LOS ANGELES – Optimus Prime and his fellow Autobots can turn from cars into heavily armed giant robots and save the day on-screen, but even they won’t be able to transform this summer’s lackluster box office.
Despite this past weekend’s $100 million opening for Michael Bay’s critically maligned “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” domestic grosses are running 13 percent behind last summer’s – and the road ahead doesn’t look any rosier.
Heading into summer, overall box office was actually up roughly 9 percent, compared with 2013. But since early May, the wind has gone out of Hollywood’s sails, and that healthy head start has been wiped away.
With the summer season typically making up as much as 40 percent of the studios’ overall annual revenue, the recent box office swoon has been worrying for the industry, though perhaps not panic-inducing.
“It’s not so bad – there is still a lot of money being generated,” says Greg Foster, chief executive of Imax Entertainment and senior executive vice president of the Imax Corp. “I learned a long time ago that when you start declaring trends on a three- or six-month period of time, you’re going to become a ping-pong ball.”
You can blame the distractions of the World Cup or the ever-proliferating alternatives on TV, but simply put, there just haven’t been enough big movies this summer – and the ones there have been just haven’t been big enough.
Whereas last summer, seven blockbusters crossed the $200 million mark, only three have reached that threshold so far this season: “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Maleficent” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” And there have been no monster-sized hits close to last year’s “Iron Man 3” ($409 million) and “Despicable Me 2” ($368 million) or 2012’s “The Avengers” ($623 million) and “The Dark Knight Rises” ($448 million).
Indeed, the two biggest smashes of the year so far, “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “The Lego Movie,” both hit theaters before anyone started breaking out the suntan oil and beach chairs.
Here are some lessons of the summer so far.
• The bigger they come, the harder they’re falling
To box office observers, the underwhelming numbers actually aren’t a huge surprise; going into the season, there was a sense that this year’s crop wasn’t as strong as last year’s. “This happens every now and then,” says Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at the tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.
“Every summer, the studios try to give moviegoers basically the same slate, but everyone knew that this summer wasn’t going to be on par with the last one.”
What has caught Hollywood by surprise is how poorly this summer’s movies have performed over time, even in cases where their opening weekends have been impressive. A drop of more than 50 percent from the first weekend to the second is considered disappointing for a major tent pole; by that standard, this summer’s dips have been downright stomach-churning. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” dropped 61 percent after its opening weekend, for example, while “Godzilla” took a 67 percent dive.
Studios’ increasingly sophisticated social media marketing campaigns may be partly to blame. “Some films have managed to target their fan base so well that they got them all on opening weekend,” says Bruce Nash, who runs the box office analysis site the Numbers. “ ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ was a great example of that.” Indeed, while that film debuted at $48 million, it took a steep 69 percent fall in its second weekend as excitement among its largely teen and tween audience dissipated.
• Originality is being largely rejected at the box office
Summer is a time when moviegoers tend to check their brains at the theater door, but this year, audiences seem drawn more than ever to the comfortably familiar.
Last summer saw 10 films that weren’t sequels or reboots break out and gross more than $100 million, including sleeper hits such as “The Conjuring” and “Now You See Me.”
So far this summer, only two movies not based on pre-existing film properties have pulled off that feat: “The Fault in Our Stars” and the Seth Rogen-Zac Efron frat comedy “Neighbors.” (Disney’s “Maleficent,” one of the summer’s biggest hits, is essentially a live-action spin on the animated classic “Sleeping Beauty.”)
Despite excellent reviews, the Tom Cruise sci-fi film “Edge of Tomorrow” has failed to connect with audiences, as have other original fare like “Million Dollar Arm” and “Blended.” Meanwhile, the Seth MacFarlane Western comedy “A Million Ways to Die in the West” found a million ways to die at the box office.
• The turn toward international is accelerating
Studio executives can console themselves with the fact that the international market for movies continues to grow, with some films that haven’t been big hits here doing well overseas. “Edge of Tomorrow,” for example, has nearly tripled its grosses internationally, where Cruise is still a major draw.
Given the record-setting $90 million opening in China for the fourth “Transformers” film, you can expect even more catering to global audiences’ tastes going forward, even though, when it comes to foreign grosses, studios take home a smaller cut of the pie.
As for the domestic market, the rest of this summer’s slate looks unlikely to reverse the downward trend. Although the much-buzzed-about “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” should do well when it opens July 11, expectations are that this July won’t match last year’s revenue, while August’s most anticipated movies – including Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and Paramount’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot – are genuine wild cards.
Of course, hope springs eternal in Hollywood and memories are short, and it’s possible that in time, the recent box office doldrums may fade like the summer breeze.
“Chances are that when the next ‘Hunger Games’ movie comes out in November, all will be forgotten,” says Nash. “That will be the real test.”