Is Moviegoing Dead? Lessons Learned From The Worst Summer At The B.O. In Over A Decade

Patrick Semansky/AP/REX/Shutterstock

There’s been a lot of crying out there over how this summer was the worst in 11 years, logging an estimated $3.78 billion. But there is a positive takeaway from this mess: Moviegoing habits aren’t broken. That’s right.

The lack of an August marquee title in the spirit of last year’s Suicide Squad has slowed the annual box office by 6%, with $7.6B compared to the same eight-month period in 2016. But many say if we were down in the double-digits annually, it would greatly indicate that audiences have abandoned moviegoing. Another promising sign, and more telling about the strength of moviegoing, is that the foreign B.O. is +3% over 2016 with $18.1 billion, according to ComScore. Even with the currency exchanges hurting us, and the fact that we’re getting fewer dollars out of Asia and Europe for the same ticket price, Hollywood films are still beating last year’s running international B.O., and that’s very good.

Also, realize the following: before summer started, the 2017 domestic B.O. was up close to 4% over 2016 with a running B.O. of $3.8 billion. By the start of May, we had one March release approaching $500M (Beauty and the Beast), two titles at (or nearing) $200M-plus (Logan, Fate of the Furious); and a total 12 titles that cracked past $100M, 13 if you include the $123.9M residual that Disney’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story generated in the calendar year.

It Movie
New Line

To think that people went in droves to the movies for the first four months of this year and then changed their moviegoing habits immediately just doesn’t make sense. Couple this with the realization that New Line/Warner Bros.’ It is coming out next weekend, and all the moviegoers who’ve been gone since Dunkirk opened ($50.5M) are expected to return and spend even more on the Stephen King title, an estimated $60M-$66M.

Exhibitors, who’ve seen their share prices drop over the summer, can take hope in the fact that the last quarter of this year can feasibly make up for any deficit of this summer, with premium titles like Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi in the mix.

With It, Warner Bros.’ Lego’s Ninjago and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, this September could see three titles open to $40M+, a feat that the month has never delivered before in any given year. Schools in session an obstacle? Audiences distracted with fall-time activities? Feh! The theatrical business hasn’t lost to in-home streaming services and 70″ 4K televisions just yet.

It’s an age-old excuse, but, yes, blame this summer’s box office depression on too many tired tentpoles that underperformed. That’s what happens in a product-driven business. But here are some other lessons to be learned from the last four months:

1) Know when your franchise is tapped out, and when to reboot. We’ve overwritten about franchise fatigue ever since Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales opened below industry expectations, but what really weighed down the summer box office was the crowd of franchises delivering their Nth series titles, and using the same tricks, i.e. Alien: Covenant, Pirates 5 and Transformers: The Last Knight. Sources cite China and burgeoning cinematic markets like Brazil as reasons why the majors could get away in delivering lazy, hacky sequels.


Even though The Amazing Spider-Man 2 churned a $70M-plus profit off a $708M global take, Sony and former studio chief-turned producer Amy Pascal were smart enough to realize that they needed to resuscitate the brand to keep it going; the 2014 sequel earned a low B+ CinemaScore and 52% Rotten Tomatoes score. Partnering with the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe was a win-win situation and the B.O. figures speak for themselves: Spider-Man: Homecoming was the studio’s second highest opening at the domestic B.O. ($117M), its fourth highest grossing title stateside (with close to $324M). Spidey can look forward to another life generation-wise, but the hill is that much steeper for Pirates, Transformers, and Alien. If studios are to reboot a franchise, think Logan: Keep it cheap, and take chances.


Unlike Sony, Paramount couldn’t see the forest for the trees, which is why they went ahead with another Transformers movie after the 2014 film grossed $1.1 billion worldwide with an estimated $250M+ profit. To the Melrose Lot, Michael Bay’s sense of Transformers was still very much alive, even with a leading man reset in Mark Wahlberg. Not until a film hits the ground does a studio realize a fix is needed, and finance sources inform us that with Last Knight‘s reported production cost of $217M and a global take of $604M, it’s generating a small loss.

