“Jurassic World” towered over the competition this summer, racking up an astounding $1.6 billion worldwide and guaranteeing that mankind will continue to muck around with dinosaur DNA for many more installments to come.
But, not every franchise was so lucky. Max Rockatansky, an Austrian-accented cyborg, and a superpowered quartet saw their ambitions to relaunch a once-profitable film series derailed, as reboots like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Terminator Genisys” and “Fantastic Four” sputtered out or failed to live up to hype and expectations.
They join the pile of sequel rejects like “Ted 2” and “Magic Mike XXL,” offering up a stark reminder that there are no sure bets in Hollywood. It’s difficult to unearth the next tentpole series in a market saturated with cinematic juggernauts such as “Despicable Me” spinoffs and “Avengers” adventures.
“The competition is fierce,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “It’s a battle week in and week out. If you don’t open in first place, you’re never going to climb up the hill.”
In that Darwinian environment, it’s even harder for studios to launch new franchises that can replace or revive the old ones. “Tomorrowland,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “Pixels” were clearly bankrolled with the hopes of inspiring parts two, three, four and beyond.
Audiences stayed away, however, forcing studio backers to deep-six plans for any additional films. While “San Andreas,” a thriller about a devastating earthquake that traded in fears of natural disasters and love of Dwayne Johnson’s musculature, broke out in a big way, the film hardly lends itself to a sequel. There are only so many Richter-defying events the movie business can conjure up.
Fearful of being steamrolled, “Pan,” a Neverland-set escapade from director Joe Wright, flew out of its July perch for what was believed to be a safer October debut. That could be prudent. After all, the “Pitch Perfect” series slowly built momentum when the original film in the series debuted in the fall, where there was more breathing room to build an audience organically. Its sequel launched in the heart of summer and will be one of the year’s most profitable films with a global gross of $284.8 million. “Pitch Perfect 2” was produced for a mere $29 million, a fraction of the $125 million Fox spent trying to resuscitate “The Fantastic Four” or the $190 million that Disney shelled out for “Tomorrowland.”
“Spending money doesn’t guarantee success,” said Phil Contrino, VP and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. Despite failures like “Tomorrowland” or “Fantastic Four,” some analysts argue that several tentpoles did perform as expected. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was a global smash, “Minions” will be the highest grossing of the “Despicable Me” films, and “Jurassic World” is a blockbuster with few equals.
“The major franchises lived up to expectations,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “We’re still on track for what I think will be the second biggest summer ever.”
Though a record will remain tantalizingly out of reach, summer ticket sales should close at roughly $4.5 billion and north of 500 million admissions. That’s a welcome return to form after one of the worst popcorn seasons in history — domestic ticket sales plunged to their lowest numbers in more than a decade last summer, and admissions failed to top the 500 million mark. Though there was a typical flood of sequels and comicbook fare, credit for the turnaround goes to the diversity of movie offerings.
“There were 2D titles and 3D titles, family films and fanboy films, and there were grownup pictures,” said Imax Entertainment CEO Greg Foster.
It wasn’t just gargantuan successes that lifted the movie business. Mid-budget films like breakout hit “Straight Outta Compton,” “Trainwreck,” and “Pitch Perfect 2” appealed to very specific audiences that packed in crowds.
To work, it seems, successful movies don’t have to offer up something for everyone. They just have to promise something for someone. While a blockbuster like “Jurassic World” attracted all races, ages, and genders, it also supplied a lesson that not all franchises are equal.
Studios have shown a willingness to write big checks in the hopes of finding the next massive franchise, but have been more reticent about bankrolling mid-budget films like “Straight Outta Compton” that appeal to more specific sectors. That may be changing. Sony recently unveiled a slate of films that mix broadly appealing titles like “The Dark Tower” and “Spider-Man” with more targeted offerings such as the Edgar Wright action-comedy “Baby Driver” and the thriller “Patient Zero,” and Paramount has announced plans to expand the number of films it makes annually. Making a few tentpoles, as Disney does, works for those who own brands like Lucasfilm, Pixar and Marvel, but for the rest of the studios, quantity is likely to up the odds of winning.
“In the range of $50 million to $100 million grossing movies, we have fewer of those, and that means less money and fewer admissions,” noted Patrick Corcoran, chief spokesman of the National Association of Theatre Owners.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Imax Entertainment CEO Greg Foster’s title.