For the first time in a decade, no Hollywood summer event movie has earned north of $100 million in its domestic-box- office debut, a sobering statistic that illustrates the strains on Hollywood’s big-budget tentpole strategy since these titles generally need to amass big grosses quickly.
Paramount’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, costing $210 million to produce, was widely considered to have the strongest shot, but it topped out at an even $100 million over the weekend of June 27-29, according to Paramount (rival studios put the actual number closer to $98 million). It did mark the best opening of the year to date, nudging Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($95 million) aside.
It’s become commonplace for summer’s biggest titles to open well north of $100 million in North America, a trend that has been in place since 2004 — except for this year. In summer 2013, Iron Man 3 debuted to $174.1 million before topping out at $409 million. In 2012, The Avengers earned $207.4 million on its way to $623.4 million, while The Dark Knight Rises took in $160.9 million for a total of $448.1 million.
The lack of mega openings, combined with steeper-than-usual falloffs, is dragging down the bottom line. While some have reported that summer 2014 is down 13 percent, it is actually down a steep 15 percent over last year, according to Rentrak. Consequentially, gains made earlier in the winter and spring have been wiped away, resulting in year-over-year revenue decline of nearly 1 percent.
“It is an unusual turn of events, and I believe it’s product driven. Look at Transformers, it’s the fourth installment in the series. Maybe people just weren’t that excited, even with Mark Wahlberg as the new star,” says one top studio executive. “Do I think it’s concerning? Yes. Do I think it’s doomsday, no.”
Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak, agrees with the thinking that success is product driven. “It’s been tough coming off of a record-breaking summer last year. Thank god for 2015. This is a transitional year. We don’t even have a film that has crossed $300 million,” he said.
Younger males in particular are harder and harder to lure to the multiplex. In general, big action titles and comic-book adaptations rely heavily on “fanboys” of all ages.
While 64 percent of Age of Extinction‘s opening-weekend audience was male, only 42 percent of ticket buyers were under age 25. That compares to 55 percent under 25 for the last film in the series, 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Opening on a Tuesday, Dark of the Moon took in $162.6 million in its first six days, including $97.9 million for the weekend.
At the same time, Age of Extinction drew fewer females, also hampering returns. They made up 36 percent of Age of Extinction‘s audience, a franchise low, compared to 38 percent for Revenge of the Fallen, a whopping 46 percent for sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and 40 percent for the first Transformers. (Females indeed are wielding plenty of power this summer: Though neither debuted over $100 million, Maleficent and The Fault in Our Stars have been two of the season’s breakout hits.)
It’s too early to tell how much Transformers 4 will ultimately earn domestically, but only one summer film so far, X-Men: Days of Future Past, has earned north of $220 million domestically. Godzilla has grossed $197 million after a $93.2 million debut, while The Amazing Spider-Man 2, debuting to $91.6 million, has just crossed $200 million.
Disney’s and Marvel’s Winter Soldier doesn’t technically count as a summer title since it debuted in early April, but some believe it made life tough for those that followed.
“We end up executing each other. These movies should be spread out more,” said one box-office observer. “Days of Future Past was the third comic-book movie to open in short order after Winter Soldier and Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
It’s possible the summer will end without a $100 million-plus opening. The event titles left to open are Fox’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11), Paramount’s Hercules (July 25), Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug. 1) and Paramount’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Aug. 8).
The softening of the North American box office for tentpoles puts even more pressure on a film’s international performance, where the majority of the money is made. Age of Extinction did massive business in Asia and Russia, opening at over $200 million even though it won’t launch in most of Europe and Latin America until after the World Cup. It debuted to $93 million in China — where some of the movie was shot — the biggest three-day opening of all time.
To date, Days of Future Past is the year’s top earner with $713.1 million globally, including an international haul of $489.6 million through Sunday, followed closely by Winter Soldier ($711.2 million).