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Four Summer 2014 Box Office Takeaways: How Hollywood Lost Its Mojo

Thompson on Hollywood By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood August 28, 2014 at 3:50PM

Over the course of covering the weekly box office, the huge drop in grosses over the summer season (defined as the first Friday in May through Labor Day) has become a regular theme. August's two strong performers reduced the toll a tad, but with one weekend remaining, the results are in. And they are grim.
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Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

Over the course of covering the weekly box office, the huge drop in grosses over the summer season (defined as the first Friday in May through Labor Day) has become a regular theme. August's two strong performers reduced the toll a tad, but with one weekend remaining, the results are in. And they are grim.

What happened? Industry insiders want to declare the summer 2014 numbers an aberration--"next year will be substantially better!" But I'm not so sure. A closer look at trends suggest some structural problems that are not likely to change any time soon.

This report is based on domestic (U.S./Canada) numbers. International has also been down, for some of the same reasons. But with different playoff patterns, the films that make up the domestic list aren't in many cases played out yet (if they have even opened), so analyzing that worldwide picture is premature.

Takeaways of summer 2014

1. The data:

With the usual holiday weekend uptick, the total gross for summer 2014 should be around $4.1 billion. That would be about 15% down from summer 2013. But it's worse than that. It would be the lowest total since 2006 ($3.735 billion). And if one adjusts for higher ticket prices and estimates the number of actual tickets sold, it appears this might have been the weakest summer going all the way back to 1992 --500 million admissions now compared to 400 million then --and this was before the rapid expansion of theaters that went on during that decade, a big part of the steady climb in grosses in the 20 years since.

The downturn comes from an overall decline calculated in different subsets. The grosses for first weekends of wide release films (though mid-August) were down 13% from 2013. The second weekends fell 57% compared to their openings, worse than the 53% drop last year (this is based on total grosses, not the average by film, which comes to a different result). But to reach the 22% total fall off, most films clearly had a shorter term appeal and didn't stick around to accumulate solid multiples from their opening results.

Unless Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" reaches $300 million (possible - it now is the top grosser of the season at $255 million), this will be the first summer without a film reaching that level since 2001 ("Shrek" at $267 million). The next lowest best film is $336 million, so "Guardians" will be the lowest top-grosser without even adjusting figures since then. The best opening weekend was sequel "Transformers: Age of Extinction" (a claimed $100.3 million, likely slight lower); "Iron Man 3" debuted to $174 million last year, "Man of Steel" did $117 million. ("Iron Man 3" ended up at a total $407 million). The best second weekend ("Guardians") was at $42 million, which is below three summer 2013 entries. Using nearly every barometer, revenues and patronage dropped.

Assuming "The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 1" performs anywhere near its predecessors, it likely means that at most only one of the four biggest films of the year will come from the summer, and none that opened between May and July ("Guardian" as an August release is an anomaly). Going back to 1980, nearly every year has seen two to four of the top four films open in the summer. 2001 was the last with only one. Over the 35 year period, most have been May to July openers. 2014 is the first in which of film from those three months didn't make an annual top four placement. (This does not assume that other fall or Christmas entries, led by Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar," might not also be big. But if so, it would displace an earlier 2014 non-summer top grosser like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" or "The LEGO Movie," which for now are still ahead of "Guardians.")

2. The explanations:

Longtime Boston specialized film buyer George Mansour wrote a piece in Film Comment 40 years ago listing all the excuses for a movie bombing (including contradictory ones like "bad weather"/"great weather," "kids are on vacation"/"kids are in school") and many more. The film business exists quite often on rationalizations and looking forward to the next season when all will be better.

Here are some of this year's extenuating excuses:

The World Cup
In a business that now chooses release dates with an eye to world-wide results (and in some cases, like Disney/Marvel, through 2019), this summer was predetermined to a certain extent with an eye to avoiding the month-long World Cup coverage from early June to early July, usually the biggest part of the business. Some films were likely rolled out slower (even projected early on for summer 2015), or scheduled this year outside the heart of the summer (Marvel's two smash hits for example). Back at CinemaCon last March, the predictions were for an average summer, with the lineup looking somewhat subpar. Studios likely in some cases avoided planning films for this summer more than a normal one because of soccer competition.

Shifting release schedules

The usually cautious studio chieftains have been discovering recently that riches aren't limited to just the prime summer months an Christmas. Perhaps the World Cup was an excuse this year, but two huge films (again, "LEGO" and "Captain America") opened in the first third of the year (March and April respectively). "Gravity" was a massive hit last October. The November-December period has been improving markedly in recent years. That means in some cases taking films that might have been released during the summer and leaving a bit of a vacuum. It should be noted that despite the steep summer fall, because of a robust first third of 2014, the year to date is down much less (5%), with, since fall through Christmas looks like it could have several strong titles, and still has a chance for the full year might reach parity.

Missing Films

The next "Fast and Furious" entry was projected to go in summer 2014. Paul Walker's tragic death pushed that back to next year. That could have been a $250-million grosser. 

Last summer boasted two animated sequels that combined grossed $760 million ("Despicable Me 2" and "Monsters University"). This summer had only one major animated entry, "How to Train Your Dragon 2," which despite the lack of competition has grossed $172 million (down more than $40 million from its 2010 predecessor). So that's a nearly $600-million factor. Pixar postponed its one 2014 feature to next year.

Due to Weinstein Co's decision to experiment with taking a commercial theatrical release swiftly to Video on Demand via Radius, "Snowpiercer" was removed from wide release because of its company's complicated reasons for going VOD. This might have been a $50 million grosser.

