“Jurassic World,” “Inside Out” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” powered the summer box office to its second-highest levels in history, but even the presence of these formidable blockbusters wasn’t enough to forge a new record.
Domestic ticket sales hit $4.48 billion for the period extending from May 1st to Labor Day weekend, according to Rentrak. That’s a 10.4% improvement over last year’s numbers — welcome news considering that 2014’s popcorn movie season was the worst showing in seven years. Attendance can’t be quantified until average ticket price data is released, but industry watchers estimate that it will land between 518 million and 530 million, another big lift over the 495 million people that went to theaters last summer and roughly equivalent to the 538 million people who bought tickets in the summer of 2012. One other caveat is that Labor Day fell later this year, adding approximately seven days to what the movie business defines as summer for the first time since 2009.
Even with the calendar advantage, this year’s figures trail the summer of 2013, when stateside receipts hit $4.75 billion and admissions topped off at 587 million. And while it was a season of plenty for Disney and Universal, the two studios that ate up 60% of the market share for the season, it was one of paucity for players like Sony, which lagged behind its big studio brethren while fielding flops like “Pixels” and “Aloha.”
Once again, sequels, comic book movies and animated fare reigned, comprising eight of the top-ten grossing films. Only “San Andreas,” a disaster film starring the Rock, and the N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” hailed from other genres. At times, those films cast a shadow over other pictures, making it harder to attract attention, particularly for art house movies like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “The D-Train,” which struggled to find audiences.
Indies weren’t the only films that faltered. There was a fair share of would-be blockbusters that belly-flopped in an ocean of red ink, among them “Fantastic Four,” “Tomorrowland” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” each of which will result in write-offs to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. The chilly reception these films received and the audience enthusiasm that allowed the likes of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” “Jurassic World” and “Straight Outta Compton” to crush box office projections speaks to the enormous power that Twitter and Facebook have over ticket sales.
“It’s almost an immediate impact,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “I don’t think the weather, big time news or even catastrophic events have that much of an influence. But a film has to fire on all cylinders in terms of social media in order to work.”
While overall ticket sales lagged behind 2013, there were a few milestones that summer of 2015 was able to pass. The global grosses of “Minions,” “Jurassic World” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” marks the first time that three summer releases have passed $1 billion globally. Currently, four films this year have passed $1 billion, matching a feat first achieved in 2012, and upcoming releases like “Spectre” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” put a new record tantalizingly in reach. Indeed the combination of these sequels, the final installment of “The Hunger Games,” and the continued growth of the Chinese market have many analysts predicting that 2015 will be the first year where the domestic box office hits $11 billion and the global box office tops $40 billion.
The films that could hoist Hollywood to new heights are true “event” style pictures, of the sort that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg famously predicted would crowd out smaller, niche pictures. In 2013, the two directors who helped invent the modern tentpole movie with “Jaws” and “Star Wars” said the theatrical experience would one day be reserved for a few massive films and suggested that exhibitors may start charging a premium. In a provocative piece on Seeking Alpha this weekend, Stephen Mallas suggested that the future is here, recommending that Disney experiment with adding surcharges to the opening weekend of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” as a way to “maximize the gross.”
Off screen, there were troubling intimations about the overall health of the movie business, as well as a few green shoots. Relativity Media filed for bankruptcy, its failure a potent illustration of the difficulty of being a mid-sized company in an industry dominated by sprawling media conglomerates like 21st Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company.
Yet, the summer also saw the emergence of new players like STX Entertainment and Broad Green Pictures, two well-capitalized studios that hope to make the kind of dramas, comedies, and thrillers that have been largely abandoned by studios that have grown obsessed with costumed avengers. To that end, hits like STX’s “The Gift” and Broad Green’s “A Walk in the Woods” are evidence that this can be a viable and valuable space to occupy when matched with some fiscal prudence.
On the exhibition side of the business it was a time of great change. Veteran leaders and industry iconoclasts like Cinemark’s Tim Warner and AMC’s Gerry Lopez surrendered their perches atop two of the country’s four biggest theater chains, allowing a new generation to grapple with the threats from television, gaming, Netflix, and other forms of entertainment.
To that end, theaters are showing a greater willingness to find areas of compromise with major studios. AMC, for instance, announced last July that it will partner with Paramount on a plan that could allow the studio to release two upcoming horror films on digital platforms early. Typically studios must wait 90 days between a film’s theatrical debut and its home entertainment launch, and exhibitors have shown a willingness to go to the mats in order to preserve that time frame. In this case some chains softened, particularly after Paramount sweetened its offer by cutting theater chains in on a share of the digital profits.
The major studios may not be operating entirely from a position of strength when it comes to establishing terms. Ticket sales rebounded, but Wall Street appears to be cooling on traditional media companies. Disney, Viacom, Fox, Comcast, Time Warner, and others all exit the summer bruised after receiving a shellacking on the stock market. Their share prices were mainly impacted by fears that the pay television market is ceding ground to faster and cheaper streaming services, but these conglomerates are designed to be interdependent, with the broadcast television arm feeding the film division, which scratches the cable unit’s back.
Everything is connected and no one is immune to the digital revolution taking place.
Here’s a look at the domestic top ten, courtesy of Rentrak:
1.) Jurassic World
2.) Avengers: Age of Ultron
3.) Inside Out
5.) Pitch Perfect 2
6.)Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
9.)Mad Max: Fury Road
10.) Straight Outta Compton