Box Office Meltdown: Hollywood Races to Win Back Summer Crowds

Summer Blockbuster Chill at the Box Office
Photographs by Adam Voorhes; Prop Styling by Robin Finlay

From “Jaws” to “Jurassic Park,” few directors can rival Steven Spielberg in the blockbuster arena. But even Spielberg’s magic touch couldn’t save “The BFG” at the box office.

On paper, the film, a $140 million adaptation of a beloved children’s book with a script by “ET” writer Melissa Mathison, had all the makings of a hit. Instead, the movie collapsed at the multiplexes, eking out less than $20 million in its opening weekend.

It’s a stunning fall for one of cinema’s highest-flying talents — a director whose finger was affixed to the pulse of mainstream tastes for decades. Yet “The BFG” is only the latest high-profile casualty in a summer that’s seen a slew of big-budget domestic bombs. Indeed, red ink has spilled out from such misses as “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Warcraft,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” each of which had production budgets north of $130 million, along with steep global marketing and distribution costs. The failures could cost their studios tens of millions of dollars.

Photographs by Adam Voorhes; Prop Styling by Robin Finlay

More troubling is what the downturn may portend for the future of the film business and moviegoing overall.

“The theater business has weaker prospects going forward than at any time in the last 30 years,” says media analyst Hal Vogel. “It’s encountering visible strain this summer. It’s a superhero, mega-blockbuster, tentpole strategy run amuck. There’s too much of it, and it’s not working.”

Those weak prospects will likely affect financing. Chris Spicer, Akin Gump entertainment and media partner, says investors may move away from film into other media, such as gaming or virtual reality. “They will look at financing opportunities in the broader media context,” he argues.

There have been hits, particularly for Disney, with Pixar’s “Finding Dory” and Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” together racking up $1.8 billion worldwide.

Year to date, receipts are up 2%, thanks largely to winter hits such as “Deadpool” and “Zootopia.” Blockbuster season is a different story. Ticket sales are down roughly 10% this summer, but the slide is more precipitous than those numbers suggest. Rising ticket prices, fueled by 3D, Imax, and other premium formats, have enabled the industry to paper over a huge gulf in attendance. On a per-capita basis, the moviegoing audience is at its lowest levels in nearly a century. Most disturbing, millennials are avoiding theaters.

The audience of 18- to 39-year-olds has declined over the past five years, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

“There are pockets of age groups and demographics that have not been inspired by what they’re seeing in movie theaters,” says Bud Mayo, president of Carmike Cinemas’ alternative programming and distribution division. “With social media, the reaction time is instantaneous. If kids don’t like it, word spreads.”

“Repeating the same kind of content over and over doesn’t really make sense. If you don’t give people something that’s fresh and new, they’re not going to show up.”
Mike Medavoy, producer

As studios cater to fanboys, flooding theaters with superhero films and diving deeper into the comic-book canon, the business becomes more niche. Frequent moviegoers, defined as those who go to theaters at least once a month, are responsible for nearly half of domestic revenue. In 2015, total tickets purchased by this group increased by 2.9 million, but the ranks of these habitual consumers fell by 3.7 million.

At the same time, TV and online content continues to be compelling, with production values that rival those on the big screen. For a new generation of cinephiles, Ned Stark being separated from his head on “Game of Thrones,” or Walter White cooking meth in his underwear in “Breaking Bad,” are pop-culture totems. Little of what’s in the cineplex has that kind of impact.

“There has been a shift in the way that people are consuming content, and it’s moving away from the big screen,” says Bruce Nash, founder of the box-office tracking site The Numbers.

Producer Mike Medavoy says the box-office malaise is symptomatic of the larger problem of engaging moviegoers who have a wide variety of alternatives, from Netflix to Pokémon Go. “I’ve been deeply concerned for a long time by the fact that there are so many other options besides movies,” he says. “Millennials can play games or watch movies at home on a big screen, so repeating the same kind of content over and over [at the movie theater] doesn’t really make sense. If you don’t give people something that’s fresh and new, they’re not going to show up.”

It’s a looming disaster that’s been more than a decade in the making. Some of it is self-inflicted, brought about by a mixture of greed and fear, aided by a profound and troubling lack of imagination. The consequences add up to a business that feels increasingly irrelevant.

What’s lacking is originality. So far, only one new blockbuster franchise has emerged out of the summer — Illumination’s “The Secret Life of Pets.” Warner Bros.’ big-budget bet, “Suicide Squad,” a hotly anticipated superhero movie, is tracking well, but it’s not entirely new, springing from the DC Comics cinematic universe.

