Picky audiences yield flat ticket sales this summer.
With spending money tight, moviegoers are being careful with their choices at the multiplex. “People are waiting to hear from friends whether certain movies are worth their money,” says Disney distribution chief Chuck Viane. “When discretionary income wasn’t tight, teenagers had no problem seeing three films during the course of a week. Now, they’re seeing about two.”
While the year’s domestic box office has reached $6.76 billion so far (according to Box Office Mojo estimates), ahead of last year's record, the summer lags 3% behind the same frame a year ago.
But while Universal’s president of domestic distribution Nikki Rocco says that “exhibitors are happy; popcorn is selling,” ticket sales are flat. At $3.27 billion (through August 3), the summer box office should pass the $4 billion mark as it has over the last four years; however, breaking last year’s record of $4.3 billion remains an open question.
As always, sequels continue to provide the most gas; look at the top four films of the summer (chart below). And animation still offers a safe haven, as 3-D boosted titles such as Despicable Me and Toy Story 3D. Also strong were franchise reboot Karate Kid and dumb male comedies from Adam Sandler and Steve Carell.
But when you look under the hood of the summer schedule, it’s jaw-dropping how many branded and star-driven pictures conceived as potential franchises completely failed. And the studios often spared no cost launching a fresh title, lavishing anywhere from $100 to 200 million.
On paper, many of these popcorn movies looked like sure business bets.
But clearly, Twentieth Century Fox missed the target with its ‘80s TV remake of The A-Team ($76.2 million), starring Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper (off Taken and The Hangover). It turns out that the moviegoers who cared about The A-Team were males over 25, not the younger prime moviegoing demo.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Jon Turteltaub and Nicolas Cage also failed to deliver their usual audience-pleasing actioner. The Walt Disney-spin off The Sorcerer’s Apprentice lost its core family audience, who either thought the film was too violent, despite its PG rating, or went to see Despicable Me again instead. Older males certainly didn’t take seriously an action movie based on the Mickey Mouse wizard in Fantasia. Its current cume: $52 million.
The list is long of films that should have worked but bombed. Stars failed to shore up two bang-bang romantic action comedies: Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz in Knight and Day ($73.5 million) and Katherine Heigl/Ashton Kutcher in Killers ($47 million). Also failing to achieve lift-off were vidgame adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ($89.6 million), comic-strip sourced Marmaduke ($32.8 million), DC comic Jonah Hex ($10.5 million) and SNL spin-off MacGruber ($8.5 million).
Sure, MacGruber wasn’t intended to be an earth-shattering blockbuster, rather a cult film to whet the appetites of Saturday Night Live fans. Nonetheless, the film underscores the populist fare that moviegoers scorned this summer. Given its major NBC/SNL marketing and promotion push, the $10-million Rogue/Relativity Media film should have performed better. However, Universal/Relativity Media upheld the film’s R-rating, which barred older teens. Based on the MPAA average ticket price of $7.50, only 1.1 million paid to see MacGruber.
Some of the "brand" names that bombed were too stale for today’s tastes, from Marmaduke to Jonah Hex. And social media swiftly spread the bad word on disappointments from Killers to Sex and the City 2, a sequel to a popular title that was guaranteed to click, but fell short at the domestic B.O. ($95.1 million). One distrib exec blames the film’s change-up from New York to Abu Dhabi: “It’s not called ‘Sex and the Desert!’” On the other hand, that switch worked better abroad, where the film pulled in a more glamorous $185.5 million.
The anomaly of the summer remains Chris Nolan's twisty $160-million heist puzzle Inception--anchored by a star, Leonardo DiCaprio--which is pulling unprecedented repeat business, reminding Hollywood to never underestimate the intelligence of the American public--or the power of a strong original. Yes, four sequels and three remakes made the top ten chart: but so did three originals.
Studio by studio report card is below.
Top Ten Mid-Summer Films Chart:
1 Toy Story 3 (Disney) $389.8 milllon
2 Iron Man 2 (Paramount) $311.4 million
3 The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Summit) $288.2 million
4 Shrek Forever After (Paramount-DreamWorks) $235.6 million
5 Inception (Warner Bros.) $193.3 million
6 Despicable Me (Universal) $190.3 million
7 The Karate Kid (Sony) $172.9 million
8 Grown Ups (Sony) $150.8 million
9 The Last Airbender (Paramount) $127.3 million
10 Robin Hood (Universal) $105.2 million
Below is a rundown of each major studio’s market share ranking so far this summer. All domestic figures are courtesy of Box Office Mojo and studio sources through this past Sunday. Keep in mind that misfires are based on each film’s domestic returns. When taking into account a film’s overseas B.O., some titles will recoup their expenses abroad.
Summer take: $723.4 million (-1% vs. ’09)
Hits: Iron Man 2 ($311.4 million), Shrek Forever After ($235.6 million)
Miss: The Last Airbender ($127.3 million).
The studio is king of summer and will most likely remain so for the remainder of the season. It's currently outdistancing second placeholder Disney by 33%. Paramount hedged their summer schedule with a Marvel superhero sequel and a Nickelodeon franchise. But with a total cost of $280 million ($150 million budget plus a $130-million global P & A spend), M. Night Shyamalan's Last Airbender has fallen short, grossing $167 million worldwide so far.
Summer take: $544.2 million (+2% vs. ‘09)
Hits: Toy Story 3 ($390 million)
Misses: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ($89.7 million), Sorcerer’s Apprentice ($52 million).
