Summer in Hollywood iced over early, and never recovered.
Despite an August thaw that saw "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" shatter expectations, the summer box office will likely finish at its lowest point in eight years. Ticket sales are running 15% below last summer's.
Thanks to the magic of CGI, cities crumbled on a weekly basis, defended by a rotating band of masked superheroes. But are these scorched movie metropolises a metaphor for a business being bombarded by newer, snazzier forms of non-theatrical entertainment, or is this a momentary stumble for an industry that's still soaring?
"You can't chalk it up to anything other than a weak slate of movies that didn't resonate with consumers," said Eric Wold, an analyst with B. Riley & Co. "We were expecting poor numbers to start with, and it got a lot worse."
Studio executives and exhibitors argue that the box office downturn is cyclical, not systemic. Yes, YouTube, Facebook and other online enticements are growing in popularity, but moviemakers aren't conceding defeat.
"The movie industry is still strong, but it's always going to be about the product," said Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures president of worldwide distribution. "You get (slumping) weeks, and people say, 'Oh the industry's in trouble,' and then you have huge openings, and they say, 'It's stronger than ever.' "
There were hits, of course. "22 Jump Street" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" did better than their predecessors, all but ensuring third installments. However, many films started strong and faded fast. Some franchises, such as "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," looked wobbly, while others, such as "The Expendables 3" appear ready for retirement.
For the first time in 13 years, no summer film cracked $300 million domestically. With the exception of "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "The Fault in Our Stars," the thrill of discovery was lacking among major blockbusters. Sequels blurred together, and at multiplexes, the story was too much of the same. That stifling of creative fire has commercial repercussions, particularly in an era where everyone's a critic with a microphone.
"I'm not convinced people don't want to go to the movies," said Matthew Harrigan, an analyst with Wunderlich Securities. "But with social media, when you put out a poor film, people figure it out quickly, and it makes the process more demanding than ever."
There are lessons to be gleaned from what worked. Women, too often a neglected audience, turned out in droves for pictures such as "Maleficent" and "The Fault in Our Stars," propelling them to the top of the box office charts. It's no accident that those R-rated comedies that attracted an even split of females and males, such as "22 Jump Street" and "Neighbors," were the most successful.
Having a sense of humor was also key. "Guardians of the Galaxy," for instance, may have relied heavily on computer imagery, but its most potent special effect was wit.
"Action pictures that have a twinkle in their eye and a little mischief are the ones people are gravitating toward," said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment. "Partially because of all the tragedies in the world right now, they want escape."
The hits may have been smaller, but so were the flops. Last summer, misses such as "R.I.P.D." and "The Lone Ranger" led to costly writedowns. In contrast, this year's wall of shame is filled with duds such as "Expendables 3," "Jersey Boys" and "Sex Tape," but they're not balance-sheet busters.
Better spacing prevented summer ticket sales from taking a turn for the Darwinian. Instead of clustering all major releases from May through July, some studios, particularly Marvel, placed hit movies such as "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" in April and August, two traditionally slower months.
"We've shown that you don't have to worry about releasing films between Memorial Day and July 4th in order to be successful," said Bruce Nash, founder of the box office tracking website the Numbers. "Having films come out over a broader period of time is better from a cash-flow basis."
As for the remainder of the year, films such as David Fincher's "Gone Girl" and Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" have generated strong online chatter, and sequels to "The Hunger Games" and "The Hobbit" seem like sure bets, but the box office will have a hard time matching 2013's record performance. Year-to-date, revenue is down 5.6% and attendance is off 5.5%. Even theater owners expect Hollywood will have a hard time making up the lost ground. "We'll probably be down," said Tim Warner, CEO of Cinemark. "But being close is still an impressive number."
What has Warner and others jazzed is that the next two years will see a flood of high-profile sequels in the James Bond, "Star Wars" and "Avengers" franchises.
"I think we're going to be up double digits next year," Harrigan said. "And if we're not, then something is seriously the matter."
© 2023 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.