Summer Box Office Lessons
I had an interesting conversation this week about the Summer Box Office and what went wrong. This, of course, has been a hot topic. Recently Variety chronicled how bad the summer was at the Box Office, noting that it was the "worst in a decade." The summer of 2017 was a 14.7 percent decline from 2016's Summer, and leaves us 6.5 percent behind this time last year as a whole despite some monster winter and spring movies.
That's not good. But you'd have to go back to 2006 to find overall summer receipts this low. Given inflation and the rise in 3D, that really means the actual number of tickets being purchased could be the worst in 15-20 years. And that is a moment to pause, reflect, and think about what we learned.
Many people have theories, and some have even called this the worst summer for movies ever, suggesting it was nothing but terrible releases. That's not right, and I don't think that's fair. But that doesn't mean we can't learn something from this summer.
Here are a few of my thoughts on the lessons to be gleaned from Summer 2017:
* Franchise Films aren't dead. Both "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" and "Wonder Woman" are big franchise films that are part of ongoing cinematic worlds. So franchises aren't dead. But we also saw that being part of a franchise can't save you. You have to make a movie that's good, original, and appeals to audiences. That is what we got in the second go-around for "Guardians," featuring Baby Groot, and "Wonder Woman," a film decades in the making.
* Audiences finally have had enough of re-tread ideas. This is perhaps the biggest take away for me. For years we've decried the number of sequels and re-makes, but people have continued to go see the movies. If you want something to change, you have to vote with your wallet. And I see this summer as a rejection of the long-term trend of the kind of films we've been given. People stayed away from the fifth film in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Transformers" franchises, and they passed on a re-make of "Baywatch" and "The Mummy." They decided we didn't need another "King Arthur" movie or another film trying to be the female equivalent of "The Hangover," which was the deal with "Rough Night." (BTW, we already had the female "Hangover," it was called "Bridesmaids" and it was awesome.) People finally realized if they want better movies they need to avoid the crappy ones coming their way.
* People still love quality and originality. If you look at the big hits of summer aside from the two mentioned above, you can see that quality is still highly valued, as is originality. "Dunkirk," a unique story told by an exceptional filmmaker, hit with audiences. So, too, did smaller films "Baby Driver," "Wind River," and "The Big Sick." Those aren't the typical movies you think of during summer, but they were all smaller movies that outperformed expectations thanks to quality storytelling, both in terms of writing and directing. That still matters.
* Horror movies, when done well, are still a force. We all know "IT," which isn't totally a summer movie, is the biggest film in the genre ever. But earlier in the summer we saw "Annabelle: Creation" dominate for weeks with a simple story done well. People still turn out for horror, which is often cheap to produce. So expect more of it.
* Stars don't matter. Sure, "Guardians" has a well-known cast, and "Wonder Woman" had some stars, but some of the biggest little movies of summer were fronted by lesser known actors. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise, Scarlett Johansson, and even Dwayne Johnson fronted movies that flopped with audiences. So did Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell. So a big name helps, but it alone can't save your project.
* Animated Films aren't immune to this cultural shift. "Cars 3" and "Despicable Me 3" were among the re-tread, sequel-laden animated films that struggled just as much as their live-action brethren this summer. And what about "The Emoji Movie?" An outright bomb, due largely to lazy storytelling.
Some other thoughts:
* Rising costs are making for more discerning consumers. It's about $10 to see a matinee in most places. Then you throw in $20 more for popcorn and a drink, and you're looking at a movie date costing $40-$50 for the trip to the theater alone. Given that, people are much more discerning about what they want to spend that money on. That is a major factor in the outcome this summer. People want to get their money's worth, and "Transformers: The Last Knight," doesn't provide that return on investment.
* We are in an age of Peak TV. In 2016, 455 scripted series hit the air on cable, networks, premium cable, and streaming services. And you know what, you can have popcorn and a drink for a lot less than $20 at home. Plus you can watch in your PJs in your favorite chair. But having content alone isn't enough of a pull from the big screen. However, we've seen an increase in the scope and quality of TV projects and in the depth of storytelling. "Game of Thrones," which has a budget that exceeds or equals most summer blockbusters for a season, had more impressive action sequences and scope than anything I saw in theaters this year. And that matters. If people can get a cinematic scope and a cinematic depth of character development and story from the comfort of home, it makes you think twice about leaving the couch.
Those are some of my thoughts on how we got here, the question is how will Hollywood respond? I guess we'll find out next May.