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.