Analysts are claiming the summer box office is doomed to die fail to paint a convincing portrait of the designated killer.
Last week, the LA Times published an article forecasting the 2017 summer box office. It painted a grim picture, using phrases such as “depressing” and “worst in a decade.” And there are quotes and fancy graphs and everything; we’re not talking about some lone doomsday prophet ringing a bell and holding a sign reading “The End is Nigh.” Reading the article, you can practically picture some accountant-type crunching numbers in a cubicle office somewhere. After that, a veritable floodgate opened: in addition to generating a flurry of commentary from sources ranging from Screen Rant to Vanity Fair, others, including The Hollywood Reporter, have since published similarly themed analysis pieces of their own.
So, should we prepare for the worst—the vaguely ominous “sweeping changes” threatened by one box office analyst, and, perhaps even worse, yet another flood of thinkpieces about how Hollywood/big budget movies/franchises/sequels/all of the cinema is dying, set off by an abysmal summer box office? Not just yet, I would say. Before we panic, there are two points that these pieces, for all their data and quotes from industry insiders, fails to convincingly address: 2015 and 2016.
One ominous quote from the LA Times article comes from Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox’s head of domestic distribution, who said that “some of the tent poles are just not as strong this year.” He then pointed out that the new Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers were both the fifth installments in their respective franchises. Now, I am not about to undermine anyone questioning the value of these franchises churning out new installments. I used to wonder about why both of these franchises still existed quite a lot before I reached the point where I switched to a maybe-if-I-don’t-think-about-them-then-they’ll-go-away approach. Still, I do have an issue with Aronson’s point, and it’s quite a big one—“not as strong” as what, exactly?
Overall, 2016 was a decent year for movies. But perhaps the more accurate way to phrase it would be to say that the Fall/Winter movie season was so good it made us forget the cinematic wasteland that was that summer. Are pointless fifth installments that far of a jump from pointless second installments? May-August 2016 gave us Alice Through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Now You See Me 2, and Independence Day: Resurgence, all of which underperformed in comparison to their predecessors.
2016 only featured a slight drop in overall summer box office in comparison to 2015 (as opposed to the steep decline the LA Times, in particular, anticipates for 2017), thanks to a handful of major successes, such as Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War. People like to throw around the terms like “sequel/franchise fatigue,” and yet for every flop that would seemingly support the existence of such a thing, there’s an equally compelling counter-example. I am of the opinion that cinema has literally always been fundamentally dominated by sequels, adaptations, and remakes—back before Hollywood was a thing, and movies hadn’t yet developed a narrative emphasis, a really popular thing to do was to film a sort of tableau from a well-known story (a novel, play, fairytale, etc.). These proto-films didn’t really tell a story, that wasn’t the point, the point was to show off this shiny new technology and grounding these demonstrations in stories audiences already knew and liked was super convenient. That doesn’t mean that audiences couldn’t theoretically revolt one day and stop going to sequels, it’s just that if you’re going to put any weight on this hypothetical becoming reality, you should have some pretty strong reasoning as to why now. While many of summer 2016’s biggest busts were sequels, so were the two top grossing films, suggesting that the anxiety of people wringing their hands over the “sequel” part of the equation might be somewhat misplaced.
Now, moving on to 2015.
I am going to suggest something radical here but what if, just maybe, we sometimes give individual movies themselves just a little bit too much credit in determining box office turnout? What if sometimes—especially in the summer, when most students are out of school—people don’t plan to go to a movie so much as the movies, and pick whatever option is most appealing or, as is sometimes the case, looks the least terrible? I am not saying that audiences will not intentionally carve out spaces for individual films on their calendar. All I’m saying is that sometimes the weather sucks, going to the movies is easy and, depending on what cinemas you go to, still relatively cheap about a lot of other entertainment options out there. No, not as cheap as watching TV or Netflix at home, but summertime cabin fever is absolutely a thing. And if you’re wondering what this has to do with 2015, I promise you; I’m getting there.
I don’t know if you recall what was happening in the world of movies in June 2015, but one of the biggest talking points was Jurassic World. It came out, people saw it, and it conquered all sorts of box office records—and expectations, pulling in over $60 million more than even the most generous predictions in its opening weekend. To quote the opening of a Deadline article on the subject, “The biggest opening weekend of all-time? Who would have thought?”
But from my point of view, as a sixteen-year-old stuck at home sans car or a job, the whole thing really didn’t seem all that surprising: the weather was awful. For those of you going “but teenagers see the world through hyperbolic angst goggles,” I double-checked my memories of the time with Google, and the Weather Channel confirmed—June 2015 sucked. That said, not so much in the parts of California where the majority of the US film industry resides, which might explain why I couldn’t find any evidence of any of them giving that angle much thought, but for a lot of people elsewhere in the US, it was an issue. While approximately twenty five people loved Jurassic World, and many of us enjoyed the whole zookeeper meme thing, the general attitude seemed to be more along the lines of “it was sufficiently entertaining to hold my attention for two hours and watching CGI dinosaurs fight each other greatly appealed to my inner seven-year-old.” I can personally say that I know people who saw it multiple times, but none of them did so because of any special love for the movie, but instead because they had already made plans with different friends, there wasn’t much else to do, and nothing else really came out that weekend.
That is not to say that rain and/or unbearable heat every weekend of the summer would necessarily equal a killer box office haul (though it probably wouldn’t hurt). It’s just to say that there are variables at play beyond the films themselves that even a well-rounded analysis of marketing and hype and social media trends can’t quite account for.
It’s pretty hard to argue against a more general concern about dwindling ticket sales on the whole, but it doesn’t justify such a specific emphasis on this summer. After all, this summer has certain things going for it that last summer didn’t: fewer obvious train wrecks (you didn’t need to be an analyst to anticipate what happened with Ben Hur), more wildcards, from Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets to Baby Driver to The Dark Tower, and appeals to certain groups that last year’s batch lacked. The Hollywood Reporter’s Summer 2017 forecast features a remark from Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Jeff Goldstein that “the audience is much more fragmented these days”; inspiring the thought that maybe the key to future success will be to figure out creative ways to appeal to different fragments simultaneously. Dunkirk will certainly test this possibility in seeking to appeal to fans of war movies, Christopher Nolan, and Harry Styles, three groups that one would imagine make a Venn diagram that covers quite a bit of ground, especially considering that the Harry Styles fanbase is less of a group and more of a mid-sized and very patriotic country.
Maybe this summer will be everything analysts fear and more. Or maybe it won’t. But please, for those committed to predicting catastrophe: can someone come up with a more convincing argument than “franchise fatigue”?