Remember last summer, when movie industry insiders as lofty as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were predicting that it would take only a couple of megaflops to bring Hollywood’s entire blockbuster-driven business model crashing down? Indeed, there were a number of such flops last summer, and yet there were enough big hits offsetting those failures to wind up with a record-breaking summer, worth $ 4.85 billion.
This summer? Also a number of megaflops, but not as many successes to balance them out. As a result, the summer winds to a close with a total of $ 3.77 billion, down a full 22.2 percent from last summer. It’s the lowest-grossing summer since 2005; adjusting for inflation, it’s the worst since 1992. The numbers are so bad, they’re likely to make Hollywood executives wonder: are Spielberg and Lucas’s dire predictions finally coming true?
For perplexed box office observers, here’s a question-and-answer guide to what happened this summer, and what lessons the summer has to offer.
Weren’t there any big hits this summer?
Sure. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is not only the biggest hit of the summer (it finished at No. 1 again this weekend for the third time in five weeks) but of the entire year so far. Even so, it’s earned just $ 274.6 million to date. Last summer’s top movie, “Iron Man 3,” earned $ 409.0 million. In fact, three movies last summer (including “Despicable Me 2” and “Man of Steel”) earned more than “Guardians.”
What happened to all the would-be blockbusters?
Some did as well as expected — “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “Maleficent,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Others underwhelmed, like “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “Godzilla,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Hercules,” and “The Expendables 3,” all of which grossed $ 203 million or less.
What about the other genre movies?
You mean like R-rated comedies and horror movies, two genres that typically do well during the summer? This year, people finally seemed to lose interest in raunchy comedies, judging by the grosses of “A Million Ways to Die in the West” and “Sex Tape.” (On the other hand, “Neighbors” and “Tammy” did well, and “Let’s Be Cops” has earned a solid $ 57.3 million in three weeks.) And there were hardly any horror movies at all; aside from “The Purge: Anarchy” (arguably, not a horror movie at all), there was just “Deliver Us From Evil” ($ 30.6 million) and… that’s about it. Labor Day weekend is traditionally a strong weekend for horror, but this weekend’s release, “As Above/So Below,” earned just $ 8.3 million from Friday to Sunday.
Why did these movies do so poorly?
In a word, execution. Audiences found them disappointing and stayed away. It seems like make-better-movies-and-people-will-come should be a truism, but it doesn’t always work that way. (“Edge of Tomorrow” got some of the best reviews of any action spectacle this summer, but Tom Cruise is still box office poison stateside, though he still does well overseas.) But people actually seemed to pay attention to reviews and word-of-mouth this summer and avoided movies with bad buzz.
Why did advance word matter?
One reason is that the summer audience contained a larger contingent of older viewers — the ones who read reviews — than summer movie programmers usually account for. Movies like “Guardians” (with it’s all-oldies soundtrack), “22 Jump Street,” “Neighbors,” “Godzilla,” “Apes,” “jersey Boys,” “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” “Sex Tape,” “Million Dollar Arm,” “Expendables,” “Chef,” “Get On Up,” “America,” “Boyhood,” “When the Game Stands Tall,” “Magic in the Moonlight,” and this weekend’s “The November Man” (which opened with $ 9.4 million) were all marketed toward older viewers, or at least attracted people over 25 as a large percentage of their audiences.
Where were the kids and teens?
Aside from the likes of “Transformers” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the young folks were expected to flock to teen melodramas, but only “The Fault in Our Stars” drew them in large numbers (to the tune of $ 124.5 million). “If I Stay” and “The Giver” both stumbled — again, because of bad advance buzz.
Did star power matter this summer?
No, unless your name was Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson. The former drove “Maleficent” to a $ 238.5 million gross. The latter helped make a $ 117.8 million hit out of “Lucy” They certainly fared better than male box office stalwarts like Cruise, Dwayne Johnson (whose “Hercules” grossed just $ 70.9 million), Adam Sandler (whose “Blended” earned jus $ 46.3 million), and Sylvester Stallone (just $ 33.1 million for “Expendables 3”). Still, the summer’s two biggest movies, “Guardians” and “Transformers” — and many more among the top 10 — weren’t star-driven at all, just concept-driven. People came for the premise and the title — because, for the most part, sequels, spinoffs, and reboots still sell, no matter how tired of them viewers claim to be.
What lessons does this summer offer, then?
Don’t discount older viewers. Get more women in front of the camera (and behind it). Most of all, make good movies that people actually want to see. (Sounds simpler than it is, granted.)
What lessons will Hollywood actually learn?
Probably none. Business is cyclical, and executives haven’t stopped planning to make giant action spectacles, space operas, comic-book adaptations, and spinoffs of familiar titles, in the hopes that what failed this summer will succeed next time. Often, these slumps are followed by a call for austerity and lowering production costs and salaries, but Hollywood is simply too invested in the blockbuster business model to try those solutions. It’s all Hollywood knows how to do anymore.
