it hits all four kinds of moviegoer. Divided by age and gender, that breaks down into older and younger men and women. Ideally, you want your movie to appeal to all four, and it becomes harder to pitch a movie that’s going to alienate one or two of them. Imagine, in your mind’s eye, the pitch meeting for 2010′s Killers.

“We’ve got Katherine Heigl, and she’s on vacation. She runs into Ashton Kutcher. It’s a meet-cute. They get married. And then it turns out Kutcher’s a spy! Full-blown — supermodels, fast cars, espionage, the whole nine! And they’re being hunted by assassins! Of course she has no idea!”

Instant green light. It doesn’t take a genius to see how that would appeal to all four types of movie watchers. And green-lit Killers was, with a $75 million budget and enough staying power to hang out in theaters for 11 weeks. Does it matter that the movie was — by all reasonable definition — awful? That it registered an 11 percent rating on the Tomato-meter? That Kutcher snagged a Razzie (the anti-Oscar) for his performance?

No, of course not. Bringing in $47.1 million in the U.S. and even more overseas ($51.1 million), Killers topped its production budget by $23.2 million. If you’re keeping score, Killers made more money in profit than Haywire cost to make. The film universe is a cruel mistress.


3. Get Smart

Why spies? Is it because of the aura of ease they encapsulate? The hallmark of any spy, after all, is that they know all the right handshakes and call the right people by the right names. Is it because, like Raymond Mortimer said about James Bond, spies are “What every man wants to be and what every woman wants between their sheets?”

I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to be Steve Carell. I don’t know if every woman wants to be with Steve Carell. I do know this paragraph is in danger of becoming a think piece, so I’ll just say that there’s probably a lot to be gleaned about the socio-sexual niches that fictional spies occupy in our global consciousness by looking at the 2008 spy parody Get Smart. Or not.

Anyway, Get Smart was a film adaptation of a popular television show from the 1960s starring Don Adams (who also did not inspire a deep reservoir of existential envy or sexual desire, as far as I know). The premise of the show was that Maxwell Smart (Agent 86) was constantly lauded for being a great spy by his superiors when, in fact, most of his success was directly attributable to his partner, Agent 99, played by Anne Hathaway in the film.

So, armed with an $80 million production budget, Get Smart was completed and released in June 2008. It ran for 20 weeks in almost 4,000 theaters and cleaned up. At home, Get Smart took in $130,319,208. Abroad, it pulled in an additional $100,366,245. Laughing all the way to the bank, Carrell, Hathaway, and the rest of the film crew ended up with a movie that made 188 percent of its budget in gross profit. That’s not a typo.



4. This Means War

The beauty of genre pictures lies in the fact that they are free to incorporate all sorts of storytelling devices. So when moviegoers hear about a spy movie, they’re drawn to the same conclusions our fictional pitch-giver made for Killers – cars, girls, espionage, et cetera. Killers is as much a rom-com as a spy film, Get Smart is a goofy parody of workplace dynamics, and This Means War is a love triangle between Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy, and Chris Pine (and Chris Pine’s hair). The IMDB log-line nails it: “Two spies wage war on each other after they discover they’re dating the same woman.”

Like the Trojan War. Or Jules and Jim. Or Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place. You get the idea.

Directed by “how is his name not a burger special” McG, This Means War was released on February 17, a scant three days after Valentine’s Day. That was no accident. With a price tag of $65 million, it hung around 3,100 theaters for 17 weeks. While it did well domestically, pulling in $54 million, it leapfrogged expectations overseas to the tune of $101.7 million in the box office despite being panned by critics (Tomato-meter of 26 percent). This is great ammunition for any stirrings of patriotic fervor. “Sure, we’ve got our problems, but at least we didn’t spend $100 million dollars on This Means War!”


5. Argo

Sure, this one made money, but no one expected this much money. The Ben Affleck pet project about an elaborate plan to free American embassy workers during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis was made for a cool $44.5 million — a lot of money, but not a lot of money for a film starring someone like Affleck. He’s been the face of many more expensive films. A common facet of film conversations have to do with release dates: There’s a reason why blockbusters are put out in the summer, and there’s a reason why films that are gunning for Oscars tend to come out in the fall and winter. The reasoning is recency — that is, voters are more likely to remember a movie they saw one or two months ago compared to a film they saw in March.

So Argo, like The Hurt Locker, was released in the fall/winter grouping to angle for awards. Like The Hurt Locker, Argo was an astonishing success. Argo looks at the money Get Smart made and laughs. At home? Yeah, let’s try $136 million. And abroad? Even with a film that’s decidedly more narrow in appeal than some of the others on this list, it still collected $96.3 million. Together, that’s 422 percent of the budget back for a period piece about the late ’70s that cost $45 million.

Because spy movies, like Boris Greshekno in Golden Eye, are invincible.

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