The Box Office Surprises of Summer 2019

Our guide to the hits and misses of the season.
Rocketman Bowtie
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on September 3rd, 2019

Nobody’s surprised that Avengers: Endgame dominated much of this summer’s box office. But the movie wasn’t technically a summer release, regardless of whether Hollywood wants to stretch the definition. Other Disney and Marvel releases that did debut in the season hit big, and that’s not much of a shocker, either. These are the kind of blockbusters that prove movies can be relatively frontloaded successes and also leggy longtail victories, as well.

The trend of live-action reimaginings continues to be a triumphant idea for the Mouse House. Not only did The Lion King recently pass Beauty and the Beast as the highest-grossing effort of the kind, but Aladdin was another powerhouse for the studio these past few months. The former was an expected hit and had the opening to confirm the presumption. The latter, on the other hand, seemed to fall short in the beginning. Yet Aladdin wound up a steady runner, drawing fans at a constant pace to remain in the top 10 for 11 weekends straight. Not even Endgame accomplished that.

Not everything was as rosy for Disney as it could have been, however, Toy Story 4, despite coming in second place for summer 2019 releases, is still underperforming for a Pixar sequel, at least compared to Finding Dory and last year’s Incredibles 2. The fourth installment of the studio’s flagship franchise has also sold fewer tickets than both Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. Disney could have misjudged the anticipation for another part, especially after Toy Story 3 was believed to be a great series capper. They also could be hurting themselves, in a way, by having so many other movies with more return-attendance appeal.

Disney also had a hand in the season’s third placer, Spider-Man: Far From Home, which has turned out to have better legs than its predecessor. After opening lower than Spider-Man: Homecoming, the sequel has shot past the original to become the highest-grossing of the non-Raimi Spidey movies. Far From Home had a bit of a boost over Labor Day weekend thanks to Sony’s release of an extended cut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe installment. Spidey movies tend to be leggy anyway — even The Amazing Spider-Man — but it’s still surprising to see this one running quite so well.

Beyond the kind of movie we bet on doing well, the truly noteworthy hits of summer 2019 are two musicals that haven’t seemed like major players. One is Rocketman, the Elton John biopic that feels like a box office disappointment after the giant grosses of Bohemian Rhapsody but is nevertheless an achievement for the genre in this season. The other is Yesterday, the Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle collaboration fantasizing about a world without The Beatles, which has crept along as a sleeper hit and will possibly be more profitable domestically for Universal than their latest Fast & Furious film.

The same studio is also making money on Good Boys, one of the few originals and few comedies to find success this season. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood may be the highest-grossing original release of the summer (Sony hit bigger there than they did with Men in Black: International) but that one does have the branding of Quentin Tarantino (it’s nice to see an original movie in the top 10 after none last year, at least). The R-rated Good Boys is just a means for twentysomething males to live vicariously through a few tweens who swear a lot. Unfortunately, they skipped the similar yet better and female-focused Booksmart, which bombed.

Not many festival hits are following through well in theatrical runs, as evidenced especially by such dismal performances from Late Night and Blinded by the Light. The Farewell has managed to gross more than double its acquisition price, though. And documentaries, which are reportedly the saving grace for the indie market right now, are collectively doing modest business. Neon is one distributor doing particularly well, but the summer has seen nice returns for The Biggest Little Farm, Pavarotti, Echo in the Canyon, Maiden, and Apollo 11, which opened earlier but had a surge in July thanks to the Moon landing anniversary.

The biggest losers of the season have been certain non-Disney franchises. Still, the Mouse House lost a lot on Dark Phoenix, the X-Men movie they acquired through their purchase of 20th Century Fox. Universal blew it with their attempted MIB reboot. Warner Bros. put out a Godzilla movie in which the king of the monsters battles his greatest foes and it still sold fewer tickets than the notoriously bad 1998 remake. Dog movies (A Dog’s Journey, The Art of Racing in the Rain) couldn’t sustain the dog days of summer. And mid-summer just wasn’t the right time for A24’s Midsommar.

Another summer came and went without the introduction of a new original franchise, not that we had any contenders for breakout success. Instead, we saw the John Wick series explode into genuine tentpole status with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. The sequel, which opened in mid-May and so qualifies as a summer release (according to Box Office Mojo, even if I think Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend should be the parameters), had a great opening and has played well over a few months to round out the season’s top five as the only non-Disney-connected title in the bunch. Its studio, Lionsgate, also finished out strong with another threequel, Angel Has Fallen.

Here are the top 12 movies of the summer, by domestic ticket sales from May 3rd through September 2nd, with titles released in the summer in bold (and total ticket sales in parentheses):

1. The Lion King — 58.1 million (58.1 million)
2. Toy Story 4 — 47.8 million (47.8 million)
3. Spider-Man: Homecoming — 42.8 million (42.8 million)
4. Avengers: Endgame — 42.7 million (95.3 million)
5. Aladdin — 39.3 million (39.3 million)
6. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum — 19 million (19 million)
7. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw — 17.6 million (17.6 million)
8. The Secret Life of Pets 2 — 17.5 million (17.5 million)
9. Pokemon: Detective Pikachu — 16 million (16 million)
10. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood — 14.5 million (14.5 million)
11. Godzilla: King of the Monsters — 12.3 million (12.3 million)
12. Rocketman — 10.7 million (10.7 million)

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.