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Can Holiday-Season Blockbusters Save 2017’s Box Office After Dismal Summer?

It’s been a bruising year for the movie business. Major studios are trying to move past a brutal summer box office — the lowest in more than two decades — as well as the ever-widening sexual harassment scandal that has heaped dirt on some of Hollywood’s biggest names.

As the bad headlines continue to pile up, the industry is hoping it will finally have something to celebrate this holiday season. At least one film hitting theaters in December is guaranteed to be a global blockbuster: Disney/Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” But several other pictures are elbowing their way into a packed Christmas corridor, looking to be runners up. It’s a critically important season, one that in recent years has accounted for 15% of the annual box office haul.

This year the pressure is particularly intense to make up ground, though hopes of approaching 2016’s domestic record at the turnstiles seem dim at best.

“It’s a foregone conclusion that we’re not going to catch up to last year,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “What we need are surprise hits. We need a movie that can hold on to audiences week after week.”

Among the pictures hoping to achieve breakout status are Fox’s “The Greatest Showman,” Paramount’s “Downsizing,” Sony’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “All the Money in the World,” Universal’s “Pitch Perfect 3” and Warner Bros.’ “Father Figures.” Most of those titles bow on Dec. 22, with “Showman” and “Jumanji” out Dec. 20.

The relative success of these films, many of them arriving with big production and marketing budgets, is the movie business’s best chance at ending 2017 on a high note after a series of setbacks and disappointments. Yet even if all these releases hit, the year is likely to end down, perhaps off 3% from last year, studio executives predict.

There are important takeaways from what worked and, more frequently, what fell flat. Bloated superhero films and sequels such as “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “Justice League” contributed to a sense of franchise fatigue.

“2017 is going to be remembered for sequels that completely underperformed,” said Bock. “At the end of the day, the studios need to make better movies.”

Through Dec. 3, the 2017 box office has been weighed down by a string of flops this summer, sliding 3.9% from last year. To match 2016’s domestic haul of $11.4 billion, the holiday film slate will have to make a collective $2.2 billion.

Holiday Box Office Illustration
CREDIT: illustration by gluekit

“We have a long way to go and a short time to get there,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior comScore analyst. “Honestly, I don’t know if we can do it. It’s going to be a rough road.”

Sony will be pinning much of its hopes on nostalgia for its Dec. 20 release of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the next installment of the 1995 film, “Jumanji,” which starred Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt and Kirsten Dunst. The family picture,  about a mysterious board game that brings to life a jungle-themed adventure, also bowed in late December and became a big hit.

Its 2017 iteration will be drawing on the star power of Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Jack Black. In the latest telling of the story, the characters discover an old video game console and are drawn into the jungle world to play as the avatars they selected. Rated PG-13, the film is expected to be among the highest-grossing performers of the holiday frame.

“It’s shaping up to be the consensus film,” said Adrian Smith, president of domestic distribution for Sony. “What you will find is that it’s the easy and unanimous choice for families over the holidays.”

A pair of Sony releases will be testing audiences’ appetite for prestige dramas: “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” starring Denzel Washington, and TriStar Pictures’ “All the Money in the World,” which faces a tight deadline of reshoots after Kevin Spacey was recast with Christopher Plummer last month following scores of sexual misconduct allegations against Spacey.

Meanwhile, “Pitch Perfect 3” returns the familiar all-female comedic cast introduced to audiences in previous installments. In the mix of family films, prestige dramas and fantasy or superhero action movies, Universal Pictures domestic distribution chief Jim Orr believes the studio’s film offers moviegoers a different option.

“We have great expectations for it,” Orr said. “It has a stellar cast. It has tremendous music. It doesn’t look like the other titles that are out there.”

“The Greatest Showman” is unique in that it’s an original musical that chronicles the rise of P.T. Barnum, starring Hugh Jackman, Zendaya and Zac Efron. The film, a Jackman passion project, hopes to capture some of the awards-season buzz that “La La Land” earned last year. “La La Land” songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul also team on “Greatest Showman.”

Disney, which has two films debuting during the final six-week stretch of the year, is expected to help make up much of the ground lost during summer. In recent years, December has been largely dominated by the Burbank studio, which set a high bar in 2015 with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” That film shattered records, becoming the first picture to open to more than $100 million in December, and hauling in nearly $650 million by the end of that year.

CREDIT: Source: comScore, Inc.

Though it’s expected to lead the holiday box office, “The Last Jedi” is unlikely to equal the haul of “The Force Awakens,” which benefited from reuniting the original cast members decades after they last shared the screen.

The other Disney film, Disney/Pixar’s animated comedy “Coco,” arrived Nov. 22 after opening in Mexico last month and quickly becoming the biggest-selling film of all time in that territory. The film debuted domestically to more than $70 million over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend.

“We’re in a great spot, and we have a lot to be confident about,” said Dave Hollis, president of worldwide theatrical distribution for Disney. “We have brands that are recognizable to consumers and content that has been very high quality.”

Disney’s dominance in 2017 is clear. Eight months after its release, “Beauty and the Beast” continues to top the year’s box office, with a worldwide gross of $1.26 billion.

With so many films competing for eyeballs, one fear is that titles may cannibalize each other in a crowded marketplace. There are about 10 movies debuting in wide release this holiday season, with many others arriving in limited release, including Fox’s “The Post,” a drama about the Pentagon Papers starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.

Studio executives say that 2017 has shown that the leading indicator of box office success is quality. A number of films this year sank after receiving negative reviews, and the surprise runaway success of “It” during the typically slow month of September showed that audiences will head to the multiplex any time of the year for the right picture.

“If you make a great movie,” Disney’s Hollis said, “you can put it just about anywhere in the calendar.”

Brent Lang contributed to this report.

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