How Too Many Aging Franchises Wrecked the Summer Box Office

Sinking movies
Ben Mounsey for Variety

The summer box office is sending out an SOS.

Once formidable franchises such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Transformers” keep hitting icebergs like poor reviews and tepid word of mouth. As these costly tentpoles take on water, the summer’s domestic ticket sales have so far sunk 9% from last year, leaving studio executives and industry insiders queasy.

“It’s been a dud by any definition,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “There are a lot of tired, creaky franchises out there. In the past, studios looked at sequels as safety nets meant to catch a lot of money, but they’re not catching as much as they used to.”

One shipwreck after another has extinguished prior hopes of a record summer. As high as expectations are for several July releases including “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which had a successful debut this past weekend, and the July 14 release of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” a lackluster August without a “Suicide Squad” in sight will bring the business crashing back to Earth.

Part of the blame lands on studios’ engagement in release-date brinkmanship, a dangerous game that’s led executives to carve out the choicest opening weekends years in advance. Planting a flag that far ahead usually requires leveraging a well-known franchise or cinematic universe, which often means deciding when several sequels and spinoffs will debut before a script is even in place. This summer, fatigue appears to have set in, with many once popular film series failing to justify their continued existence. There’s no discernible reason for Johnny Depp to unfurl the Black Pearl’s skull-and-crossbows banner for yet another voyage or for Optimus Prime to save humanity from extinction for the fifth time in a decade. Perhaps the studios should have waited for filmmakers to be more inspired before giving their movies the greenlight.

“Your landscape is littered with sequels and fourth and fifth versions of movies,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s distribution chief. “Not exactly a landscape that is littered with originality.”

When Hollywood has tried to create new hits, the results have been sobering. Warner Bros. once hoped that “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” a hyperkinetic Guy Ritchie-directed epic, would launch a new action series, but the film was greeted with withering reviews and paltry ticket sales. Likewise, “The Mummy,” once intended to kick off Universal’s Dark Universe of monsters and fantastical creatures, floundered, grossing a moribund $76.5 million stateside through July 6. It’s possible that some of these movies were out of step with the times, offering grit and darkness at a time when audiences are desperate for a reprieve from depressing headlines about global terrorism and healthcare cuts.

“The mood in the world is one of caution, and when you can go to a movie theater for a couple of hours and lose it all in the screen, that’s been the hallmark of the movie business for many, many years,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment. “And I have felt in the last two or three months it’s never been more important.”

Even as the business’s fortunes fade (box office revenue to date stands at $2.29 billion, compared with last year’s $2.49 billion), there’s some help on the way. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” successfully rebooted the web-spinner franchise by replacing Andrew Garfield with a more youthful Tom Holland and sending the character back to high school. It opened to a sizable $117 million.

Buzz is also building for three upcoming summer releases — “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic; “Atomic Blonde,” an action spy thriller with Charlize Theron; and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third installment in the science-fiction trilogy.

Still, even if those films deliver, and so far most of Hollywood’s offerings have fallen short of expectations, the domestic box office will likely end the summer down significantly from 2016. August looks like a dead zone. Last summer, “Suicide Squad” racked up $325.1 million at the tail end of the season, while “Don’t Breathe” and “Sausage Party” also did big business before school vacations ended. This year, fewer films seem guaranteed to do robust business. Still, studios are trying to maintain an optimistic front.

“It’s not surprising to see an ebb and flow from year to year — the market is dependent on a lot of factors, including the quality of the films, buzzworthiness and competition,” said Disney’s distribution chief Dave Hollis. “If there’s a film people are excited about, they don’t wait to see it.”

In many cases, what excites people in the U.S. is very different from what animates consumers abroad. Films such as “The Mummy” and “Transformers: The Last Knight” have struggled domestically while earning more than 75% of their grosses overseas. The latest “Pirates” has racked up an impressive $565.9 million overseas, pushing the pricey film into the black. Splashy special effects, it seems, still feel like novelties in countries like China.

“It’s getting harder to create content that appeals to every audience around the world,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “There’s a real disconnect between the set of requirements for a big hit in North America and what people consider to be great fun in other parts of the world.”

International ticket sales this summer are up 2% from 2016.

While it may be too early to write obituaries for the movie theaters, the downturn couldn’t come at a worse time for the business. Theater stocks have been pummeled as investors grow skittish about the possibility that exhibitors will reach a deal that would allow studios to release movies on demand early. AMC, the world’s largest chain, for instance, has seen its share price slip nearly 29% to $21.70 from just over $30 in the past three months, while Regal’s share price dropped 10% to $19.40 from $21.60. Studios are offering to cut theater owners in on a slice of the profits, but Wall Street is concerned that exhibitors may be hastening their own demise by enabling consumers to skip the multiplexes and just wait a few weeks for a movie to come out on home entertainment platforms.

