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Move Over, Sequels: The Real Secret to Summer Box Office Success is Strong Reviews and an Underserved Audience

As entries in the "Transformers" and "Pirates" franchises struggled domestically, moviegoers were searching for smarter fare like "Baby Driver" and "Dunkirk."


Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture

Is summer the new highbrow? Last month, three of the top five films were critical darlings: “War for the Planet of the Apes” (#1), “Baby Driver” (#4), and “The Big Sick” (#5). Then came “Dunkirk,” which was declared an Oscar frontrunner and spent the last two weeks at #1.

That’s rare among top-grossing studio releases, maybe even unprecedented. Studios tend to save high-end, critics-oriented titles for late fall — the better to court Oscars, and because adult audiences are more likely to show up. And since the 1970s triumphs of “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” summer has been the domain of mass-audience and increasingly sequel/franchise titles, critics be damned.

Clay Enos

To make sense of this, we start with the critical metrics. This summer, 12 titles will likely earn $100 million or more. (Last summer, 14 hit the mark.) The average Metacritic score for these 12 films is 66, defined as “generally favorable.” Last year’s crop came in at 54, which is “mixed or average.”

That’s an uptick, but last summer’s three biggest movies — “Finding Dory” (77), “Captain America: Civil War” (75), and “The Secret Life of Pets” (61) — averaged 71. That’s all but tied with the 72 average of this summer’s top three of “Wonder Woman” (76), “Guardian of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” (67), and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (73). (Of note: Despite the Best Picture buzz for Patty Jenkins’ movie, “Wonder Woman” all but tied with “Captain America: Civil War.”)

"War for the Planet of the Apes."

“War for the Planet of the Apes.”

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fo

However, better reviews don’t guarantee bigger grosses. To date, this summer is down about eight percent from last year, and we’re looking at a weak August with nothing remotely like “Suicide Squad” to boost it. All in, expect summer 2017 fall as much as 12 percent from last year. While strong reviews clearly helped some titles, their long-term impact is less reliable.

Case in point is “War from the Planet of the Apes.” The best-reviewed in its series and the highest-regarded sequel in a summer that has (too) many, it opened lowered than anticipated and fell quickly since. Ultimately, it will gross less than two thirds of its predecessor, possibly placing the franchise in jeopardy.

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” should be headed for profit (depending on budget, with estimates ranging from $100 million-150 million and Nolan’s gross participation unclear). But despite reviews that are even better than the similar “Saving Private Ryan” — not to mention the director’s own rabid fanbase — its opening was decent but unspectacular ($50 million, a little less than “War from the Planet of the Apes”) and had a surprisingly big drop of 47 percent in its second weekend.

War films, titles aimed at adult audiences, and Nolan’s non-Batman films all usually hold better. “Private Ryan” dropped only 23 percent its second weekend. “American Sniper” (favorably reviewed, though not at the same level) dropped 28 percent.

Transformers - Age Of Extinction Michael Bay

“Transformers: The Last Knight”

Paramount Pictures/Hasbro/Di/REX/Shutterstock

However, there’s one arena where reviews seem to have remarkable impact. An array of highly touted summer releases that fell far short of domestic expectations — “Transformers,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Cars,” and “Despicable Me” — all received mixed to sharply negative reviews. The biggest flops of the summer were the original or otherwise unestablished entries — “King Arthur,” “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” “The House,” “Rough Night” and “Baywatch” — received reviews ranking from meh to outright disdain.

For the greatest success, a film needs an underserved audience, strong reviews, and a dash of zeitgeist. (See: “Hidden Figures,” “La La Land,” “Get Out,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Girls Trip.”) A strong review that hits a nerve carries exponentially more power.

“Girls Trip”

Michele K. Short

Critics are generally most influential in English-speaking countries, and worldwide results show that reviews mean much less overseas. “The Fate of the Furious” made over $1 billion overseas, or 82 percent of its total. That’s the pattern for deep-sequel titles with lackluster reviews. Final domestic grosses for “The Mummy,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” “Transformers: The Last Knight” will be around 20 percent.

For films with top reviews, their domestic performance is much stronger. “Wonder Woman” is currently at 50 percent domestic with Japan still to open; it should end up above 40 percent. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is over 40 percent as well. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has China and Japan to come, but could be about a third domestic. This spring’s”Logan” ended up at 36 percent.

By contrast, the top international performers of the summer are likely “Despicable Me 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” and “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Domestically, that trio is headed for slots between fourth and seventh best domestically. (“Wonder Woman,” “Guardians” and “Spider-Man” the three biggest at home).

Other factors and levels of appeal contribute, but it’s hard to ignore: The top three domestic hits were well reviewed, while the three biggest foreign were not.

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