As ticket prices have soared, per-capita annual purchases in the domestic theatrical market have plummeted



Today, it’s hard to predict which movies will resonate with audiences and which will be spurned. To safeguard against the vagaries of popular taste, studios have banked increasingly on sequels and spinoffs, with diminishing returns. That hasn’t meant just cooking up new chapters in popular franchises; it means raiding the pop-culture waste bin to revive moldy, dimly remembered pieces of intellectual property.

Fox resurrected “Independence Day,” only to find that audiences had little interest in revisiting the alien-invasion yarn 20 years after it took the box office by storm. Likewise, Sony is trying to reinvigorate “Ghostbusters” three decades after the paranormal investigators hung up their proton packs. But, as Variety critic Peter Debruge noted in his review of the new film, which debuted to middling receipts, Sony’s female-driven relaunch “suffers from a disappointingly strong case of déjà vu” and lacks its own identity.

And that’s not all: Studios have other pricey redos in the works, including another “Blade Runner,” a remake of “Ben-Hur,” the umpteenth “Spider-Man” reboot, more “XXX” adventures, and a fourth “Beverly Hills Cop.” Spielberg also will return to the well, reuniting with a 73-year-old Harrison Ford on a fifth “Indiana Jones” film, despite the fact that the last one, “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” represented a nadir for the series. Depending on your perspective, having Indy crack his bullwhip once more is either cinematic validation that seniors today lead longer, more active lives, or an indication of Spielberg and Ford’s refusal to leave the stage gracefully.

“X-Men: Apocalypse,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” and “London Has Fallen” are just a few of the high-profile sequels that performed worse than previous installments in their franchises.

In 2010, Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” topped $1 billion globally, but six years later, the follow-up “Alice Through the Looking Glass” has made barely a quarter of that, and could result in a $100 million writedown. Other flops, such as “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “Ride Along 2,” and “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” raise questions about the knee-jerk impulse to sequelize: Were these characters so beloved, and were their stories so rich, that audiences demanded part two?

“It may be a fantasy of mine as a creative producer, but I hope this will remind the studios that you could make five really good movies for the cost of one sequel to a movie that didn’t merit a sequel,” says Matt Baer, producer of “Unbroken.”


The sequels that have the most trouble are those that try to hew too closely to the style and format of the originals, says one Hollywood producer. The second
“Independence Day,” which merely upped the size of the alien invasion, left audiences cold. But Marvel/Disney’s “Captain America” franchise — which morphed over three episodes from war movie to paranoid conspiracy thriller to “Fast and Furious”-style buddy movie — kept viewers craving more.

The last “Star Wars” installment signaled to audiences months in advance that it would not just roll out Han Solo and Princess Leia again and hope for the best. This fresh take was announced in the trailer when a Storm Trooper not only pulled off his mask (itself a novelty), but also revealed a new character, played by John Boyega, showing the franchise’s commitment to more diversity in casting.

Yet such new thinking has been the exception. Instead of pulling back with their sequels, studios are plowing ahead, announcing follow-ups even before a first film hits theaters. Lionsgate, for instance, plans to make seven “Power Rangers” movies — never mind that audiences won’t get a peek at the rebooted version of the Mighty Morphin team until 2017.

After coming down with a case of Marvel envy, Warner Bros. unveiled a sprawling DC Comics cinematic universe, scheduled to deliver up to two superhero films a year through 2020. But things got off to a rocky start after “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” bowed to withering reviews and tepid fan reception. (The film did gross $873 million worldwide, though some say it needed to do more to justify the creation of sequels.) Now, the studio must retune the engine in midflight, promising to fix tonal issues on “Justice League,” its 2017 answer to “The Avengers.”

Universal has been deeply engaged in its own universe-building. The studio has tapped Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan to oversee the creation of intersecting monster movies featuring the likes of the Mummy and Dracula. Those films will begin rolling out next year.

Photographs by Adam Voorhes; Prop Styling by Robin Finlay

As Disney proved with Marvel, the rewards for getting it right can be limitless.

Hits spawn toy lines, theme-park rides, stage shows, and the untold riches that come with success. However, the costs associated with launching these franchises is ever escalating, and the dangers of making a false move can be cataclysmic.

All is not equal at the box office. Fewer movies now account for a greater proportion of ticket sales. In 2015, five films were responsible for a staggering 25% of ticket sales. As media analyst Doug Creutz noted in a recent report, the top five films from 2000 to 2014 averaged 16% of grosses.

This year, the trend of a higher concentration of box-office wealth is continuing. When a film hits, the rewards are huge. Halfway through 2016, six films have topped $300 million domestically; that’s double the number that hit that milestone in all of 2014.

