In the summer, as temperatures rise and schools go on break, Hollywood likes to stick to a well-worn formula: Pack the multiplexes with franchises, spinoffs, reboots and remakes. This coming season will be no different — with hopes that the pay off at the box office will help reverse the current turndown in ticket sales.
“The box office is going to rise and fall on the slate of sequels like it has for countless summers,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “If the summer does better, it will be because studios made sequels that people actually wanted to see.”
That formula worked last summer, as tentpoles like “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” propelled ticket sales and seemingly cured franchise fatigue.
Box office prognosticators believe that this summer’s lineup, filled with installments in the “Avengers,” “Toy Story,” “Spider-Man,” and “X-Men” sagas, as well as live-action remakes of “The Lion King” and “Aladdin,” will provide enough firepower to make cash registers ring even more loudly than last season’s $4.4 billion haul. This summer won’t just be a testament to the enduring power of these franchises and familiar stories; it will also show the dominance of Walt Disney Studios. Thanks to its acquisition of Pixar, LucasFilm and Marvel, the entertainment giant controls many of the most storied film brands. Disney’s film slate nearly doubled after the completion of its $71 billion merger with 21st Century Fox, with popular franchises like “X-Men,” “Avatar” and “Deadpool” finding a new home in the Magic Kingdom.
That tonnage gives Disney a great deal of influence. The studio can demand and receive a larger cut of ticket sales than its competitors. However, Eric Wold, an analyst with B. Riley, believes that’s a trade many theater chains are willing to make in order to play these films.
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“Exhibitors would much rather share 60% of ticket sales with Disney for a film that does $1 billion than share 50% of revenues with another studio on a film that does $100 million,” Wold says.
For many theater owners, this year’s crop of summer blockbuster-hopefuls can’t come soon enough. Even with spring hits like Disney’s “Captain Marvel” and Universal’s “Us,” domestic ticket sales are down almost 17% year on year through the third week in April. Hollywood will need to rely on more than just superheroes and scares to keep theaters filled to capacity and ensure 2019 hits another benchmark.
“We knew it would be down, but it will start to turn around in May,” says Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic distribution. “I’m bullish we will have another
“Avengers: Endgame” should kick popcorn season into overdrive. Marvel’s epic superhero mashup, a sequel to last year’s behemoth “Avengers: Infinity War,” is expected to shatter records when it opens at the end of April. It’s already eclipsed previous high-water marks for presales, and theaters are adding show times to keep up with demand.
Beyond the army of masked heroes lined up to save the day, box office analysts are also optimistic about “Hobbs & Shaw,” a “Fast and Furious” spin-off that puts the spotlight on Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham; and “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” a sequel that finds the web-spinner torn between saving the world and enjoying a class trip to Europe. On the counterprogramming front, there’s also “Booksmart,” a raunchy coming-of-age story that promises to put a female spin on “Superbad”; and “Poms,” a “Book Club”-esque comedy starring Diane Keaton that should entice older crowds.
“This coming summer looks to be really strong from a number of different companies,” says Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. head of domestic distribution. “There will be some surprises. It’s all about audiences finding movies they want to see. If you make a good movie, people will come.”
Of course, not every aspiring blockbuster finds success. Last year, films such as “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and “Skyscraper” carried big budgets and expectations but failed to connect with audiences. This go-round, some analysts are concerned that Disney’s fantasy adventure “Artemis Fowl” and the Sony sci-fi spinoff “Men in Black: International” might lack what it takes to rise above the scrum.
Even if the box office soars and ticket sales top the previous summer, there’s no denying that the competition for consumers’ time and money is growing more pitched. When not releasing movies, Disney, Comcast and WarnerMedia will spend much of the next few months readying their own streaming challengers to Netflix, a company that has changed the way that people watch content.
Yet studios remain outwardly confident — pointing to last year’s box office haul, which set domestic, international and global records — that audiences have enough of an appetite for entertainment to allow theaters and streamers to coexist.
“The business will continue to evolve as options for consumer content grows,” says Adrian Smith, Sony’s president of domestic distribution. “It’s more competitive with more content, but I believe what has and will continue to remain is that audiences have a desire for a shared communal experience out of the house, in the theater.”
Nevertheless, the battle for control of the streaming landscape is a sign that the entertainment conglomerates believe the exhibition business represents a dwindling part of their future.
“You can feel the ground shifting under our feet,” says Bock. “If you talk to most people, they’re more excited about ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Stranger Things’ than they are about anything at the movie theater.”
For exhibitors, that’s a very scary thought.