The idea of Hollywood’s traditional movie star is all but extinct, give or take Dwayne Johnson. Gone are the days when the name above the marquee could guarantee a strong opening weekend. Instead, in today’s franchise-driven cinematic ecosystem, ticket buyers have become increasingly responsive to established and familiar brands like Marvel or Star Wars—big budget blockbuster spectacles. The actors are merely functionaries, and the mid-budget genre is being squeezed out of existence. On the surface, that doesn’t bode well for Tom Hanks as he portrays beloved television host Fred Rogers in Sony’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But, there’s reason to hope.
This shift toward $100 million tentpoles and away from movies such as the mid-budget Beautiful Day has made it exceedingly difficult for studios to invest in profitable films. Betting on a movie these days that isn’t connected to a pre-existing cinematic universe is like trying to find the bathroom in someone else’s house. You just end up stumbling around. However, there are reliable sub-genres that approximate movie star box office results when executed correctly. Think of them as well-curated taste clusters.
Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions have mastered the art of the micro-budget horror movie. Small investments in a consistent bang-for-your-buck genre like that is just one reason why Universal is Disney’s chief rival. Melissa McCarthy has been a solid example of matching star power with conceptually-driven comedies, opening six movies to at least $20 million since 2011. And Tom Hanks is still a full-blown movie star when he plays real-life Americans we all know and love. The box office speaks for itself.
Captain Phillips grossed $219 million worldwide against a $55 million budget in 2013 with Hanks playing the real-life Richard Phillips, whose vessel was taken hostage by Somali pirates. Also that year, the venerable Hollywood veteran played Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, which went on to score $118 million against a $35 million budget. In 2015, Hanks played lawyer James Donovan in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Who knew secret prisoner negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War would be such a moneymaker ($165 million/$40 million)?
One year later, Hanks took part in the “Miracle on the Hudson” as Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sulleneberger en route to $241 million on a $60 million budget. Re-teaming with Spielberg in 2017 as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in The Post proved profitable with $180 million on a $50 million budget. Hell, even Hanks’ early career hits such as A League of Their Own ($132 million in 1992) and Apollo 13 ($355 million in 1995) laid the groundwork for his late career surge.
Outside of 2007’s The Da Vinci Code and 2009’s Angels & Demons, Hanks hasn’t enjoyed a true blue fictitious live-action victory since 2004’s The Terminal ($219 million). With all due respect to films like The Ladykillers, Charlie Wilson’s War and The Circle, box office success has been hard to come by outside of Hanks’ real-life American hero lane. In a way, Hanks has adapted to the modern landscape by pairing his “America’s Dad” brand with vehicles that showcase protective and compassionate father figures.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is as heartwarming and gently inspiring as you’d think. While a few framing devices may test audience patience—especially those who never watched the original show—it’s nearly impossible not to buy into the emotional stakes. It’s a crowd-pleasing reminder of the healthy importance of acceptance, forgiveness and understanding, and Tom Hanks is wonderful as he channels the spirit of TV’s nicest man. It’s also a savvy bet for a veteran box office practitioner.