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.
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“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.