5 Summer Box Office Takeaways: Marvel Rules, China Rises and Stars Matter

maleficent Golden Trailer Awards

The summer box office sputtered to a close, down 15% from last year’s record breaker. Domestically, it was the worst showing for Hollywood in nearly a decade.

To be sure, there were massive hits such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” but this year’s crop of blockbusters was puny compared to last summer’s lineup, a batting order of heavy-hitters that included “Iron Man 3,” “Man of Steel” and “Despicable Me 2.”

Despite the gloomy results, there are valuable lessons and takeaways to be gleaned from a popcorn season that never really popped.

1.) Stars Still Matter

Yes, in an age of superhero films it appears to have become increasingly irrelevant who wears the cape or mask, but matching the right actor with the right material is still a recipe for success. “Maleficent” got to $750 million globally on the strength of Angelina Jolie’s name. The titular sorceress was a perfect fit for an actress whose cheekbones are a special effect in and of themselves.

Moreover, “Tammy” is approaching $100 million worldwide despite a slew of bad reviews because audiences really, really like Melissa McCarthy. At this point, they’d probably pay to watch her file her taxes (O ye gods of celluloid, don’t let “Melissa Finds Her W-4” become a pitch). Same goes for “22 Jump Street,” “Neighbors” and “Lucy,” which were sold on the basis of seeing Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Zac Efron, Seth Rogen and Scarlett Johansson do what they do best, namely behave like the frat brothers you’d love to play beer pong with and become the avenging angel you’d most like to have your back.

That’s true at the art house, as well. Would “Chef” have topped $30 million were it not for Jon Favreau’s social media network and Rolodex of movie star pals?

2.) Foreign Box Office Rules

China, China, China. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” passed $1 billion almost entirely on the strength of the People’s Republic and films such as “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and “Dawn of the Apes” were able to substantially improve on the final grosses of the previous films in their franchises thanks to robust foreign ticket sales. Even films that met with a chilly reception Stateside, such as “Edge of Tomorrow,” were saved from being catastrophes thanks to the growth of the global box office.

Its not that the U.S. doesn’t matter. It’s just become a piece of instead of the whole pie. Films like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” showed that by moving large parts of production to China, while box office disappointments such as “Pacific Rim” are now getting sequels purely on the basis of their foreign grosses. Follow the money.

3.) Women Like Movies, Too (and so Do Hispanics!)

Sixty percent of “Maleficent’s” opening weekend crowd was female. R-rated comedies such as “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street” topped charts by appealing equally to men and women. And a little film called “The Fault in Our Stars” showed that low-budgeted tearjerkers can draw crowds in blockbuster season, thank you very much. In fact, female stars such as McCarthy and Jolie performed more consistently than many of their male counterparts such as “Edge of Tomorrow’s” Tom Cruise, “The Expendables 3’s” Sylvester Stallone and “Hercules'” Dwayne Johnson. Will that be reflected in their paychecks?

Same goes for Hispanics, who, as a July report by TheWrap noted, accounted for roughly 20% of the opening weekend crowds for most major releases. Just this weekend, this burgeoning population of moviegoers pushed “Cantinflas,” a biopic about a Mexican comic actor, to $3.3 million in fewer than 400 theaters. That outgrossed a re-release of “Ghostbusters,” which is one of the biggest hits of all time and was screening in nearly double the number of locations.

4.) Marvel, the Mightiest of All

At the beginning of the summer, no one would have predicted that “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a movie adaptation of third tier comicbook, would become the summer’s highest grossing release domestically.

However, the studio shrewdly positioned the picture as emerging from the creative minds that brought audiences “The Avengers” and “Iron Man” and played up the film’s humor in addition to its spectacle in television spots. In the process, Marvel emerged from the summer as perhaps the strongest brand in movies right now, rivaled only by Pixar. Good thing for Disney, it owns both.

5.) Where are the Indie Breakouts?

“Chef” became a word-of-mouth hit and “Boyhood” is trucking along nicely thanks to rapturous reviews, but most indie films failed to break out of the arthouse. “Begin Again” may have sparked a bidding war at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, but it has been only a modest performer at the box office, and other films such as “Calvary,” “Obvious Child” and “Belle” were bigger hits with critics than crowds.

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  1. Leegirl says:

    So funny. All these lists about “what we learned” and none ever mention the strong presence of AA movie goers or the fact that films with large AA casts can open big. Even if “Think Like a Man” sank quickly (due probably to poor reviews), it cannot be denied that the market is strong for these kinds of films. And, more than likely, there is an international market as well, if given the push. No matter what the evidence to the contrary, it’s always brushed off as some kind of fluke.

  2. Matt says:

    Yes, but as recent stories have shown, the share of returns Hollywood gets from its films in China are much lower relative to other countries. And films are often delayed. Guardians, the movie of the summer, will be released in October there.

    Still, that small China share must be worth it, because studios are constantly trying to be one of the only 30 or so foreign films allowed to be shown in the country each year, and are willing to add usually unnecessary Chinese elements or remove Chinese-offensive content to increase their chances of being chosen.

    All I know is I am psyched for “Pacific Rim 2: China Rim.”

