Examining the Summer Box Office Slump

We look at some of the reasons why this summer’s blockbusters aren’t doing as well as expected.

A few months back, I wrote a piece predicting the summer box office. Things were definitely looking better back then for summer movies after a number of surprise hits during the months that preceded it. Now that we’re halfway through the month of June and about to hit the actual summer in terms of schools being out and some people getting off work early on Fridays, it seems like a good time to reanalyze and reassess.

If you hadn’t heard, things haven’t been that great at the box office with a lot of seemingly sure-fire sequels failing to open as well as their predecessors. The few attempts at doing something original have also failed to pique moviegoers’ interest.

So far, only three movies have opened with more than $40 million since the start of May, the absolute minimum for a movie to be considered a “blockbuster,” but an amount that is fairly measly compared to the $100-200 million openings we’ve had in recent years. Two of those were superhero movies with Captain America: Civil War opening at $179 million in early May and X-Men: Apocalypse opening with $79.8 million over Memorial Day weekend.  

Civil War‘s opening is decent compared to 2014’s previous Captain America movie, but lower than the opening for Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015 despite featuring most of the same characters. X-Men: Apocalypse opened considerably lower than the $110 million four-day take for X-Men: Days of Future Past back in 2014. Apocalypse may have been hurt by the fact that it was opening so soon after two other superhero movies, and it points to possible fatigue for the genre as well as for sequels in general.

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Part of the problem actually isn’t a problem so much, and that’s the fact that a lot of bigger movies are opening outside the summer movie season, and audiences are finding more things to enjoy during the once slower winter and spring months of January through April. Even before the summer movie season officially started with Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War, the box office benefitted from four $300 million blockbusters, which is more than any other year.

Deadpool started things off in February with a huge opening over Presidents’ Day weekend, and it took in $350 million total, followed a few weeks later by Disney’s Zootopia, an original animated concept not based on a previous property which connected with audiences to the tune of $330 million after a $75 million opening. Whatever you want to say about Batman v Superman, its $166 million opening weekend in March and over Easter is huge, and that was followed a few weeks later by another Disney hit, The Jungle Book, with an impressive $103 million opening.

In some ways, this is a good thing, because studios and exhibitors have been trying for years to make it possible to release their bigger budget tentpoles at any time of the year and still attract the right audience. This has been going on roughly since the first Ice Age opened with over $46 million in 2002 and since then, lots of other movies have opened with even more (with Zack Snyder’s 300 being one of the few non-family movies to score in January). Before that, bigger tentpole movies would only be released during the summer or the holiday season in November and December. Those months have become increasingly crowded, forcing studios to look at other seasons to release their movies. Because we’ve never had so many huge hits before the summer, it’s likely that moviegoers were already burnt out by the time Marvel Studios released their first movie of the year, and they decided not to take chances on anything else.

Things certainly didn’t seem to be going the way studios hoped when Universal Pictures’ Neighbors 2 opened with $21 million, less than half what the original comedy opened with in 2014, and other sequels since then also have dive-bombed, most notably Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. Its $183 million worldwide take so far is not even enough to cover the $170 million budget. It’s a far cry from the billion dollars that Depp’s earlier stint as the Mad Hatter with director Tim Burton grossed worldwide.

One week later, Paramount Pictures’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows saw a similar defeat at the box office, opening with $35 million versus the $65.7 million of its 2014 predecessor. It has a long way to go to make back its $135 million budget.

Many of the poor showings at the box office can be attributed to something referred to as “sequelitis” where moviegoers feel they’re being played for stooges with all the sequels being released by the studios, even for successful films. Few people walked out of the Seth Rogen-Zac Efron comedy Neighbors in 2014 saying, “Boy, I hope we can see more of those two… this time taking on a sorority.” While 2010’s Alice in Wonderland did big business, it wasn’t received well enough that a sequel could pop up six years later and people would be just as excited. Same with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, because as well as the reboot did two years ago financially, it wasn’t well received by the fans who gave this one a pass.

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With so much antipathy towards sequels, you’d think that original movies like Money Monster, pairing superstars George Clooney and Julia Roberts, or Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, would do better, but neither of them opened with more than $15 million proving that audiences just don’t want to take a chance on new ideas (despite The Nice Guys‘ absolutely stellar positive reviews, too). So perhaps moviegoers don’t care about originality either, but maybe it’s just that the studios need to release movies that people really feel the need to see in theaters, which hasn’t really been the case this summer.

This past weekend at least was a better sign that things might pick up with three new movies grossing over $20 million, and with The Conjuring 2 opening over $40 million, just slightly less than the original movie. Now You See Me 2 also opened lighter than the original installment, maybe because there was more competition for the same audience, while Warcraft did better than some expected despite terrible reviews. Still, Warcraft can’t be considered an “original” film since it’s based on a popular video game.

It’s a little confounding that nothing seems to be breaking out other than the sure thing that was Captain America: Civil War, and it feels like this summer might already be a write-off as some people may be waiting for the next Star Wars installment in December. Sure, Captain America: Civil War is ahead of Marvel’s Iron Man 3 after five weeks, but it’s been struggling to get to $400 million, so it still may not be the biggest movie of the year.

Next week’s double feature of Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory (another sequel) and the action-comedy Central Intelligence (another original concept) may give the box office a much-needed boost as we head towards the 4th of July. Even so, one has to start wondering whether sequels like Independence Day Resurgence, The Purge: Election Year, Star Trek Beyond, and Jason Bourne stand a chance with the current moviegoers’ ennui that seems to have made this one of the toughest summer movie seasons to date. Maybe once school is out across the country, everything will be fine, and most of those remaining sequels are relying on their brand name and the lack of a number in their title, so that moviegoers may not be put off as much by the sequel factor.

To make matters worse, there’s a good chance we’ll have the same “problem” next year where movies that might normally be reserved for summer like Vin Diesel’s xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Monster Trucks, The LEGO Batman Movie, The Dark Tower, the next Wolverine movie, Kong: Skull Island and many more will try to get a head start on the summer. At this point, we’re looking to get just as many unnecessary sequels like The Nut Job 2, Annabelle 2 (a sequel to a spinoff), World War Z 2 (seriously?), The Divergent Series: Ascendant, Cars 3, and even Bad Boys 3 (!) that summer. There’s more optimism for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, War for the Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and even Michael Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight, although you’d think that last franchise had run its course by now.

There will be a few original movies next summer, too, including the war movie Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan, a popular and acclaimed director who has done quite well with original films like Inception and Interstellar, as well as Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on a French graphic novel not very well known in the States. Both these movies could do well against the slew of sequels and remakes, as might some of the original comedies like Mother/Daughter starring Amy Schumer, Girl Trip, and an untitled sci-fi comedy starring Bill Hader and Seth Rogen. With the right marketing, all of these stand a chance to do well. Also, DreamWorks Animation will return to the summer with their animated film Captain Underpants, based on the children’s book, hoping that being a new idea (at least in movies) will help it against Despicable Me 3, which opens later that month.

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It’s a little easier to be optimistic about the summer of 2017, especially since we’ve already seen how bad this summer is. But studios can’t expect everything to hit just because it’s the summer and it’s a sequel. If they don’t learn this lesson now, they might be in for another long summer next year.