Box Office's New Normal in 2015: "You Can't Cheat an Opening Weekend Anymore"

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Record highs and lows put studio heads on edge as audiences get savvier. Says Fox domestic distribution president Chris Aronson, "There is no bottom anymore."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, box-office revenue in North America still has a shot at hitting $11 billion for the first time in 2015. But the real story of the year has been the dramatic highs and lows that have become the new normal. Titles that click with audiences — Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Furious 7 and Minions, among them — drastically overperform expectations. At the same time, 2015 has seen the worst wide openings in history, despite expensive marketing. Blame social media. "You can't cheat an opening weekend anymore," says Paramount vice chair Rob Moore. "And anyone under 30 is checking Rotten Tomatoes and telling their friends what the score is on a Thursday. You saw it with Fantastic Four: Fox actually had good tracking, but by opening day the audience knew the film was bad. The good news is that when you have a good movie, people equally share that."

Only a few years ago, a $15 million debut was considered poor for a major studio film — but now, $5 million or less is possible. "There is no bottom anymore," says Chris Aronson, domestic distribution president at Fox, whose Victor Frankenstein suffered the worst start to date for a film opening in 2,500 or more theaters ($2.5 million). It joined Sony's The Walk, Universal's Jem and the Holograms, Open Road's Rock the Kasbah and Warner Bros.' Our Brand Is Crisis as films that set records of one type or another. (With the exception of Walk, the historic bombs were panned by critics.) Warners was hit especially hard: Jupiter Ascending, Pan and In the Heart of the Sea each cost more than $100 million and flopped hard. Adds Moore, "The challenge now is, if you don't have a good movie, how much time, money and energy [do you spend] trying to fix it?"