Box office prognosticators and exhibition analysts believe that even if the summer ends on a sour note, the rest of 2017 seems more promising. They believe that “Justice League,” Pixar’s “Coco,” and, particularly, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” all of which hit theaters in the final quarter of the year, will lure audiences back to the cinema. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll prove potent enough to propel ticket sales to another record.

“Nothing seems to cure the ills of the movie business better than a ‘Star Wars’ movie,” said Imax’s Foster.

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  1. Rake says:

    Hey Variety..what’s your problem with Pirates 5 and Johnny Depp?..Pirates 5 GROSSED MORE THAN $735 Millions WORLDWIDE..THAT’S A HIT NOT A FLOP..SO WHY THAT HATE?! SAY THE TRUTH ..!!!

  2. Irwin "Nugent, Ted Nugent" Fletcher says:

    I agree with the statement “audiences are desperate for a reprieve from depressing headlines about healthcare cuts.”

  3. mark says:

    Apes should face been released on August 4th, the dark tower on August 11th. Valerian should have been released on July 14th

  4. tony says:

    some franchise are built for longevity like 007, ‘star wars’ and ‘star trek’.

    others run out of steam when the budgets and the cast lists get bigger and bigger and the grosses go down.

  5. paully says:

    Counting on JLA to be successful is a longshot..
    WB/DC is 1-8..

    • Doge says:

      BVS, Man of Steel, and Suicide Squad all made large amounts of money, even with withering reviews. And obviously Wonder Woman is a huge hit both critically and commercially.

  6. David K says:

    the Mummy & King Arthur are not “new”, and that is part of the problem. Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean people won’t turn out for thoughtful original fare-but that would require studio heads thinking about the domestic audience rather than worldwide grosses-probably not going to happen anytime soon-back to streaming/tv it is for this once faithful moviegoer

    • Lucas Freire Gomes says:

      How? DCEU has an average box office of $329m domestic and $758.4m worldwide per film.

      DCEU

      4 movies.

      $3,033 bi worldwide (and counting)

      Average= $758.4m per film.

      $1,352 bi domestic (and counting)

      Average = $329m per film.

  7. Cath says:

    Lower the ticket prices. Lower the food prices. Unless your movie is a world event do not let it run past 2 hours and five minutes and get rid of the 20 minutes worth of trailers. They run so many it is hard to remember what we saw. We just sat through 20 minutes worth of car ads, soda ads, computer ads, game ads, and tv show ads. I did like that the Transformers end credits were shorter or quicker than most. I realize people need to be recognized but couldn’t they put all that information online? These days with movie “extras” going on in the background no one pays much attention to the end credits and if you are interested you can’t read fast enough. Show what you must, give your funny little ending if there is one and be done with it. If you run a shorter movie and fewer ads you can get in at least one or two more showings. Have I left anything out?

    • Doge says:

      I actually kinda enjoy the trailers. Really gives you that movie theater feeling. And the trailers help build excitement and anticipation for the main event.

  8. Chris says:

    They aren’t aging franchises. They were just bad movies. And Rotten Tomatoes has become increasingly important in this day and age. A good Transformers movie can be made and people will see it. The Mummy can still be a good horror movie and people will see it. But with RT at the tip of one’s fingers at all times and social media providing easy access to word of mouth making good movies is more important than ever. There’s enough competition and variety to not need to see movies that you probably aren’t going to like anymore. And the quality of the movies (besides the three superhero films) was just very lacking.

    • Nick Sacco says:

      Pirates was a good movie, Rotten Tomatoes is a very jaded and inaccurate system that has outlived its usefulness.

  9. Spider says:

    It isn’t really a matter of an aging franchise— it is a matter of MAKING a good film, or at least, one with characters audiences care about. Take the “Fast and the Furious” franchise for example.The filmmakers figure ways to re-invigorate each subsequent film with inspired casting, (i.e Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell, etc..) and situations that up the stakes and make us care about one or some of the characters….Audiences seem to care about Dom, Lety, and the whole “family” angle… In the case of “Transformers: The Last Knight”, it was a terribly written flick with characters I never cared for. Mark Wahlberg’s character was in no way sympathetic and he still doesn’t know how to act against a green screen. Isabela Moner’s teenage character showed a bit of gravitas, but then disappeared the majority of the film. Even, the robots themselves had lost their luster. Optimus was in this movie only 7 minutes?..and can anyone else name the other ‘bots besides Bumblebee and Megatron?? I couldn’t and didn’t care …..The case for “The Mummy” was it was simply NOT a good movie. Tonally, it was all over the place and it seemed like a, “stitched”, incoherent screenplay designed to shoehorn Dr. Jekyll and set-up the bigger, aforementioned universe. I didn’t care for a single character! Note to Universal: You guys should have focused on making a good film, instead of pulling a Saban(“Power Rangers”) and announcing a multi-picture universe without knowing if it will ever materialize.