But as the highs get higher, the lows get lower. Though 2015 saw the two biggest domestic openings in history — the $248 million bow of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the $209 million debut by “Jurassic World” — it also included some of the lowest-grossing wide-release bows in history. “Victor Frankenstein,” “Burnt,” “We Are Your Friends,” “Jem and the Holograms,” and “Rock the Kasbah” rank among the worst debuts for films released on more than 2,000 screens. This year, “Hardcore Henry,” a point-of-view thriller that sparked a bidding war at the Toronto Film Festival, joined their ranks.

The income gap is being felt in another way. Disney spent more than $15 billion to snap up Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel, giving the company the rights to Iron Man, “The Incredibles,” Luke Skywalker, and scores of other iconic characters. That pop culture arsenal has allowed Disney to dwarf its rivals.

“They’ve had hit after hit this year,” says Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “It’s incumbent on the other studios to up their game.”

Disney is responsible for four of the year’s five highest-grossing films. It has crossed the $5 billion mark at the box office at a record clip. And the Burbank studio’s revenues tower over those of its big studio brethren: The company has gobbled up 31.3% of domestic market share. Its closest competitor, 20th Century Fox, commands roughly half that, with 16.9% of ticket sales.

If Disney were to rename its animated classic after the current studio scene, it would be “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs,” Creutz quips, counting Lionsgate with the five other major studios.

That raises questions about whether the business can continue to sustain this many studios. At the Sun Valley media conference earlier this month, Barry Diller, the former Fox and Paramount Pictures chief, predicted that the movie industry will soon experience consolidation. “It will contract,” he said.

“With social media, the reaction time is instantaneous. If kids don’t like it, word spreads.”
Bud Mayo, Carmike Cinemas

Each studio has the incentive to follow the formula of making sequels and tentpole films like Disney, even though, collectively, the strategy means further cannibalization, since audiences won’t support the surfeit of big films coming to the cineplex, Creutz says.

He argues that by making a narrow range of films, the studios “have gotten themselves in the position that they are in, and really constrained the interest of the audience to go to the movies at all. They are essentially wrecking their own economics.”

It’s lonely on the A-list. As the business focuses on comic-book movies featuring masked avengers, the clout of the men and women who save the planet on screen has diminished. The club of actors and actresses who can open a movie with their name above the title has plunged in recent years. It’s a group in the single digits, one whose members include Jennifer Lawrence, Robert Downey Jr., and, maybe, Tom Cruise and Will Smith. With the exception of Lawrence, these actors are middle-aged and have been in the public eye since the 1980s or ’90s.

The bloodletting has continued in recent months. Johnny Depp’s days of commanding $20 million a picture evaporated when “Alice Through the Looking Glass” flatlined. Pairing Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in “The Nice Guys” and sending them on an extensive media tour failed to excite people about the R-rated comedy. And Matthew McConaughey’s McConaissance wasn’t powerful enough to rescue “Free State of Jones.”

From “Dances With Wolves” to “Reds” to “The Passion of the Christ,” the history of the movie business is rich with instances of stars using their box-office prowess to bankroll challenging films that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day. Without star clout to get passion projects made, studios aren’t taking big swings. That means many of the types of movies that have been held in the highest regard are nearly impossible to will into existence.

“Studios aren’t making the kinds of films they made a decade ago, the ones that skewed toward adults,” says Celine Rattray, an executive producer on “American Honey” and a producer on “The Kids Are Alright.”

Rattray cites “Eye in the Sky,” the drone thriller with Helen Mirren that became an art-house hit, as an example of a business in transition. “I could have seen a studio making that 10 years ago,” she says. “Now it has to be financed independently.”

The Chinese movie business has been a source of comfort within the industry’s challenges. New theater construction and a burgeoning middle class have fueled explosive growth in the country, pushing ticket sales up nearly 50% last year. At some point in 2017, China is expected to pass the U.S. as the world’s largest market for film.

That’s a sign of the increasingly globalized nature of the business. But studios are ambivalent about China’s rise. After all, Hollywood companies are getting only a small cut of the riches. Last year, China’s ticket sales hit $6.8 billion, but that was driven largely by local productions. Even though foreign films — including those that Hollywood exports to China — racked up $2.6 billion, the Chinese government maintains such tight restrictions on outside content that studios received only 25% of receipts (half of what they get in the United States). That means their share of that record-shattering year was just $650 million.

But there is hope. After a bruising start to summer, ticket sales have begun to rebound. “The Secret Life of Pets” soared to a $104.4 million debut, and “Suicide Squad” and “Jason Bourne” could yet lift revenues, ending the popcorn season on a high note.

Their success will lift spirits, but the movie industry’s issues are more systemic. It faces shifting tastes, increased competition, and a business model that seems to have been built for a different age. Breaking out of the rut will require bold, persistent experimentation, and a willingness to embrace fresh ideas. Of course, that’s only possible with a wider range of films.