    • jedi77 says:

      I know. It’s weird, isn’t it?
      Why are they running after a market where they only get 25% returns? Is it really worth it?

      • therealeverton says:

        Of course it is worth it. This idea that because 25% iis a minority percentage, means it is not worthless is bizarre. 25% of $300m is $75m. Does $75m seem like a small amount of money? Because it isn’t.

  3. harry georgatos says:

    Everything works in cycles. What didn’t work this summer means little when next summers line-up is rolled out. Marvel and DC superhero movies are,still doing huge numbers so expect more sequels. Next year,should be a different story. Unfortunately,there
    hasn’t been a demanding mind teaser like Inception. It made $823 million and one would assume Hollywood would have taken one or two lessons from that seminal blockbuster. There’s always the highly anticipated Interstellar!

  4. Jacques Strappe says:

    I wonder if Guardians of The Galaxy had been released in late Spring or early Summer whether it would have resulted in substantially better overall box office numbers.

    • Gary says:

      No, because then it would have been competing with other large movies like Transformers, Maleficent, etc. It’s been able to do well in part because it waited to steer clear of major competition.

  5. Contessa46 says:

    The box office in the US had been grim because Hollywood has delivered crappy films! Must look on Flixter to see the ratings most of the critics gave these bombs. Get back to basics and give us GOOD STORIES, FABULOUS talent and great born in the USA special effects. And don’t let some big mouth executive with NO TALENT dictate what is good and what is not. Yes, they hold the purse strings but won’t continue to do so if they continue to pick such crappy films. Just sayin…

    • Gary says:

      Nobody cares what reviewers think about movies. People go to see what they want to see, period. Movie reviewers, especially in this modern world where anyone can post a review online, should have been phased out a long time ago. It’s a useless profession. They have ZERO impact on boxoffice. I would rather get a review from a friend who paid ten bucks to see it last weekend, rather than some uptight pseudo-intellectual who goes to see movies for free and thinks his opinion matters more than everyone else’s. Critics are bitter wannabes.

    • jhs39 says:

      The latest Transformers made over a billion dollars and you seriously want to argue that quality is the issue with the box office this Summer? Edge of Tomorrow got excellent reviews and starred Tom Cruise, who some people consider a star–it still tanked despite the fact that it’s easily the best non-sequel Tom Cruise film in over a decade. The reason the box office tanked was because there weren’t enough sequels to hit movies this Summer and there was no Pixar film. The Transformers and Planet of the Apes sequels did what blockbuster sequels are supposed to do but the rest of the Summer was originals, which are a whole lot harder to sell.

      Your comment sounds good only if you are completely ignorant to what makes money and what doesn’t. In reality people don’t pay to see quality–they pay to see brands. Look at the terrible reviews for TMNT, which were richly deserved, then try to explain the large box office. TMNT is a dreadful film with crappy special effects, zero fabulous stars and it got horrible reviews–yet it’s a huge box office success. Again, people don’t pay to see quality–they pay to see brands and franchises. If people actually paid to see quality Begin Again would have been a huge hit.

      • jedi77 says:

        So true, so true.
        All this crap about “no-one cares what the critics say”, well no-one apparently cares what their friends say either, because no-one I know liked Transformers, yet everyone went to see it. And the IMDB rating speaks for itself: it’s a bad film – but not even bad word of mouth can stop a franchise apparently.
        It’s really, really sad.

        I HATE these freaking idiots and their “BO is down because Hollywood makes crap movies”. Shut the hell up and get real. BO has never, ever, not ever, in a milion years, and never, ever, ever will have anything to do with quality. That simply is not how the world works.
        It’s brand recognition, tentpole mania, to some degree a “F-U to the critics – I’ll watch it if you thinks it’s crap,” and for a few it’s star power.

        But it ain’t “quality!”

  6. billy says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Pixar and Marvel in the same sentence, because the Disney machine knows what it’s doing. The thing about GOTG is there has been ALOT of press about it. Even before it came out, the media was hyping it. And they always include the humble brag (as you’ve done here yet again), that it’s a “third tier comic book.” I believe the marketing machine is behind that statement, because all along GOTG has been pushed as some type of underdog property, just like the underdog characters in the film. And people, especially film nerds, like to root for underdogs. The Marvel fans, who are starting to seem like a cult in the way they pounce on other movies that might give their Marvel movies any competition, also view themselves as underdogs, and so they keep going to see the movie. These are the people who love to trash Michael Bay, because they’re not like him, they don’t see themselves as ever being like him — rich, gets hot girls, etc. Same reason people like to trash Brett Ratner. So yeah, Marvel knows its core “we are nerds/underdogs” audience and it caters to that and they’re having huge success with it.

    • jedi77 says:

      I think you’re underestimating the size of the audience for Marvel films, if you thinks it’s just the nerds.
      And what does Brett Ratner have to do with anything? The man clearly is a hack. He almost ruined X-Men, for Pete’s sake.

      A film lover doesn’t trash Michael Bay (no-one trashes the director of Armageddon and The Rock!), they just trash Transformer films. But Brett Ratner is a hack, and every film lover everyone should trash him till the day he retires.

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