Summer Box Office: What's Behind Warner Bros.' Risky Move to Release Nine Movies
A glut of movies, no sure things and plenty of questions as the season's former champion hopes not to repeat the flops of 2014.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara isn't kidding when he says he wants to be the king of content. This summer, Warners will open nine movies nationwide, plus the documentary Batkid, the most in recent history for a studio. Pan was also scheduled to open this summer, but Warners, in a surprise move, announced April 20 it is relocating the big-budget fantasy to Oct. 9, the second summer in a row the studio has abruptly yanked a big July movie a few months before release (Jupiter Ascending moved to February).
The studio's 2014 summer tally was seven, and the industry norm is four to six. The gutsy move puts pressure on Warners' marketing machinery and could squeeze its ability to land screens. For years, Warners dominated the warm months between the Harry Potter and Dark Knight series. But in 2014, sans a big franchise and with such disappointments as Edge of Tomorrow and Blended, it generated only $1.43 billion worldwide from titles released between May 1 and Labor Day, trailing most other studios. Now, again lacking a proven tentpole, Warners is flooding the market, hoping to claim a respectable portion of what most forecast as a record-breaking summer, with domestic box office poised to hit $5 billion for the first time. "What might look like a lot of singles and doubles might be a lot of doubles, triples and homers," says Warners domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman. "It will be tough work, but I think it will pay off. As Kevin says, if we aren't going to handle these movies, someone else will."
Of the studios' two big-budget tentpoles, George Miller's $150 million Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15) was considered the surer bet over Joe Wright's Pan, which was set to open July 24 and likewise cost $150 million to produce. Many in Hollywood were surprised when Warners recently moved up the release of New Line's Vacation reboot from October to July 31, only a week after Pan, prompting chatter of self-cannibalization. Then came word that Pan was moving. For its part, Warners said the decision gives both the film and the filmmakers "extra breathing room." Added Dan Fellman, the studio's domestic distribution chief, "we wanted to give Pan the space to extend its theatrical run, so taking it out of the cluttered summer season made the most sense."
Other summer risks are the Reese Witherspoon-Sofia Vergara comedy Hot Pursuit (May 8) and the family film Max (June 26), both from MGM. Magic Mike XXL (July 1) hopes to match the original's $167.2 million worldwide gross, Dwayne Johnson's San Andreas (May 29) will test the earthquake genre, and a film version of HBO's Entourage (June 3) could face stiff competition from Fox's Melissa McCarthy action comedy Spy, which opens two days later. Still, a big season could float all boats. "This is a good summer to have a lot of skin in the game because there will be a lot of people in theaters seeing your marketing materials," says Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "But it's a very crowded game."
How the Other Studios Stack Up
Disney (4 releases)
Summer '14: $1.81 billion
Disney will be the summer's biggest player, led by Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1), which boasts the season's highest budget at $250 million. George Clooney's $190 million Tomorrowland (May 22) is benefiting from good buzz, and Pixar returns to theaters for the first time since 2013 with Inside Out (June 19). Ant-Man (July 17), starring Paul Rudd, is the riskiest title on Disney's slate, but then again, many had little hope for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy ($774.2 million worldwide) last summer.
20th Century Fox (5 releases)
Summer '14: $2.71 billion
Fox's surest bet is Paper Towns (July 24), the young-adult film adaptation of John Green's novel, opening a year after The Fault in Our Stars grossed more than $300 million on a $12 million budget. Melissa McCarthy's Spy (June 5) drew rave reviews at SXSW in March, prompting Warner Bros. to relocate Entourage to June 3. The biggest risk for Fox is Josh Trank's Fantastic Four reboot (Aug. 7), which cost $122 million after rebates. The studio has high hopes for the hero team-up but never has been able to get the franchise right.
Paramount (2 releases)
Summer '14: $1.82 billion
Paramount again is releasing the fewest films of any major studio. At press time, the studio had only two titles on its summer slate: Terminator: Genisys (July 1) and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (July 31). David Ellison's Skydance took the lead on the $170 million Terminator reboot, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Emilia Clarke. The movie is a gamble but is the only action pic unfurling in the July 4 corridor. Tom Cruise's Rogue Nation hopes to best the $694.7 million grossed by 2011's Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.
Sony (4 releases)
Summer '14: $1.37 billion
When the studio was hacked, the world learned that then-co-chair Amy Pascal was none too pleased with Cameron Crowe's Aloha (May 29), starring Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone. That dramedy will be followed by Adam Sandler's $110 million-budgeted Pixels (July 24), which targets families but opens opposite Pan and only a week after Ant-Man. Tom Rothman's tenure as Pascal's successor gets its first test with Meryl Streep's Ricki and the Flash (Aug. 7); he made the film at TriStar before replacing Pascal.
Universal (6 releases)
Summer '14: $1.97 billion
The home of Fifty Shades of Grey and Furious 7 no doubt is headed for more glory. After Disney, Universal has the most promising slate. The $150 million Jurassic World (June 12), starring Chris Pratt, is the most anticipated summer pic behind Age of Ultron, and Pitch Perfect 2 (May 15) and Ted 2 (June 26) are sequels to hits, not to mention spinoff Minions (July 10). Judd Apatow's Trainwreck (July 17) is an untested property but, like Spy, was a hit at SXSW. Universal finishes the season with Straight Outta Compton (Aug. 14).