What's Behind the Free Fall at the Box Office?
By Pamela McClintock
Last year, Despicable Me 2 alone grossed $143.1 million in its first five days after opening on the Wednesday before the Fourth of July, one of the most lucrative holiday stretches of the year in terms of moviegoing. This year, the three new films making a major play eked out a combined $61.4 million during the same period, more bad news for an already miserable summer.
Heading into the holiday, summer box office revenue was down 15 percent from last year, one of the worst declines in recent memory. Now it’s behind by 19.3 percent, or $2.3 billion vs. $2.8 billion, a difference of $500 million, according to Rentrak.
What’s behind the summer drought? Hollywood studio executives and box office observers blame a lack of mega-grossing tentpoles, a dearth of doubles and triples and no huge animated family film. In other words, a number of films have underwhelmed (or bombed), including Fourth of July R-rated comedy Tammy, which posted a five-day debut of $32.9 million, Melissa McCarthy’s lowest recent opening (as a way of comparison, fellow R-rated comedy Neighbors launched to nearly $50 million in May).
Revenue for Fourth of July weekend hit only $130 million, down 44 percent from last year’s $229.8 million haul. Granted, the holiday fell on a Friday this year, a disadvantage, but revenue managed to reach $160.2 million in 2008, the last time the Fourth was a Friday. One reason for the dramatic downturn is that no big tentpole rolled out, probably because no one wanted to open in the wake of Transformers: Age of Extinction, which debuted June 27.
Most Hollywood studios have come to rely heavily on big-budget tentpoles to anchor their summer slates, and this year is no different. But it will likely be the first summer since 2001 that no event title reaches $300 million at the North American box office, putting even more pressure on international results. In 2013, the season’s first movie, Iron Man 3, took in $409 million domestically. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which kicked off this summer, struggled to get to $200 million.
"That’s a $200 million hole right off the bat," says one studio executive. "The you have a string of disappointments. Take your pick."
In terms of top performers, Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past is the summer’s top-grossing film domestically at $227.1 million, as well as worldwide at $724.7 million, a franchise best. Paramount’s Transformers: Age of Extinction will likely eclipse Days of Future Past domestically, having already earned nearly $175 million in its first 10 days in release, but it’s trailing the last two films in the Transformers franchise.
"It’s a product-drive business," says Fox domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson, whose studio boasts some of the summer’s biggest success stories. In addition to Days of Future Past, they include The Fault in Our Stars, a low-budget movie that has earned $115.9 million domestically.
Fault is the sort of mid-range film that box office analyst Phil Contrino says is noticeably missing this summer, at least so far. “A summer of doubles and triples, or movies grossing between $80 million and $150 million, can make all the difference. We haven’t had enough of those,” he says.