  10. Katie says:

    POTC: Dead Men Tell No Tales has grossed over $325 million dollars worldwide to date. It is estimated that the film will turn a profit of over $200 million, which hardly qualifies it as a “shipwreck”. If you ask me, your so-called box office analyst is a “dud by any definition”. I’m guessing he must have failed math in school. What about you, Brent Lang and Seth Kelley? Can you do the math?

    • RB says:

      You know damned well it was a dud in North America, and earned FAR less than its predecessors. For an AMERICAN film, that’s bad, not matter if it makes five time as much overseas.

      Worse, the country where these worn-out franchise pictures make the most coin is China, where they’re barely 30 years into their acceptance of capitalism as the superior system (with “commie characteristics”, of course) and audience are eager for ANY big western franchise instalment tinoffset the steady diet of bloated, revisionist, CCP-approved costume epics and superficial romcoms their own filmmakers are allowed to create. That’s hardly the audience response with which to measure the QUALITY of an American franchise that’s on its FIFTH go-round.

      By your measure, Pirates 6 could just be wall to wall canon fire and screaming and because it made big bucks in China and other densely populated countries, somehow it would be a great film. Box office and quality do NOT always go hand in hand, especially in today’s marketplace.

    • MisterPL says:

      I hardly think Pirates will be racking up $200 million in profits for the studio. Their cut is currently around $285 million. Against the $230 million production budget alone that means the studio has only made $55 million. It’s still not a shipwreck but it’s also not as profitable as past installments. Either way, I wish I had these these million-dollar “problems.”

  11. Jim says:

    Was this article written just for the ad views? Anyone with even minor knowledge of the industry knows that most studios are only playing lip service to domestic audiences w regards to franchises. The domestic take for these movies doesn’t matter anymore, heck I doubt Transformer’s US take even covers the marketing costs – but studio’s don’t care. Look at the worldwide top 10, the majority have TWO THIRDS of their gross coming from international. Triple-freaking-X bombed stateside but made over 300 million overseas, we may be sick of franchises and big name stars but international audiences sure aren’t.

    Like it or not these franchises are not going anywhere and every time Variety posts yet another article extolling the death of the franchise or the superhero movie just reminds everyone how out of touch and/or desperate for clicks this site is.

  12. joestemme says:

    It is a bit of a Chicken or the Egg scenario – if audiences largely only go to franchise flicks (and animated features) – then the studios will make more of them. It is also on audiences to support a more diverse slate of movies. In 2016, only TWO of the top 20 grossing movies of the year weren’t either franchise or animated (HIDDEN FIGURES and LA LA LAND). Two. And, neither was in the Top 10.

    Sure, it’s easy to blame “Hollywood” – but, audiences shoulder much of the blame as well.

    • jedi77 says:

      This is always neglected. Thank you for bringing eternal truth to the debate.
      The whole “Hollywood is lame, and have no imagination” is as old and tired as the venerable franchises that are the butt of this article.
      Time and time again audiences prove that “new” equals “No interest”. It’s our own damn fault.

  13. Johnny Depp Fan says:

    “There’s no discernible reason for Johnny Depp to unfurl the Black Pearl’s skull-and-crossbows banner for yet another voyage”

    DMTNT has made over $734M worldwide so far, but I guess. OST made a billion dollars so of course they made another one.

  14. 1Ronald says:

    This is not a question of “aging franchises.” Studios are determined NOT to cast original characters with series they made famous. THIS is the way you do it. The SAME folks. That is the REAL Mitch. The REAL CJ. The REAL Sonny. The REAL Ponch. Or keep talking about WHY you’re losing money and WHY these re-dos don’t make it. Baywatch. Why not David and Pamela? Chips. Why not Erik and Larry? Miami Vice. Why not Don and Phillip? They crash, they all crash, because studios keep trying to bring on lesser talent that has no familiarity with the parts they’ve been signed to play. You do it right or you don’t do it at all. That simple. Or lose money and keep asking why? “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. – Albert Einstein. For example, Don Johnson has repeatedly said he’s willing to re-start Miami Vice. And Philip Michael Thomas says he’s on, too. I watch Miami Vice on TV every night I have the next day off–it comes on at 11pm. No other show like it. Can’t even imagine any other show coming close. Followed by Baywatch at 12m. Never gets tired. Never gets old. But these people know how to do it because they’ve done it so many times. And yet studios have a DUH moment by running around all over the place to find someone else. And we stay home. Yes, we do.

    • Mark says:

      “lesser talent that has no familiarity with the parts” – It’s Baywatch for Gods sake, not Brideshead Revisited.

    • cadavra says:

      Um, you really expect the stars of TV shows that are 20, 30, even 40 years old to reprise their roles? Erik Estrada, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas are all 68 and Larry Wilcox is 70. Even David Hasselhoff is 65. Get real.

      • gkn says:

        Exactly. Thank you, cadavra. It’s undoable, even though they never give up trying, for fear of having to come up with something original instead. God forbid.

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