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

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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