Summer Box Office: Feast or Famine as Blockbusters Either Hit Big or Flop Spectacularly
There were two major areas of strength — horror and animation. “Finding Dory,” a followup to 2004’s “Finding Nemo,” is the year’s biggest domestic success and a rare sequel that outperformed the original, while “The Secret Life of Pets” was such a monster hit that it spawned a new franchise.
Even more impressive, nearly every major horror film that hit theaters, scored. “The Purge: Election Year,” “The Conjuring 2,” “Lights Out,” “The Shallows,” and “Don’t Breathe” will be among the most profitable films of the year. In fact, the last horror movie that failed at the box office was “Victor Frankenstein” last November, a sign of the genre’s durability.
This summer did reveal that many of the major franchises are running out of steam. “Jason Bourne,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “Star Trek Beyond,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Ghostbusters,” “Ice Age: Collision Course,” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” either flopped or failed to match the box office returns of their predecessors. Some of the issue may have been execution. In most of these cases, critics found the films to be lacking or faulted them for failing to live up to the standards of previous chapters.
“There has been a sense that the there’s a panacea in tentpoles and franchises but there’s no panaceas if audiences don’t have a personal connection,” said Imax Entertainment Chairman Greg Foster. “Quality begets momentum.”
It’s also imperative to find a new spin on the tried and true. In “The Conjuring 2,” for instance, the first film’s paranormal investigators returned, but they were tracking supernatural occurrences in a different house and another country.
“Too many of the sequels had a been there done that element,” said Aronson. “That limits your audience to the core fans.”
Hollywood is becoming ever more reliant on foreign markets, such as China, Russia and Mexico. Those audiences can help prevent films such as “Ice Age: Collision Course” from drowning in red ink and kept “Warcraft” from being a complete disaster as China grosses hit $220 million, nearly five times the $47 million in the U.S. But currency issues in parts of Europe, for instance, and a stronger dollar mean that certain territories aren’t contributing as much as they once did.
“We’re getting much less in U.S. dollars than we did three of four years ago, so when you’re looking at sequels, that’s going to impact the budgeting for future films,” said Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, president of worldwide distribution at Warner Bros. “It’s part of doing business globally. You benefit from the highs and work through it when it goes the other way.”
Despite the softer returns for many sequels and reboots, STX Motion Picture Group Chairman Adam Fogelson said he did not think it would result in a dramatic change to their business plans.
“It’s not the first time in history that audiences have rejected sequels,” Fogelson said. “Studios are under pressure to make as many tentpoles as possible.”
One area of improvement was in so-called counter-programming. Films like the Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart comedy “Central Intelligence,” the animated parody “Sausage Party,” and the raunchy comedy “Bad Moms” cost a fraction of what studios shelled out on superhero adventures, but still managed to connect with audiences. They also enjoyed more capacious profit margins, because their budgets were so much lower. After pruning their slates to focus on a few, big titles, some analysts believe that there will be a correction, with studios offering up more lower-budgeted offerings to help soften the blow if one or two of their franchises falter.
“You’re going to see a lot more counter-programming squeeze in,” said Bock. “A lot of people are going to be greenlighting more stuff.”
After all, in Hollywood, no original idea stays that way for long.