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‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Tops the Lowest-Grossing Memorial Day Weekend Since 1998

‘Pirates’ is sunk, ‘Baywatch’ drowned, and the traditional start of the summer has fizzled out.
By  · Published on May 29th, 2017

‘Pirates’ is sunk, ‘Baywatch’ drowned, and the traditional start of the summer has fizzled out.

Once upon a time, Memorial Day Weekend kickstarted the summer box office season. Two things you could depend on over the holiday honoring our fallen soldiers were cookouts and a new Beverly Hills CopShrekX-MenMission: Impossible, or other major franchise sequel that everyone was dying to see. But this year, the latest Pirates of the Caribbean installment proved relatively unappealing not just to Americans but to the whole world, and not even The Rock could save the total domestic box office from being the lowest of the century.

That distinction is actually quit sad. If you look at the bottom of Box Office Mojo’s weekend chart for this past Friday through Sunday, you can see that all reporting theatrical releases (44 titles) add up to a box office total of just $140M ($172M through Monday). The last time the first three days of Memorial Day Weekend cumulated a lower figure was in 2000, when it was only (with 15 releases reported) $108M (but still $184M through Monday). Yet with an adjustment made for inflation, that Mission: Impossible II-led year’s total would be $177M ($302M through Monday).

We need to go back a couple more years to 1998 for (with eight movies reported) a true lower figure, when adjusted for inflation, of $127M (but still $234M through Monday). That was actually a fluke bad year, too, thanks to the disappointment of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. Prior to that, the last time the Memorial Day Weekend box office dipped so low was in 1991 when Backdraft led a four-day total of just $144M (adjusted). That was a time when there were far fewer screens than there are now.

Ring the alarms that moviegoing is dead, because if people aren’t going to the multiplexes on the first big holiday weekend of the blockbuster season, then they’re just not interested in the cinema anymore. Right? Well, maybe, but also as more and more big tentpole movies open earlier in May (and sometimes April), the Memorial Day release has been watered down. Plus this year’s offerings didn’t cut it. The Pirates of the Caribbean series was already on its way downward, and an R-rated take on a cheesy ’90s TV drama isn’t anyone’s idea of fun.

Looking first at Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth installment performed much worse than anticipated with $63M through Sunday (most predictions put the movie at $80M for the four-day weekend, but it only reached an estimated $77M). Compare that to the adjusted-for-inflation openings of the other four, in order of release: $68M for The Curse of the Black Pearl, $183M for Dead Man’s Chest, $147M for At World’s End, and $99M for On Stranger Tides.

When On Stranger Tides showed such a big drop for the franchise domestically, Disney at least celebrated a successful global launch as the sequel grossed $260M overseas on its opening weekend. Dead Men Tell No Tales still off-sets its US debut pretty substantially but only with $208M. It’s much more normal these days for the international box office numbers to go up for a franchise like Pirates of the Caribbean even when the domestic numbers are going down. The Fate of the Furious, for instanceopened about $50M less in the US than Furious 7 did, but it opened almost $200M more overseas than did its predecessor.

Memorial Day weekend does seem to be a bad time for Disney to open movies. Last year they had Alice Through the Looking Glass, which bombed domestically and internationally, especially compared to the grosses for Alice in Wonderland. The Memorial Day before that, Disney had a huge disappointment with Tomorrowland. And back in 2010, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time failed to take in enough to turn the property into a franchise. Ten years ago, though, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was a hit.

Fortunately, the studio has the Marvel movies, which tend to bow earlier in May and continue to do well through the holiday. This year, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is still going strong in its fourth frame. Its $21M (and estimated $25M through Monday0 is surprisingly enough to keep the sequel in the number two spot, in part thanks to Baywatch flopping hard. Tracking for the comedy put its four-day total predictions giving it $40M, but it only grossed 19M through Sunday and an estimated 23M for the full holiday weekend.

That’s less than last year’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which opened a week prior to Memorial Day and co-stars Zac Efron and was seen as a disappointment compared to the first Neighbors movie. Fortunately for Efron, it’s not his worst debut ever. However, unfortunately for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it’s one of his worst openings of all time — this is his least-grossing vehicle since 2013’s low-profile drama Snitch, and his only other major release movies with worse openings (as adjusted for inflation) are The Tooth Fairy and Faster (and the animated Planet 51, if we count voice-only roles). Yes, even Doom was a bigger hit at the start.

Contributing to the historically low box office, of course, is last week’s number one, Alien: Covenant, which fell an embarrassing 71% in its second frame, marking it a certain disaster for Fox. And that’s with a slight increase in the prequel’s screen count, too. You can tell it’s a generally dismal weekend when the movie with the best per-screen average ($17K) belongs to a four-hour Grateful Dead documentary that will be available to stream free online (for Amazon Prime members anyway) a mere week after its theatrical release: Long Strange Trip.

Of course, it’s not a terrible loss for Disney, who will make just enough on Dead Men Tell No Tales globally to break even and which has Guardians and Beauty and the Beast profits to swim in. The Rock shouldn’t sweat his movie’s failure, either, as he’ll have tons of hits in the future, such as Fast and the Furious and the Fast and the Furious spinoff with Jason Statham, and the San Andreas sequel with his Baywatch co-star Alexandra Daddario. But it’s clearer that Central Intelligence did so well thanks to Kevin Hart, and thankfully he’s reuniting with Hart for his next release, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

As for whether this Memorial Day weekend’s box office should be an indication that moviegoing is really doomed, it’s more like just the usual warning signs of such a long-known fate. However, next year the holiday should be back to meaning something for summer blockbusters and box office, because the tentpole opening on May 25, 2018, is none other than Disney’s Han Solo origin Star Wars spinoff. That thing will surely prove me wrong about the studio and this holiday, as it should wind up breaking records in the other direction.

*This column has been updated and slightly reworded with Monday’s updated figures.

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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.