Why ‘Apes’ Won’t Be Enough to Turn Around the Summer Box Office

Summer Box Office Poor
Diego Patino for Variety

Where have all the blockbusters gone?

That’s the question on Hollywood’s lips as the summer box office pants its way past midpoint. With less than two months to go, this season’s crop of tentpole films look shaky, despite a gorilla-sized $73 million opening weekend for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Overall, there have been more raunchy comedies and fewer family films — and, in fact, fewer tentpoles packed the season vs. last year. China’s box office is surging, while the domestic market shrinks. And the endless stream of sequels and reboots has failed to lure away crowds from the World Cup, barbecues and the beach.

Box office revenue from the first week of May through the most recent weekend is down nearly 20%, as “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” failed to match the massive grosses of such 2013 popcorn films as “Iron Man 3,” “Despicable Me 2” and “Monsters University.” This summer almost certainly will fall short of last year’s record-breaking $4.76 billion haul.

“Product is a big part of the equation,” said Jeffrey Logsdon, an analyst with Hudson Square Research. “When the product’s not there, you don’t see the big audiences.”

Films have been opening big, but flaming out quickly, with pictures such as the “Spider-Man” sequel and “Godzilla” debuting to nearly $100 million, then dropping more than 60% in their second weekends. Both have struggled to clear $200 million domestically. The lack of stickiness is evident across the digital watercooler.

“As the box office has fallen, social media has had a strong correlation,” said Ben Carlson, prexy of social-media tracking service Fizziology. “There’s been less social engagement for a lot of these films.”

Leaving a huge void in the calendar, two major movies vacated the summer season: Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur,” due to production delays, and “Fast & Furious 7,” owing to the death of star Paul Walker.

The loss of “Good Dinosaur” deprived the season of a major family film in a year packed with R-rated comedies. Some of these laffers, such as “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street,” were successes, but a dearth of films that appealed to children, save for “Maleficent,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” has robbed the B.O. of some of its demographic dimensionality.

“It’s the vagaries of production schedules,” said Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. “Last year, we had too many family films; this year there are too few.”

When summer 2014 ends, there will be a few happy chapters, perhaps none more encouraging than the breakout success of “The Fault in Our Stars.” Produced for $12 million, the film, based on John Green’s bestselling novel, has taken in north of $225 million worldwide. In place of giant robots and costumed heroes, its selling point is the story of two teenagers who meet in a cancer support group. Yet, Fox made the bold decision to release the movie in the heart of popcorn season.

“We knew who the audience was, and we felt strongly that we knew how to get to them,” said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox. “We knew if we timed it just right, it would hit as the kids were getting out of school — post-prom and post-finals. This wasn’t a comicbook movie. It wasn’t about action and explosions. It was just a movie about people and life.”

With the U.S. theatrical business in a rut, China continues to be a dominant force internationally. For the first half of 2014, the Chinese box office grew 22%, to $2.2 billion. The power of the country and its population of 1.3 billion was on display as it pushed movies such as “Edge of Tomorrow” toward solvency, goosed the international grosses of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” to new highs for the mutant franchise, and outpaced domestic ticket sales on “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

One kernel of good news for Stateside exhibitors was that after experiencing historic lows in 2013, 3D rebounded, contributing a more than 40% share of ticket sales for films such as “Godzilla” and “Edge of Tomorrow.”

“It’s obvious 3D is here to stay,” said Rolando Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of Marcus Theatres. “It bodes well for the industry, because it is an amenity that separates the theatrical experience from the home experience.”

An even more promising reason theater owners aren’t entering into mass suicide pacts is that salvation appears to be just around the corner. The next two years bring new installments of such Tiffany franchises as James Bond, “The Avengers,” “Star Wars” and “Batman.”

“Like everyone else, we’re looking at 2015 and 2016, and the incredible lineup of films,” said Bud Mayo, chairman and CEO of Digiplex Destinations.

Tomorrow is a brighter day.

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  1. Cole says:

    Umm….’Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ are still hanging out there in August and are going to put up big numbers….especially TMNT. It hits across age ranges and has a TON of built in fans. It’s going to be in the top 5 grossing movies of the summer.

  2. cadavra says:

    Let’s face it: If you take in 50% of your gross in the first three days, it’s pretty obvious you haven’t made a very good film.

  3. RE: 3-D. I wish Variety would provide more info on ticket sales/grosses with a 3-D and large format breakdown compared to 2-D. When not a word is said about 3-D ticket sales in the Transformers box office opening weekend, I assume it was very weak and at or below 40%. Is Variety stating that Godzilla and Edge Of Tomorrow did “more than” 40% of ticket sales in 3-D? Does that mean grosses or individual ticket sales? Is that for opening weekend or the entire run of these movies? Can you be more specific? And even if it’s “more” than 40% (41%? 45%?) isn’t that way down from the “normal” for 3-D opening weekend box office just five years ago when 3-D dollars was responsible for 50-70% of the gross?

  4. Hopefully, the slump will prove that the masses are sick of transformers and super heroes and unbelievable kid stuff. We need more character and human STORIES. Something we can actually get engaged in. Please make me care about something or someone before you kill it on film. Or, we just won’t care.

  5. Derek says:

    What about the Lego movie?
    To be honest, it is already my favourite film of the year.

  6. conflicting stories says:

    Didn’t Variety report last week that APES was going to save the summer box office? http://variety.com/2014/film/news/dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-to-boost-summer-box-office-1201259692/
    APES overperforms and now it’s not enough?

  7. harry georgatos says:

    At the end of the day it comes down to the execution of the product. This years summer films are average to say the least. Little family friendly films. I’m still hoping for The Incredibles 2 ? The Incredibles 2 would have cracked the billion dollar mark at the world wide box office! If next years vintage brand name films underperform then Hollywood should realize reboots, sequels, remakes and tv shows adapted into movies are on their way out. People don’t want to wait 2 to 4 years for a sequel to be left dangling on cliffhangers to only wait for another 2 years. People want stories with a beginning a middle and an,ending. No more sequels thank-you very,much.

    • Jake says:

      No more sequels? But you want an Incredibles sequel? That’s a sequel!

      • harry georgatos says:

        Sequels to animated cartoons don’t bother me it’s sequels to live action films that get up my nose. Most of these films finish on calculated cliffhangers leading into further sequels. I want movies with a,beginning a middle and an ending.

      • Heyo says:

        I honestly think this was one of the best summers in a long time in terms of movie quality. How to Train Your Dragon 2? Amazing. Edge of Tomorrow? One of the better sci fi movies I’ve seen in a while. Neighbors was decent and 22 Jump Street was hilarious.

        I just don’t think people care about the movies. It looks like, despite what we all say, people still want sequels to huge franchises. I assure you, 2015 will be one of the biggest years ever in the box office by default of having Avengers 2 and Star Wars Episode 7.

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