Box-Office Crash: What Caused Hollywood's Miserable Summer?

 

A version of this story first appeared in the Sep. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

To understand the upside-down summer at the box office, consider that Sony's 22 Jump Street, made for about $50 million, ended up grossing nearly as much in North America as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the studio's $200 million-plus tentpole that represents the type of movie on which Hollywood long has relied to drive summer slates. 22 Jump Street earned $193.3 million domestically, versus $202.8 million for the Spider-Man sequel (Neighbors, another R-rated comedy, also prospered).

All the usual rules were tossed out as comedies, female-fueled films and Guardians of the Galaxy, the season's top-grossing title despite being released in the dog days of August, were left to make up for underperforming franchise pics. "Ultimately, it comes down to content, and the content just wasn't as good as it has been in previous years," says entertainment analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. Adds one studio executive, "many of the tentpoles that underperformed were more of the same and way too long. People ate up Guardians because it was a departure from the norm."

Domestic revenue from May 2 through Labor Day came in at an estimated $4.05 billion, an eight-year low and, when accounting for inflation, a 17-year low. Moreover, revenue was down 15 percent from last summer's record $4.75 billion, while attendance tumbled more than 5 percent. Not one film has crossed $300 million domestically for the first time since 2001, though Guardians of the Galaxy will ultimately reach that mark (its domestic cume is just north of $280 million).

If there's any solace, it's that the international marketplace remains strong, although the World Cup hurt box office returns in key soccer markets. Nor were there major debacles akin to summer 2013 disasters The Lone Ranger and After Earth. Still, Sony appears to have put its Amazing Spider-Man franchise on ice after ASM2 topped out at $708.3 million, which included only $202.9 million domestic.

Paramount's Transformers: Age of Extinction also hit a franchise low in the U.S., but it has amassed north of $1.07 billion globally after becoming the top film of all time in China with $331 million. "There is no question the movie business is cyclical," says Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore. Age of Extinction's lengthy running time of 165 minutes no doubt hurt it in the U.S. (the previous installments were shorter).

Warner Bros., usually the dominant summer player, saw its revenue drop a massive 39.5 percent from 2013 as of Aug. 1. Godzilla, the studio's top earner, grossed $507.9 million globally, while Tom Cruise's big-budget Edge of Tomorrow finished with $364 million. Disappointments included Adam Sandler's Blended and Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys. "Our summer did not live up to our expectations," says Warners distribution chief Dan Fellman, "though Tammy will be profitable. We'll also have a very strong fourth quarter."

Disney, without a summer animated film for the first time in a decade, did great with Maleficent and Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy.

Fox, on a winning streak, will win the market-share honor thanks to X-Men: Days of Future Past ($745.4 million), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ($611.5 million) and The Fault in Our Stars ($286.5 million), among other titles. "All of our movies were fresh and well-received. That's ultimately what matters," said Fox domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson. "Give the people more of what they want."

Females powered both Fault and Maleficent as well as Universal's Lucy, suggesting an underserved demo. Maleficent, a boon for star Angelina Jolie, grossed $748.7 million worldwide, the No. 2 title of the summer after Age of Extinction.

If there's a common refrain on Wall Street and in Hollywood as the season ends, it's that next summer will restore balance with Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fast & Furious 7, Pixar's Inside Out and Universal's Jurassic World. But with so many entertainment options now vying for eyeballs, the fear is that summer 2014 is the start of a new reality. "You have to answer two critical questions: Do I have to see it now? And do I have to see it on the big screen?" says Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn. "If the answer is 'no' to either, you are in trouble."

Sept. 1, 2:08 p.m. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Guardians of the Galaxy's domestic box office was north of $180 million, rather than $280 million. THR regrets the error.

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