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Hollywood, you have a problem.
And it’s big. As in $1.2 billion, a figure that represents the difference between this summer’s domestic box office of $3.6 billion and last year’s $4.8 billion haul.
The $1.2 billion is a staggering and astonishing decline in season-to-season revenue, one likely to cost more than a few studio jobs, no matter how clever the accounting departments are with tax write-offs.
To be fair, 2013’s May-through-August movie period set a record as the best seasonal box-office run in history, while 2014’s summer cinema also has its share of records: Its $18.8 million per-film average and 28.1 percent overall decline in box office from the previous summer are the worst numbers in each category since 1982, which is as far back as box-office tracking site boxofficemojo.com compiles such statistics.
So, what happened? Where did this summer go so wrong for the studios?
Perhaps it’s best to start with the films themselves.
Iron Man 3 opened the 2013 summer season on May 3 and went on to gross $409 million. The 2012 May opener, Marvel’s The Avengers, delivered a summer record $623 million.
And this year, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which arrived May 2 and is already available on DVD-Blu-ray, barely cracked $200 million. Sony was disappointed enough with that total that the studio pushed The Amazing Spider-Man 3 back to 2018, while it will release a spin-off franchise in 2016.
Tepid audience enthusiasm is not the way to launch Hollywood’s biggest money-making season, though it was a sign of what was to come in this summer of some good but never spectacular box-office performances.
The season’s biggest film, Guardians of the Galaxy — a risky Marvel comic-book adaptation and one of the few true summer success stories — has made $252 million thus far, which places it at No. 39 or so on a list of the top summer films of the last 20 years.
As of this moment, however, the two biggest blockbusters of 2014 are pre-summer releases: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, released April 4, and its nearly $260 million domestic haul, and The Lego Movie, released Feb. 7, and its nearly $258 million.
The early release of The Winter Soldier and to a lesser degree The Lego Movie point to a serious change in Hollywood strategy: removing potential box-office giants from an overly crowded marketplace. By opening a month before the official launch of the summer movie season, The Captain America sequel faced less blockbuster competition and climbed way beyond expectations.
As for The Lego Movie, the charming and witty family animated film that could, proved that audiences are willing to flock to theaters even when it’s still cold outside. And in Toledo’s case, buried in snow.
So what if both of those movies opened this summer instead?
Considering how well-received Captain America was by critics and audiences, the Disney-Marvel film still would have been huge, while The Lego Movie could have performed even better than it did, given the dearth of family films this summer. Which brings up ...
What happened to family entertainment?
There were three major animated films this summer — How to Train Your Dragon 2, Planes: Fire & Rescue, and Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return — and none of them were from Pixar.
Last summer produced five animated films, including Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University, both of which cracked the box-office Top 10 for the year. With a $171 million performance in ticket sales, How to Train Your Dragon 2 barely makes the Top 10 this summer.
Disney’s Planes: Fire & Rescue made $65 million while Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return earned only $8.4 million. Even when the three box-office totals are combined, their nearly $245 million is less than either Monsters University ($268 million) or Despicable Me 2 ($368 million).
Too many movies
The lack of family films withstanding, perhaps there were too many choices at theaters this summer, as the big releases cannibalized each other.
During the big May through Labor Day push, every Friday — and even the occasional Wednesday — sees a major studio film: sequels, prequels, wannabe franchises. So maybe they’re simply crowding each other, suffocating films before they can make long summer runs.
But the numbers at boxofficemojo suggest otherwise.
The average drop from opening weekend to the next was 48.9 percent, which is slightly less than 2013’s 49.4 percent and 2012’s 49.5 percent. Plus, only 185 films opened this year, compared to 232 films only a year before. While many of those are come-and-go independent releases, there were approximately the same number of 40 big releases during that May to Labor Day period.
On the bright side
Looking to next summer, Hollywood can look forward to a blockbuster-heavy slate that kicks off with Avengers: Age of Ultron, and includes Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, The Fantastic Four, Ted 2, Magic Mike 2, Minions, and Ant-Man.
The adage “there’s always next year” does nothing to take the sting off this summer’s dismal box-office showing.
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.