How John Wick Went From a Low-Budget Action Movie to a Mega-Franchise

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How John Wick Went From a Low-Budget Action Movie to a Mega-Franchise

There’s really no way to overstate how big John Wick: Chapter 4 was in its domestic box office launch. Scoring the first $50+ million opening for an R-rated movie in North America since the COVID-19 pandemic began, this newest John Wick installment left all other entries in the franchise in the dust. These and countless other box office achievements of this new John Wick movie are a testament to just how immensely popular this franchise has become since the saga started in 2014. The modern-day popularity of everything related to John Wick just makes the humble origins of this franchise all the more fascinating. John Wick didn’t just start out as an underdog, it began life as a seemingly throwaway action movie that would vanish as quickly as it hit theaters.


RELATED: New ‘John Wick’-Universe Film in Development [Exclusive]

The State of John Wick and Keanu Reeves in 2014

Image via Summit Entertainment

To offer some context for how vastly different 2014 pop culture was compared to the 2023 landscape, just look at where Keanu Reeves was in his career when the first John Wick debuted. After the box office nonstarter The Day the Earth Stood Still in 2008, Reeves switched gears as an actor. The actor only anchored a handful of small indie films like Henry’s Crime and Side by Side in the five years between Stood Still and his next major studio release, 47 Ronin. That big-budget boondoggle turned into a massive flop, which didn’t help his image or box office prowess. The same year John Wick was set to be released, Reeves shot titles that would eventually go direct-to-video like Knock Knock, Exposed, and The Whole Truth. Much like Nicole Kidman, Keanu Reeves did not have the best of luck with star vehicles in the early 2010s.

Because of this career trajectory, there wasn’t initially much buzz surrounding John Wick, good or bad. It was just an independent action film financed by Thunder Road Films, a production outfit known, at that point, for just co-financing a handful of Warner Bros. titles. Given how Reeves had, by 2014, anchored multiple independent features that never went anywhere either critically or financially, it wasn’t a far-fetched notion to expect John Wick to become the next Side by Side.

The insightful book They Shouldn’t Have Killed His Dog: The Complete Uncensored Ass-Kicking Oral History of John Wick, Gun-Fu and The New Age of Action by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross paints a frustrating picture of how difficult it was for John Wick to get the attention of any distributors even after there was a finished movie to show off to studio executives. A screening of the final product apparently inspired just one studio to step up and express interest in picking up this Keanu Reeves star vehicle: Lionsgate.

Circa. 2014, Lionsgate had delivered its share of massive hits, especially with projects aimed at the young-adult crowd like The Hunger Games and Warm Bodies. However, the studio’s track record with action movies was a bit more mixed. The first two Expendables movies were hits, but The Last Stand in 2013 went nowhere, ditto Dredd and Alex Cross in 2012. Worse, the studio had picked up a handful of action films in the preceding few years, like The Legend of Hercules, and proceeded to dump them into theaters. In other words, Lionsgate was not a studio associated with cranking out action movie smashes. The odds of John Wick resonating with the public were looking slim.

So How Did John Wick Turn It All Around?

Keanu Reeves pointing a gun as John Wick in John Wick
Image via Summit Entertainment

Sometimes, after so many storms, you finally get some sunshine. So it was with the people behind the original John Wick, who finally got some good news when Lionsgate/Summit picked up domestic distribution for John Wick in August 2014 and set an October 24, 2014 theatrical release date. With two months to go until its premiere, there wasn’t much time to sit around and wait for a good marketing campaign to fall from the sky. John Wick needed to get pushed and pushed immediately.

From there, a snowball effect began to take place. A movie nobody had ever heard of a month or two earlier was slowly getting onto everybody’s radar. The prospect of seeing Keanu Reeves in action-hero mode again for the first time in forever was already grabbing people’s attention. Meanwhile, the unique hook of having a grisly violent rampage be motivated by the death of a dog not only made John Wick stand out in the action movie landscape, but it also intersected with just the right moment in internet culture. The mid-2010s were a time when the phrase “doggo” was running rampant and people’s overt love for their canine companions was booming. John Wick was a gun-toting extension of all that passion, whether the movies creators had intended for him to function like that or not.

John Wick ended up hitting a perfect storm of elements that elevated it to much more than just a burn-off late October action movie. Its eventual $43 million domestic haul didn’t shatter box office records, but it outgrossed 47 Ronin from 10 months prior despite Wick costing $145 million less to make than Ronin. It also handily outgrossed then-recent Lionsgate action films like Escape Plan at the North American box office. John Wick had beaten the odds and managed to exceed expectations. Astonishingly, though, the story wasn’t over yet. Franchising would solidify John Wick’s ascension to glorious success.

‘John Wick’s Sequels Kept on Getting Bigger and Bigger

Basing your big blockbusters on pre-existing source material can be a massive boon to your movie in drawing in moviegoers, but it can also provide a ceiling for just how high your film can go at the box office. Often, these properties will only bring in die-hard fans of the source material. Just look at the Twilight sequels all making basically the same amount of money domestically or how something like the 2021 Mortal Kombat movie crumbled after its opening weekend. If your feature is relying only on audience satisfaction with older pop culture properties, it can be harder to resonate with the widest possible audience.

Original projects can have difficulty reeling in people, but if they take off, they can catch on like wildfire with the general public. The bar is much lower for enjoying projects like Pitch Perfect or The Greatest Showman that don’t require audience familiarity with vintage TV shows or comics to be successful. Similarly, John Wick flourished on home video because it could excel as just a standalone exercise. Its premise was simple, people from a wide variety of backgrounds could enjoy it, the world it established seemed ripe for future adventures…a sequel was bound to do well building off those elements.

With its sequels, the John Wick franchise just kept topping itself at the box office. Every time one thought this saga had reached its financial apex, John Wick: Chapter 4 would come along and nearly double the lifetime domestic haul of the first John Wick in its first three days of release. The accessibility of the original film and even its subsequent follow-ups (there weren’t a deluge of spin-offs to keep up with) ensured that the fanbase of these movies was always growing and growing in between installments. Plus, being something original meant that the John Wick movies belonged to the current generation. This wasn’t a rehash of a 1980s or 1990s cult classic, John Wick was a property that was exclusive to the modern pantheon of bullet-heavy motion pictures.

At the risk of sounding shamelessly sentimental, the escalating success of the John Wick movies should be seen as a sign to Hollywood that new original concepts can still flourish on the big screen. In fact, fresh ideas can experience the kind of pop culture longevity and surprise success you’ll rarely get with projects based on pre-existing source material. Except for the occasional abnormally massive hit like Spider-Man: No Way Home, most productions based on comics, TV shows, toys, or any other recognizable IP are bound to have a ceiling for just how much they can overperform. On the other hand, there’s an exciting uncertainty with original films. You might wind up with a money-loser…or you might end up releasing a movie that nobody could’ve predicted would take the world by storm. Just look at how John Wick went from being an unknown indie film to a pop culture phenomenon to witness what original films can do that adaptations never can.

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