Lack of Male Stars

Films that had the benefit of popular actors in well-hyped films also seemed off this summer. Last year had Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman, Adam Sandler (the last three also opened films this year), the "Fast & Furious" duo (The Rock was back in a lesser vehicle this summer), Robert Downey Jr., Will Smith and Johnny Depp. Perhaps we are seeing a generational shift, but other than Jackman, no male actor or anyone other "A"-lister figured in the top summer hits this year. Actresses were stronger draws this summer: Angelina Jolie, Shailene Woodley, Melissa McCarthy and Scarlett Johansson all were big draws for their successful films.

3. Positive developments:

Women are pulling wide audiences:

Five of the top 20 films were headed by actresses, and at least two others had women second-billed. Last year, the summer Top 20 had "The Heat" and little else. The fanboys no longer rule during the summer. There is a big pool waiting to be tapped (meantime only one summer studio release was woman-directed). Most important of all is the success of "Maleficent," certainly driven not just by strong Disney marketing of a well-known character, but also Angelina Jolie's biggest success to date. At a $750 million worldwide gross, it showed that a woman can propel an expensive ($170 million) summer blockbuster in the summer, just as Sandra Bullock did with "Gravity" last fall to similar results.

Costs are down:

This won't be any comfort to exhibitors or industryites, but the studios came out ahead on raw numbers. Though marketing costs remain steady, the reported production budgets for this year's wide releases were way down. The estimated initial outlay for this summer's films (a rough number because of imprecise figures) looks to be 24% less than last year's. That means, combined with more films being mid-sized successes, that as least as many if not more of 2014's summer films could break even than last year (which saw several $100 million+ budget films fail badly).

Quality is up:

Overall, though hardly stellar, quality went up, judging by Metacritic ratings. 70 or above is a good to very good score -- this summer saw five among initial wide release films at that level (led by "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), while last year saw only two ("The World's End" and "Star Trek Into Darkness;" "The Conjuring" actually ranked third best, though below 70). What impact this had on business is unclear. There were also a large number of badly reviewed films, including the blockbuster "Transformers" entry, among the hits. But at least there is some sign that studios are aiming for improved quality. The films that had the best holds, against the dominant trend of quick drops this summer (also "Guardians," "22 Jump Street" leading the way) also usually were the best-received critically, so it's not as though the reactions are from separate universes.


summer box office chart

4. Significant differences:

Whatever the level of quality this summer, the overall sense is of an uninspired, bland and not particularly commercial group of releases. In looking over the titles, I noticed that while this year's slate included talented up-and-comers like James Gunn, Marc Webb, Gareth Evans, Robert Stromberg, Christopher Miller & Phil Lord, and Matt Reeves, one is hard pressed to find names of long-term successes who have built identifiable reputations that make them household names to moviegoers. Among those associated with both hits and acclaim, there was Clint Eastwood ("Jersey Boys" was modest performer) and maybe Bryan Singer (another "X-Men" film) and perhaps Luc Besson ("Lucy"). Michael Bay and Brett Ratner are also name veterans.

Compare this to last year's summer roster of Guillermo Del Toro, Marc Forster, Lee Daniels, Neill Blomkamp, James Mangold, J.J. Abrams, Edgar Wright, Gore Verbinski and M. Night Shyamalan. The year before, Joss Whedon, Tim Burton, Barry Sonnenfeld, Ridley Scott, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, Tony Gilroy and of course Christopher Nolan all were part of the season. Looking over the last 25 years, the top film of the summer was frequently directed by people like George Lucas, Sam Raimi, John Woo, Steven Spielberg, Joel Schumacher, Robert Zemeckis, Tim Burton, James Cameron -- all of whom were well past the promising talent stage when they made these smashes.

What to make of this? All of those directors had previously established reputations, most with films that had received awards and/or top critical reception plus past major hits. Their names in most cases were established as brands. This suggests that the studios like being able to monitor closely younger talent in hopes that they will tune into a younger audience. That may not have worked out this time. Also, many top directors do not necessarily want to play studio ball with summer franchises--many prefer to do more quality work in the fall. 

Thus the summer often boasts the most expensive and least risk-taking movies of the year. They need to bend to marketing concerns with an appeal to all audiences across the world. So producers want to take fewer chances and hire directors who have less flexibility, fewer idiosyncrasies, and more pliability. There may be room for more personal films, but most of the time at a lower budget, or closer to awards season when adults are a bigger part of the audience. (Spielberg hasn't had a summer film since 2008; Martin Scorsese's films have almost entirely been released other times of the year; Robert Zemeckis, whose films continue to gross well, was last seen in the summer in 2000). Two veterans that had successes this summer, don't exactly contradict the point. Michael Bay delivered what his reputation suggests and it was good enough to succeed ("Transformers: Age of Extinction" actually is worldwide the biggest success). Luc Besson of "Lucy" is French and made a European financed- and produced-film outside the Hollywood system.

At a time when cable TV increasingly is becoming the go-to place for creativity, whatever benefit there is from having capable but more compliant directors who will make sure their high-concept films work as well in China and Russia as they do in the U.S. may have a long-term cost for the industry. The studios don't care for surprises. They like to be able to closely project what a film will do from the moment it is proposed, with details down to the trailer and the poster for different territories all created before a scene has been shot. But great, long-lasting filmmaking has always involved a level of risk, of trusting the instincts of a director, of not being able to predict with certainty that, say, the next "Hunger Games" film is going to gross $400 million in the U.S. and figure one's job is done. This summer, and its big drop in grosses, is a sign that more risk needs to enter into the equation, along with having director-initiated projects with a more personal feel.


This article is related to: Box Office, Summer Movies, Summer, Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy, Transformers, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Maleficent, Box Office Top Ten


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