The success of Pixar sequel Toy Story 3, particularly in 3-D, seems preordained. However, watching the studio’s prince, Jerry Bruckheimer, drop the ball twice in one summer was a surprise. Bruckheimer has bombed before with Disney, with 2004’s King Arthur (domestic B.O. $51 million) and the 2002 Chris Rock-Anthony Hopkins action film Bad Company (domestic B.O. $30 million). But this summer Bruckheimer delivered two back-to-back domestic failures. Apprentice’s cost and marketing totaled $210 million, while Persia costs added up to as much as $300 million. Nonetheless, Bruckheimer isn’t dead at Disney, with another Pirates installment in the works. Luckily, Persia made up for its domestic shortfall with an overseas with haul of over $327 million.
Summer take: $404 million (+22% vs. ‘09)
Hits: The Karate Kid ($172.9 million), Grown Ups ($150.8 million), Salt ($71 million)
If Disney loses second place this summer, it will be to Sony. Unlike other studios that dropped the ball with brands, Sony remastered The Karate Kid for the 21st century by roping in Jackie Chan, a China setting, and Will Smith and family on and off the camera. Sony excels in meeting the proper demo for its respective projects through creative marketing tie-ins and ads. Propelling young crowds to the opening weekend of Karate Kid was the Justin Bieber song “Never Say Never.” Before the first frame of Salt, the studio delivered Angelina Jolie to Comic-Con for a fan meet-and-greet. The studio is priming older women for the feature adaptation of bestseller Eat, Pray, Love (due August 13) via an HSN marketing tie-in so they can purchase goodies from the film’s Italy, India and Bali locales. Eat, Pray, Love is welcome counter-programming during a season loaded with family and guy pics. Also, Will Ferrell/Adam McKay’s dumb male comedy The Other Guys unspools this Friday. Summer is far from over for Sony.
Summer take: $377.2 million (+42% vs. ‘09)
Hit: Despicable Me ($190.3 million)
Recoupers: Get Him to the Greek ($60.8 million), Robin Hood ($105.2 million)
Misses: MacGruber ($8.5 million).
After a string of duds last summer including Funny People ($51.9 million), Bruno ($60 million) and Land of the Lost ($49.4 million), this season Universal is up 42%. Universal charged into the competitive animated field with the Steve Carell-voiced comedy Despicable Me, which shows no sign of winding down. One rival distrib exec marveled: “They pulled off the hardest trick of all.” With a $200-million production budget plus global marketing costs, Universal/Imagine will barely scrape into the black with Robin Hood, even though it scored $310.1 million worldwide. The studio served up a balanced sked appealing to young males (Get Him to the Greek) and females (Charlie St. Cloud (which opened to lackluster $12.4 million). Universal looks to hook teens and twentysomethings with the Michael Cera rock-action film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World due August 13. Relativity Media financed the low-budget MacGruber.
5. Warner Bros.
Summer take: $372.5 million (-53% vs. ’09)
Hits: Inception ($193.3 million)
Misses:Sex and the City 2 ($95.1 million), Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore ($12.3 million), Jonah Hex ($10.5 million), Splice ($17 million).
Despite passing the $1 billion mark at the annual B.O., Warner Bros. is down significantly for the summer. That’s because last summer boasted a triple whammy of tentpoles: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ($302 million), The Hangover ($277.3 million) and Terminator Salvation ($125.3 million). Warner Bros. allocated some of its upcoming powerhouses to the holiday season: Yogi Bear, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (3-D), and Todd Phillips’ Due Date. The studio placed its summer chips on Inception which has held strong on repeat business. With a global gross of almost $370 million, Inception has more than made back its $260 million production and marketing costs, and will pay for some of the studio’s weaker entries since May as well. The question is, how much bigger will Inception get? Can it kick Toy Story 3 out of the top spot?
Summer take: $354.3 million (+1,427% vs. ’09)
Hits: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse ($288.2 million)
Recouper: Letters From Juliet ($52.6 million)
Summit changed its formula this summer to a tentpole and a chick pic versus the handful of smaller titles (i.e. The Hurt Locker, Bandslam, Next Day Air) aimed at serious moviegoers that it programmed last year. Summit aimed the third Twilight installment Eclipse at a larger segment of fans who were home from school. It worked: through five weekends, Eclipse is besting New Moon by 5%. Like Harry Potter, “Twilight has shown that it can play in either the summer or fall season,” says Summit distribution president Richard Fay. Eclipse helped to rejuvenate the limping summer box office with its boffo bow over Independence Day. And Juliet pulled the under-served chick flick demo.
Summer take: $307.3 million (-47% vs. ’09)
Hits: None stateside.
Recoupers: Predators ($50 million), Ramona and Beezus ($16.4 million)
Misses: Knight & Day ($74.3 million), The A-Team ($76.2 million), Marmaduke ($32.9 million).
It’s no secret that Fox is enduring a horrible summer following its Avatar boom, which places the studio in second place domestically for the year so far. Their bets on summer stars and brands did not pay off on costly Knight & Day and The A-Team, which suffered marketing hiccups. Fall offers some reason for hope with the well-buzzed Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, although the live-action 3-D Gulliver’s Travels starring Jack Black; the trailer did not play well at Comic-Con.
Hits: None so far
Miss: Killers ($46.7 million, + 1,312% vs. ‘09)
The distributor kept quiet this summer as it fended off takeover moves by key shareholder Carl Icahn, who has griped about the label’s box office misfires. Killers failed to buff Lionsgate's profile. Following the $89-million success of last summer’s Katherine Heigl romantic comedy The Ugly Truth, also directed by Robert Luketic, the studio spent twice as much on Killers. Lionsgate execs are praying that Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables brings in the bounty.