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What Just Happened: Summer Box Office Goes Out With A Whimper

What Just Happened: Summer Box Office Goes Out With A Whimper

This summer at the movies begs the question more than ever: “quantity or quality?” Hollywood releases for this summer started with an Iron Man-sized bang, picked up more steam with strong Indiana Jones and Sex and the City followings, continued popping with WALL-E and Wanted, broke world records with The Dark Knight, defied critics in the form of a successful Hancock, rounded out July with surprise counter-programming hits like Mamma Mia! and Journey to the Center of the Earth, but then as we hit August… things… slowed… down. If you look at the current tally of this summer’s box office performances, something happened in August. Was it the Olympics? Was it Obama? Was it the weather? Was it bad reviews? Whatever it was, something kept audiences away from multiplexes over the last four weeks.

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The only major August release that could be considered a surefire success story, would be Pineapple Express. As of Labor Day, it has grossed $80 million but only cost $30 million to make (and a little more to market). Tropic Thunder has made more money in a shorter period of time, but its $85 million take is rather dubious when you realize it cost over $90 million to produce (and who knows how much marketing money went into its campaign). It’s a similar situation with the panned The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (pictured below), which has made almost $100 million at the box office but cost somewhere around $140 million to make (it’s done better overseas). These are the three biggest earners of the month!

Everything else has virtually died, with modest and relative success happening for the lower-cost The House Bunny and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2. Yet if you look at the performances for Death Race, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, The Longshots, and now this Labor Day weekend’s big releases (Babylon A.D., College, Disaster Movie), none will be certified a “hit.” Disaster Movie (pictured above left), in fact, may have singlehandedly killed the recent spoof-boom. It’s the worst performer ever when compared to Meet The Spartans, Epic Movie, and others. I say, good riddance. To compare, this year’s Labor Day weekend box office will end up being somewhere around 20% less than the same weekend in 2007 (when Rob Zombie’s Halloween opened large).

The arthouse, thankfully, is actually picking up some of the August slack. Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is going strong, as are acquired titles Man on Wire, Elegy, Tell No One, and the sleeper indie hit of the season: Transsiberian (which will soon crack $1 million and counting). That’s not to say all arthouse releases this summer have been boffo. There have been some depressing performances in that category as well. But, what does this tell us?
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When you look at the Hollywood releases of August, I’d argue there isn’t a single terrific film among them. Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder were good, but not great, and surely failed to meet exceeded expectations. Other than that, it’s a lot of crap. Crap can make money, too, especially in August, but something’s a little off. When given the option of seeing whatever Hollywood had to put in theaters on a Friday, audiences decided to stay home.

The Olympics didn’t help matters for Hollywood, either. Anyone with a television could watch human drama 100 times more sincere than what was available in theaters. I always found it crazy that The Mummy was promoted in conjunction with the Olympics (both presented by NBC Universal, both set in China) because, when given the choice, wouldn’t you just watch Michael Phelps instead? The most critically and publicly acclaimed work by a filmmaker in August: Zhang Yimou’s Beijing Opening Ceremony. Cost: free on NBC.

If you really wanted to see a new movie in August, a lot of folks were inclined to check out Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Man on Wire, because there was some assurance they would be, yknow, good. One last sorta-statistic that may sound like a plug but does apply: in one week on Hulu, more people watched Hoop Dreams and Metropolitan (in their entirety) than saw most indie film releases in the same time period. Which, true to what Chris Anderson found in The Long Tail, suggests that a bevy of options is a good thing but identifying which of those options are quality is the clincher.

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