5 Ways to Fix the Summer Movie Box-Office Crisis
This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Universal didn't even try to sugarcoat its eulogy for R.I.P.D. The Ryan Reynolds/Jeff Bridges action comedy cost between $130 million and $150 million to produce but opened to only $12.7 million and could result in a loss of more than $80 million, say sources. Rubbing salt in R.I.P.D.'s wounds, New Line's The Conjuring, a $20 million horror pic, opened to a huge $41.9 million during the same weekend. Several studio insiders say R.I.P.D. and the other wake-up calls this summer -- Disney's The Lone Ranger, Sony's After Earth and White House Down and Warner Bros. and Legendary's Pacific Rim -- are forcing Hollywood to consider changing its summer strategy. One studio chief confides to THR that he wouldn't be surprised if original films budgeted at more than $125 million become rare, which would be a dramatic shift. These five changes could help fix the woes.
1. Stop Double Dating
A crowded release calendar is considered the chief culprit behind the summer pileups. Beginning in mid-June, five action tentpoles aimed mostly at men opened on consecutive weekends. The first two -- Warners' Man of Steel and Paramount's World War Z -- survived the onslaught. But then White House Down, Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim came up short.
"I believe many of them would have done bigger business if they were released during another time of the year," says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "They need room to breathe, and they didn't get it."
Next summer could be just as problematic, particularly July, with Fast & Furious 7, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Hercules scheduled to open during three consecutive weekends and the latter facing off against the Wachowskis' sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending. On July 2, Sony's Sex Tape, starring Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, will open opposite Warners' competing comedy Tammy, with Melissa McCarthy. Will studios rethink the calendar?
2. Control Those Costs
If a studio is going to spend huge sums on a tentpole, the money better show onscreen. But execs can't seem to rein in top producers and directors who have made previous blockbusters. Disney tried to cut back the budget on Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski's Lone Ranger, only to see it creep back above $250 million during production. Sony gave Roland Emmerich $160 million to make White House Down, even when there was a rival project, Olympus Has Fallen, on track to hit theaters first. Sony also obliged Will Smith when he brought in After Earth, a starring vehicle for son Jaden.
Analyst Doug Creutz predicts a reckoning: "I don't think they are going to get out of the business of making blockbuster movies, but they may pull back a bit, particularly in terms of when they launch these properties."
3. Don't Forget the Ladies
Skeptics were surprised when The Great Gatsby grossed $329.9 million worldwide. But it appealed to women, a demo historically marginalized in the summer. Such female-fueled hits as The Heat and Now You See Me, as well as the horror pics Conjuring and The Purge, also owe a big part of their success to females.
"It's not just about chick flicks or romance," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, whose Aug. 16 release Austenland is targeting females. "Women go to the movies in packs when there is something entertaining for them." Adds Gatsby producer Doug Wick: "Magic has to occur on the screen. The habit of going to the movies is over, and people have so many more options."
4. Cool It With the Cartoons
An unprecedented number of animated films is testing the market. Historically, there have been two or, at most, three a summer. In 2013, there have been five, plus CGI/live-action The Smurfs 2 coming July 31. Pixar's Monsters University, Universal's Despicable Me 2 and DreamWorks Animation's Turbo opened two weeks apart, and Turbo suffered, bowing to only $31 million in North America.
"We had a tsunami in front of us," says Chris Aronson, distribution chief at Fox, which released Turbo. "While we felt that two weeks was an adequate window, we didn't expect to be swamped like we were."
5. Make Better Movies!
One mogul puts it simply, "Truthfully, the movies that flopped this summer didn't deserve to do any more business than they did."