Major Studios Will Need to Wrestle Disney to Get a Piece of Popcorn Season

avengers infinity war
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Summer is just around the corner. That means that as temperatures rise, spandexed heroes, man-eating dinos and globe-trotting spies will soon be flooding multiplexes. The studios hope that a stream of would-be blockbusters such as “Deadpool 2,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” will connect with audiences, lifting the box office to record heights.

“The big tentpole blockbuster movies are what get people to turn off their smartphones and get off their couch and go to the multiplex,” says Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment.

It’s all further evidence that by embracing a franchise-centric model, mainstream Hollywood long ago abandoned originality for familiarity, believing that having a Roman numeral in the title was the best way to preserve investments and keep the public coming back for more. But there’s a downside to the strategy.

The movie business hasn’t done a great job of replenishing the well. Franchises like “Jurassic World” and “Mission: Impossible” are on their fifth or six installments, and “Star Wars” spin-offs like “Solo: A Star Wars Story” are derived from series that are entering their fifth decade. The current summer slate features 11 sequels, compared with 13 in 2017.

“We don’t take our foot off the gas pedal. You go from one big hit to another.”
Cathleen Taff, Disney

Of the original films hitting cinemas in the coming months, box office watchers believe that “Skyscraper,” which boasts Dwayne Johnson facing off against a gang of terrorists in the world’s tallest building, and “The Darkest Minds,” a sci-fi thriller aimed at the YA set, have the best shot at breaking out in a big way.

“They’re rolling out the same blockbusters year after year,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “But you look around and you don’t see many of those unexpected hits that are going to inspire future sequels.”

That was part of the trouble in 2017. Audiences gave the cold shoulder to aging franchises such as “Transformers” and “Alien,” sending domestic ticket sales tumbling to $3.8 billion — their lowest levels in more than a decade. We won’t know until Labor Day brings a close to popcorn season, but internal projections at major studios forecast domestic revenues to top out at $4.42 billion, roughly in line with 2016’s strong summer.

The problem is that any film can look like a smash on paper. Social media can fuel the rise of a low-budget hit such as the recent “A Quiet Place,” but buzz on even the most expensive movies can curdle with the speed of a few tweets and Facebook posts. Just look at the social-media savagery that greeted Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy” last summer or the frosty reception that helped kill “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” a medieval epic that nobody asked for.

“The audience becomes more discerning every year,” says Jim Orr, Universal’s head of domestic distribution. “You have to keep that in mind with what you put out there.”

It’s hard to accurately predict how strongly the upcoming releases will resonate, but one thing is certain: Summer blockbuster season will clearly illustrate that in the movie business, one Magic Kingdom continues to rise high above the rest.

“Disney is going to dominate once again,” says Eric Wold, an analyst at B. Riley & Co. “Just look at the slate they have.”

Last year, Disney fielded four of the eight highest-grossing stateside releases. In 2018, the studio is looking even stronger. It’s launched a hit series with “Black Panther” and commands nearly 30% of the domestic market share. Look for that cut to grow after “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Solo,” “The Incredibles 2” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” roll into theaters in short order.

“We don’t take our foot off the gas pedal,” says Cathleen Taff, Disney’s distribution chief. “You go from one big hit to another. … We’re overly blessed.”

With Disney having snapped up rights to the “Star Wars” films and top-shelf comic-book series, other studios are playing a different game.

Warner Bros. is courting women with “Ocean’s 8,” which replaces a George Clooney-led Rat Pack with one that includes Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and a raft of other A-list actresses. The studio will also offer up “Crazy Rich Asians,” an adaptation of a best-selling novel that’s generating interest because it’s one of only  a handful of major studio films to feature a predominantly Asian cast.

Paramount will try to entice older crowds with “Book Club,” a story of four seniors whose reading list gets spiced up when someone brings “Fifty Shades of Grey” to one of the gatherings. And Sony will offer “The Equalizer 2” and “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” blood-soaked thrillers that boast Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro, respectively.

“Our later slate is star-driven, R-rated films targeted at an adult audience, a demo that’s usually underserved in the summer,” says Adrian Smith, Sony’s head of distribution.

Many of these films are being offered as counterprogramming to all the superhero movies and special effects extravaganzas. There’s concern that the front end of the summer is so packed with big-budget pictures that they will cannibalize one another. Privately, some studio executives wish that more movies ventured into late July and August, a time of year devoid of many sure-fire hits. They predict summer will close on a sour note because the industry won’t have a late-season hit such as “Suicide Squad” to keep cash registers ringing until school is back in session.

There were other missed opportunities. Few genres have performed as consistently as horror — “Get Out,” “A Quiet Place” and “Split” were among the most profitable films released in the past year. Yet “The First Purge” and “Slender Man” are two of just a smattering of titles coming out in the summer that cater to consumers who like to get their scare on.

A lot is riding on the next four months. Domestic ticket sales are down just over 2% through the first week of April, and the summer box office needs to overperform to offset a softer winter. Studios and theater chains are particularly concerned about how the holiday films will perform, because for the first time in three years, Disney won’t be premiering a “Star Wars” installment or spinoff in December.

By this time next year, the franchises may be the same, but the companies fielding them could be dramatically different. If the government approves its $52.4 billion sale, Fox will be a fiefdom of Disney. There’s also a good chance that Warner Bros. could be a division of AT&T and that Paramount’s parent company, Viacom, will find itself rejoined in marriage to CBS, although that union appears shaky at the moment. All of this consolidation may impact the kinds of films that Hollywood makes, but will it encourage companies to make bolder bets or to play it safe with the tried and true?