#1 1982: Rocky III


Let me take you back to May 28-June 3, 1982. During that week, John Paul II became the first reigning pope to visit Great Britain, actress Romy Schneider died of cardiac arrest, Molly Dieveney won the 55th National Spelling Bee on the word ‘psoriasis,’ the upcoming Doctor Jodie Whittaker was born, and Rocky III was the #1 movie in America.

When you think of the 1980s, Rocky III is part of the decade’s iconography. The music, the montages, Mr. T talking about pitying fools and predicting pain, Hulk Hogan gorilla press slamming Sylvester Stallone, there are so many touchstones that are entrenched in the cinematic pantheon. And all this despite also being emblematic of 80s excess and driving the Rocky formula completely into the ground. In some ways, Rocky III seems like an early example of a more modern #1 film at the box office -- a well established sequel from an important and critically loved franchise that has focused in and heightened its basest aspects.

I hadn’t watched Rocky III in many years. Honestly, I don’t know if I’d ever seen it all the way through. Those iconic moments and characters, though, have always kept fresh in my mind. As a huge wrestling fan [Hulk Hogan fan in particular] I always loved the Thunderlips charity match scene. Strangely, the release of Rocky III came well before the height of the Hulkster’s popularity -- he didn’t slam Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III for another 5 years. Truthfully, Hulk Hogan never was much of a box office draw outside of the squared circle, but his appearance is characteristic to the colorfully broad approach that helped Rocky III become so successful.

Rocky III ended up as the fourth highest grossing film of 1982 at $124MM, sandwiched between future profile An Officer and a Gentleman and recent profile Porky’s. Among its franchise, it places second, interestingly not behind the Oscar winning original but its own sequel, Rocky IV -- the epitome of the series cultural success and stale critical mediocrity. Considering that Rocky IV played in nearly 1,000 more theaters than Rocky III while only out-grossing it by $3.7MM, it is fair to say that this is the actual pound-for-pound champ of the series.

Boxing has become the sports film subgenre that has garnered the most prestige and success over the years. Seemingly every major actor in Hollywood aims to get a boxing film in their filmography while major filmmakers continually expand the unique aesthetic of the “sport of kings.” It is a little surprising, then, just how much the Rocky films lord over the genre from a box office perspective. The top four all-time are all part of the series [IV, III, Rocky, Creed in that order] with Rocky II and Rocky Balboa coming in at #8 and #9 respectively. Rocky V was even a successful film by many standards. When considering all sports dramas, only The Blind Side comes out ahead.

Of course Best Picture winning Rocky was able to straddle the critic vs. popular line, but this really shows how a franchise can be built with a strong baseline followed up with heightened levels of action or comedy or crazy characters or what-have-you. The most surprising thing is that it only held on to the #1 spot for one week. But there is a good reason for that, which will become clear in a few weeks.