The summer movie season is almost over, and will total about $3.875 billion in North America. That’s a 13 percent drop from last summer; adjusted to the number of tickets sold, it’s the lowest summer in at least 20 years. And when you consider population growth, it’s even worse.
The losers here are the theaters. But for the studios, it validated their decision to make movies that consider the international audience first — which means for domestic theaters, there’s even more bad news to come.
Here’s what we learned on summer vacation:
In North America, we’re getting sick of sequels — not that it matters. A summer sequel still sees easy entry into the $100 million club, thanks to overseas audiences. “Despicable Me 3” is the #1 film in foreign and worldwide totals, but stands as only #4 in the U.S./Canada. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is #2 foreign; “Transformers: The Last Knight” is #4. Here, “Pirates” will end up #6 domestic, and “Transformers” #9.
“Transformers,” “Pirates,” and “Despicable Me” will each earn less than $100 million domestic (at least in adjusted numbers) than their direct predecessors. It’s a trend we’re seeing across most franchises; the only one that improved was “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” which had a better release date and showed about a 25 percent increase from the 2015 original.
However, while we may be over retreads and sloppy sequels, audiences outside North America aren’t. They aren’t necessarily on the rise, but they are easily doing well enough for studios not to change course. Trying to make a universally appealing film is tricky; inventing a new franchise, even riskier.
So, there will be more of the same. Next summer has more than 10 sequels slated including “Star Wars,” “Avengers,” “Deadpool,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Incredibles;” maybe we’ll see better results. Either way it’s the long-term model, and studios will continue to deprecate domestic-audience opinion.
Last year, studios spent $2.4 billion on 14 summer movies; this year, studios spent about $1.8 billion on 14 movies. That’s a 25 percent discount, and could more than make up for the 13% drop in total revenues — and places studio concerns about domestic declines even further down on their list of worries.
Last year saw four expensive flops with “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “The BFG,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Ben-Hur.” This summer, although several titles are marginal or might eventually fall short, only “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” looks like a big loser. That’s a big improvement, and it’s more grist for the studio status quo.
“Wonder Woman” is a familiar comic-book hero and part of a franchise, but it’s what passes for original in today’s world. It played well, but it will end up selling slightly fewer tickets than May 2016 Marvel entry “Captain America: Civil War,” the third in its series.
Overall, mid- or lower-budget non-franchise films will be money losers. For every “Baby Driver” and “Girls Trip,” both of which made over $100 million, there were duds like “Snatched,” “Rough Night,” “The House,” “The Dark Tower,” and more. With a minimum of $30 million in domestic marketing costs, budgets of $30 million-$60 million, and limited overseas appeal, these losses add up.
Similarly, “King Arthur” and “Baywatch” also pass for original (anyone sense a problem here?). The former is the summer’s biggest flop; the latter will likely graze breakeven (an outlier, it did two-thirds of its modest business overseas). Combine all the results and it sadly justifies studios’ resistance to risk.
Yes, positive reviews aided “Wonder Woman,” “Baby Driver,” and certainly, “Dunkirk.” And then there are films with very strong reviews that went wide and barely registered, including “It Comes at Night,” “Detroit,” and “Logan Lucky.” All received better reviews than any wide-release film; all got minimal response.
Reviews did boost “The Big Sick,” which will cross $40 million. However, that’s still below the $50 million+ (adjusted) earned by “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in the same period five years ago. A decent performance, but not exactly a breakout success with around 4 million tickets sold.
This summer’s collapsing tentpoles and slight decline in the number of studio releases made room for some surprise guests. Focus Features had “Atomic Blonde,” while Entertainment Studios brought us “47 Meters Down.” However, neither broke $50 million. Outside the studios, total grosses will be around $400 million — a bit more than 10 percent of the total, but not enough to keep this summer on par with the last one.
The summer of 2017 was a downhill slope. Problems started in July, and August became a free fall. That’s because the schedule was largely constructed for parallel worldwide releases, with May and June as the prime slots. Some territories, Europe in particular, are historically weak in vacation-centered August. Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Disney have no new releases this month. (Disney released “Cars 3” mid-June; the next one is “Thor: Ragnarok” in November.)
This could augur a shifting release calendar, where we’ll see more top titles February-April. And with the highly anticipated “It” released in the traditional dead zone just after Labor Day, summer might make less of a difference in year-round totals.
Finally, there’s “Wolf Warrior II.” Released stateside July 28 by H Collective, the Chinese action film grossed $2.3 million here; in its native country, the final gross will be between $750 million and $900 million. That should encourage local production and funding — particularly when the Chinese government is making it much more difficult to invest in Hollywood, and foreign investments have seen big losses (Luc Besson’s French-produced “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”). And China would be happy to reduce the studios’ already-limited entree to their country.
If so, “Wolf Warrior II” might end up as the most important event in movies this summer.