Lack of Summer Kids Movies
Ryan Snook for Variety

Summer months are synonymous with family moviegoing. This year, however, the tide is out on films aimed at young kids.

Last season, the market was flooded with seven all-audience wide releases, including “Despicable Me 2,” “Epic” and “Monsters University,” but summer 2014 has just two such films bowing over the coming months: Fox-DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and Disney’s “Planes: Fire & Rescue.”

The lack of kid-friendly fare — which is exacerbated by the absence of the customary Pixar release — is one factor prompting some box office analysts to predict a softer summer domestically. It’s going to be tough for the summer to top last year’s record $4.75 billion. But the family drought may leave room for slightly older-skewing films to overperform in the family segment. Among these: Disney’s “Maleficent,” the retelling of the classic fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” from the perspective of its villainous witch; Relativity Media’s PG-rated sci-fi tale “Earth to Echo”; and Marvel offerings including “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“With a real lack of family films this summer, I think ‘Maleficent’ could very naturally pull in family audiences,” says Ben Carlson, president and co-founder of the social-media listening firm Fizziology. But Carlson admits that the PG-rated film’s darker elements have resonated best so far with a different demographic, and might wind up scaring off parents with youngsters. “As we’ve gone deeper in the film’s (social media) profile, it’s drawn an edgier, more artsy audience, which is atypical for Disney,” Carlson notes.

Disney’s worldwide distribution chief Dave Hollis believes that the combination of star Angelina Jolie and the fantastical elements, as well as the popularity of Disney’s animated original “Sleeping Beauty,” positions “Maleficent” as a viable wide-appeal tentpole.

“At its core, the movie has a great heart, and ultimately that’s what audiences will respond to,” Hollis says.

Still, the fact that Disney has no Pixar movie this summer is worrisome for exhibitors. The brand practically guarantees hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

“A summer without Pixar is not a happy summer,” says Gerry Lopez, chief executive of AMC Entertainment. “Particularly for the hand-holding set, there is going to be a huge hole.”

Instead, carrying the torch for kid-friendly films this summer will be “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” which bows June 13. The sequel will ride a strong tail-wind provided by the 2010 original, which grossed nearly $500 million worldwide.

The summer’s other animated studio release, “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” launching July 18, also will likely benefit from the success of its predecessor. Originally planned as a direct-to-video release, the picture collected more than $200 million worldwide last year. Both sequels could see extended playability beyond the norm for family films, which already tend to have longer theatrical lives than other genres.

Along with “Maleficent,” which bows May 30, Paramount’s “Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles” could also carve itself a piece of the family pie when it debuts Aug. 8. Nevertheless, with devotees of the franchise coming to the film with a brace of expectations, and a younger crowd that’s less familiar with the property, Carlson contends that “Turtles,” which cost $125 million to produce, faces one of the most difficult challenges of the season.

“You have older audiences who are embracing it as fanboys, but on the flip side, you have debate over the look of the turtles,” Carlson says. “What will make that film a success is whether today’s kids embrace the film.”

Steve Bunnell, senior VP of global content programming for Cinemark, suggests that some films benefit more from attracting a comparatively older audience first. “Sometimes if a movie appeals too young, a teenager won’t see it,” Bunnell explains, referencing past successes like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Oz the Great and Powerful.”

And Bunnell adds that sometimes pre-release assumptions can be proven wrong. “We all thought ‘Frozen’ was a certain type of movie, and then it wound up far exceeding everyone’s expectations.”

Superhero movies, which this summer certainly has in abundance, show some of the most potential for appealing to every generation. In addition to Disney’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which has amassed more than $680 million and counting globally, Marvel has a trio of other films this summer being released by three separate studios. Up first was Sony’s “Spider-Man” sequel, which debuted this past weekend domestically to $92 million, and has so far grossed $369 million worldwide. Fox bows its newest “X-Men” installment over Memorial Day weekend, followed by Disney’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” on Aug. 1.

“In the film world, the tastes of kids are changing,” notes Paul Hanneman, co-head of worldwide marketing and distribution for Fox. “You see a lot of kids now going to these Marvel franchises.”

Hanneman says that global expectations for “X-Men” are exceptionally high, with the installment featuring a “best-of” list of some of the franchise’s most beloved characters.

Lopez, however, adds a cautionary note to the potential summer high.

“It’s clearly not as busy a summer across all segments,” he says. “There were some films last summer that would have benefited from having more oxygen. But we’ll see if better pacing helps us this year.”

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