I hate to be the one to inform you of this, but Hollywood is in a box office slump. A Great Depression of film profitability, where consumer scorn for summer blockbusters is bitter dust, choking the once-fertile farmland of summer tentpole season.
How bad is it? This year, the total domestic gross of all our summer films comes to a paltry $3.46B domestic (for convenience’s sake, assume all total gross figures to be domestic from here on out). And this makes 2014 the first year since 2006 where the total gross was under $4B.
Technically, the summer’s not over- Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, that George Takei doc To Be Takei or the horror film As Above, So Below could all potentially pull in a billion or two… but that seems a tad unlikely. Unless To Be Takei ends with half-hour of Takei in closeup; eyes glowing red, sultry baritone commanding the audience to spend their life savings on more To Be Takei. It’s entirely possible. Whatever he wants, we’ll do it.
But is a mere billion-dollar slump something to get all up in arms about? Yes! Extremely. At least, that’s what the press has been doing all summer, clamoring about that this summer’s film crop has suffered severe cardiac arrest, and each weekend’s big seller is the only thing that can resuscitate it.
I won’t bore you with a comprehensive list of who said what and when, but to demonstrate just how prevalent this opinion is, here’s a smattering of “Can Movie X Save a Sagging Summer Box Office?” pieces (15 out of roughly 4,000,000), all hyperlinked into a convenient answer to the same cloying question they’re all asking.
So What Caused the Slump?
The answer is more straightforward than you might realize: Hollywood has decided to place all of its eggs in next year’s basket. And also next next year’s basket. Basically every basket but the one we’re currently holding.
First, let’s take a look at the films that were supposed to release this summer, but got bumped due to various extenuating circumstances.
- The Good Dinosaur was bumped from May 30, 2014 to November 25, 2015 when Pixar decided the story needed a massive re-tooling.
- 50 Shades of Grey took a bump from August 1, 2014 to February 14, 2015, most likely due to Charlie Hunnam’s realization that 50 Shades fans are nucking futs, and that he should stay as far away from them as possible.
- Fast & Furious 7 went from July 11, 2014 to April 3, 2015 after the unexpected death of Paul Walker.
- Jupiter Ascending was pulled from its July 18, 2014 slot and fitted to February 8, 2014 — January/February being the old barn to which Hollywood drags its failing projects. WB claims the delay was due to effects and marketing issues, but let’s face it: someone probably realized that sinking $175M into “Channing Tatum is a space werewolf with elf ears, now please take him extremely seriously” is a potential Lone Ranger in the making.
Even if those unforeseen circumstances were to become foreseen, the addition of four extra flicks wouldn’t move this summer’s box office from our “woe is Hollywood” situation to a rousing success.
Good Dinosaur and F&F7 would likely land in the $200M range each, given the box office performances of previous Pixar and Fast & Furious films — let’s say they pulled in a half billion between them. That would put this summer’s total gross at $3.96B. Presumably, 50 Shades and Jupiter Ascending could then push us past the $4B mark.
But that wouldn’t actually change our current situation. With $4B in the bank, 2014 would move up from the worst box office performance in 8 years, to the worst in 6. (2008, the next year in line for summer suckage, pulled in $4.1B).
So delays alone aren’t the answer. To uncover the hard truth, we must to extend our gaze to the films of summers ’15 and ’16 — films that were placed there on purpose, and not as a last-minute fix. Get comfortable, because this is a long list, and that length illuminates the problem.
Next year, the giant summer tentpoles include: The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Fantastic Four, Inside Out, Ted 2, Terminator Genisys, Minions and Ant-Man. And those are just the films that are likely to be the big hitters. There’s another hefty list of films that could potentially overperform and clear $200M domestic, easy. Tomorrowland, Insidious 3, Pan, Assassin’s Creed, Magic Mike XXL, Pixels…
This could go on for four more paragraphs, so let’s stop here for sanity’s sake.
How crowded is next summer? So crowded there’s not even enough room for each mega-tentpole to get its own weekend; Fantastic Four and Inside Out are sharing a slot in June (yet despite the lack of space, Age of Ultron still has two weekends all to itself). So crowded that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke of an overcrowded summer movie season (maybe 2015, maybe not) that would crash the industry and force a massive overhaul of basic blockbuster strategy.
So crowded that overflow from 2015 has caused 2016 to be just as bloated. Grit your teeth, we’ve got another list incoming.
Summer 2016’s film slate includes: Zootopia, Warcraft, The Divergent Series: Allegiant – Part 1, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Huntsman, Captain America 3, Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, X-Men: Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, Uncharted, How to Train Your Dragon 3, Finding Dory, Independence Day 2, a Marvel flick that’s probably Doctor Strange, The Bourne Betrayal, Ice Age 5, a third Planet of the Apes movie and a currently unknown DC superhero film (Aquaman or Shazam, most likely).
Upon meticulous examination of these giant-ass movie piles, the reason for our current slump becomes clear. Summer 2014 isn’t in dire straits because of some perceived failure on the part of filmmakers, or studios. We’re in the eye of the storm; a small grace period between the biggest summer in recorded history and two future summers that will try their hardest to blow that record to smithereens.
Should We Be Worried?
Again, a straightforward answer: “no.” Unless you’re one of the conspiracy theorists claiming that 2015 is overstuffed to the point of box office bankruptcy (or you could follow a fresher trend that 2016 is actually the year we’ll all die screaming). Take a closer look at that Box Office Mojo piece about 2013 becoming the all-time summer champ (here it is once more) and take note of this sentence:
“Next Summer, it does look like the studios are reigning in their spending a bit: while official figures aren’t yet available, it’s unlikely that more than 15 titles cost over $100 million.”
See? As early as last September, people were predicting that this summer would suffer a little shrinkage. Which makes it entirely unnecessary to panic in the streets, or to proclaim Guardians of the Galaxy or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as conquering heroes that will save a dying season. As though a smaller summer is something that needs fixing, and not something that’s been engineered almost entirely on purpose.
Plus, there’s one area where this summer excels: all those faraway lands that exist outside the United States. Because all those summer 2014 death knells come with a caveat; that the international box office is still as strong as ever (“International returns remain strong,” “doing exceptionally well overseas” “pretty much minting money at the international box office“). Thanks, China!
Considering that 2013’s international gross sagged well below 2012’s numbers, the narrative could just as easily have been “China Sends Box Office Soaring to New Heights; Let Us Bow and Obey Their Wisdom and Obvious Love of Automobile-Shaped Robots.”
Studios plan all this out well in advance; short of something like The Lone Ranger, monkey wrenches of this magnitude don’t often come up. So not to worry! Summer 2014 is just fine the way it is. It’s the petite appetizer that precedes a four-course buffet, where chefs will stuff filet down your throat until your stomach lining bursts like that one guy in Se7en.
Don’t take all the naysaying so seriously. And remember to do the same next year, when another slew of articles pronounces 2015’s film summer to be too big and in need of immediate saving.