Gallery | Biggest Box Office Bombs
- 1. ‘Mars Needs Moms’ (2011)
Between this animated flop, “John Carter,” and the disappointing “Mission to Mars,” we hope Hollywood got the message: Audiences Hate Mars! Although it came from blockbuster director Robert Zemeckis, this movie failed to appeal to either families, kids or adults. Between its $ 150 million production budget, an unspecified marketing budget, and its measly $ 6.9 debut, it left a huge, gaping hole in Disney’s budget.
Estimated write-off: $ 200 million
- 2. ‘John Carter’ (2012)
Disney’s 2012 epic has unfortunately become synonymous with “box-office disaster.” It grossed $ 73 million, which wouldn’t be so bad, except that it cost a staggering $ 250 million to make. Audiences just weren’t sold on the character, or its leading man, Taylor Kitsch, who suffered another more high-profile bomb in 2012, “Battleship.”
Estimated write-off: $ 200 million (The L.A Times reports that it was a smaller $ 84 million loss)
- 3. ’47 Ronin’ (2013)
Keanu Reeves’s samurai film that opened on December 25, 2013, reportedly cost $ 175 million but grossed only $ 38 million. (It’s opening weekend was a lower-than-low $ 9.9 million, even during the 5-day holiday.) That was only enough to recoup its marketing budget, according to USA Today.
Estimated write-off: $ 175 million
- 4. ‘The Lone Ranger’ (2013)
Despite being retooled to lower its mega-budget to a mere (cough) $ 215 million, “The Lone Ranger” because the latest flop for Johnny Depp, as well as an added embarrassment for Disney after “John Carter,” and one more sign that modern audiences just aren’t into big-budget westerns. Phil Contrino, chief analyst for Boxoffice.com described it as “the kind of bomb that people discuss for years to come.”
Estimated write-off: $ 160-190 million
- 5. ‘Cutthroat Island’ (1995)
Renny Harlin’s attempt to launch then-wife Geena Davis as an action star never took off, including this really not-that-terrible pirate movie, which was listed as the worst box-office bomb in the Guinness Book of Records. It cost more than $ 100 million but took in less than $ 10 million, bankrupting Carolco Pictures. Adjusted for inflation, it still ranks high among the biggest bombs of all time.
Estimated write-off: $ 145.4 million
- 6. ‘The Adventures of Pluto Nash’ (2002)
This Eddie Murphy bomb, which cost about $ 100 million, earned a painfully puny $ 7.1 million, even when you combine domestic and international box office. According to Time, if you adjust for inflation, its losses are even higher.
Estimated write-off: $ 145 million
- 7. ‘Town & Country’ (2001)
This long-in-the-works comedy (starring long-in-the-tooth skewing-stars Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn) racked up massive overruns thanks to endless reshoots and delays. The final budget was reported to be a ridiculous $ 90 million. Since it netted only $ 6.7 million at the box office, that’s a whopping loss of $ 83.3 million in 2001 dollars.
Estimated write-off: $ 111.5 million
- 8. ‘The Postman’ (1997)
This apocalyptic bomb did even worse than Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld,” earning just $ 17.6 million against a reported $ 80 million budget. That’s a loss of $ 62.4 million at the time, a number that only goes up when you adjust for inflation.
Estimated write-off: $ 91.7 million
- 9. ‘Battlefield Earth’ (2000)
This John Travolta vanity project, based on a sci-fi book by Scientologist founder L. Ron Hubbard, is still considered one of the biggest flops of all time. The film cost $ 75 million, plus $ 20 million to market and grossed only $ 29 million worldwide. If you adjust for inflation, the loss is nearly $ 100 million.
Estimated write-off: $ 91 million
- 10. ‘Green Lantern’ (2011)
Ryan Reynolds as a wisecracking superhero, what could go wrong? Outside of comic-book geeks, folks didn’t seem to know (or care) about the D.C. hero and the scathing reviews didn’t help. It earned back only $ 116.6 million of its $ 200 million budget, according to Boxofficemojo.com. The Hollywood Reporter suggested it would have had to make $ 500 million to turn a profit.
Estimated write-off: $ 83.4 million
- 11. ‘Battleship’ (2012)
Poor Taylor Kitsch: 2012 should have been his breakout year. Instead, his two big action movies bombed and bombed hard. Besides the box-office crater left by “John Carter,” “Battleship” grossed only $ 65 million back of its $ 220 budget. Nobody wanted to see Rihanna act or Kitsch battle aliens yet again.
Estimated write-off: $ 83 million
- 12. ‘R.I.P.D.’ (2013)
This Jeff Bridges / Ryan Reynolds ghost-hunting dud left audiences completely indifferent: It took in only $ 33.6 million during its box-office run. According to The Hollywood Reporter, its budget was somewhere between $ 130 and $ 150 million.
Estimated write-off: $ 80 million
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