Still, no writers’ room could solve the CGI crash-bang-boom ennui of The Last Knight. Paramount hopes that the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee rejuvenates the series, but good luck with that, as the film is up against Warner Bros./DC/James Wan’s Aquaman on Dec. 21, 2018. Various reasons plagued old and even potential franchises this summer: The Mummy (novice director), Alien: Covenant (Prometheus sequel? It’s another monster chase scene), and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Warner Bros. ham-fisting a movie together with a helmer known for flash over substance).

Suicide Squad
Warner Bros.

2) Program a four-quad movie during the first weekend of August. An unwritten rule among the majors moving forward is that nothing less than a four-quad movie should occupy the first slot in August. We’ve known for some time prior to Guardians of the Galaxy that the weekend works, so put a big movie there, just like Marvel owns the first weekend in May. Following the July 21 opening of Dunkirk, no other title during the last six weekends of summer opened to more than $50.5M. After Alien: Covenant departed that date, many think Luc Besson’s Valerian should have moved in. The Luc Besson film was broken goods no matter what spot it took on the calendar. And fresh IP like The Dark Tower ($19.1M) isn’t the answer for the first weekend of August. Disney is sitting on the date next year with an untitled live-action fairy tale, and they’re confident they have the goods.

Warner Bros.

3) The Director is the Star. Moviegoers can sniff out good directors who can spin a yarn. Period films outside of awards season are a challenge, and no one could predict months in advance that Dunkirk (current B.O. $179.2M, a 3.5x multiple) would do better than War for the Planet of the Apes ($144.6M), Pirates 5 ($172M) or for that matter The Mummy ($80M). A lot of Dunkirk‘s success can be attributed to Christopher Nolan’s name-getting fans in seats, not to mention his pics leg out. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 helmer James Gunn is continually engaging fans on social, and Patty Jenkins is a name that many female moviegoers will never forget as they made Wonder Woman the highest grossing title of the summer ($810M) and the record-holder for the top grossing live action title directed by a woman. Meanwhile, the masses after Baby Driver ($105.8M) have discovered something that fanboys always knew: How brilliantly entertaining and avant garde Edgar Wright is.

4) The R-Rated comedy is broken. Universal’s R-rated female party hardy film Girls Trip is the only comedy to work this year ($112M), hooking African American females. Action comedies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a different hybrid as the genre appeals to a broad swatch of demos. But there are several star-studded R-rated corpses: Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon in Rough Night, Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell in The House, Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron in Baywatch, and Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn in Snatched. Says ComScore Senior Media Analyst Paul Dergarabedian, “R-rated Comedies aren’t the antidote. Not any more, until they killed the golden goose with a bunch of terrible films. They were derivative and exploitative. Doing a poor imitation of The Hangover, Superbad, Bridesmaids or Neighbors, that’s a genre killer. It’s time to get more creative. Audiences don’t want to pay for the same R-rated film over and over again, they’re tired of it.” Meanwhile, studio executives aren’t sweating the downturn: Those who’ve made comedies relentless believe that we’re just in a lull with the genre; a great one will rise again.

5) Watch for signs of a disconnect between critics & audiences.

20th Century Fox

Yes, continue to blame sour Rotten Tomato scores for curbing ticket sales: Genres and action popcorn films that were once reviewer resistant, no longer are. The Mummy ($80M) — a Tom Cruise film — may not have been hurt as much back in the 1990s when it was harder to keep a pulse on which way the critical winds were blowing.

“People are choosing their movies the way they choose a toaster – how many stars did it get or what percentage score did it earn as a barometer of quality. For better or worse it’s a way of assessing the value of a work of art by using basically the same shorthand method of assessment,” adds Dergarabedian.

Some might argue that certain poorly reviewed movies beat their Rotten Tomatoes score, i.e. Emoji Movie, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, and The Dark Tower. A response to that is: Imagine how much better the box office would have been had those RT scores been higher.

Baby Driver

Some studios aimed to finesse their Rotten Tomatoes scores, taking their films to genre-and-fan specific festivals where they could rally. Read: Universal with Get Out at Sundance, Sony with Baby Driver at SXSW and New Line with Annabelle: Creation at the L.A. Film Festival. After earning a 100% RT score for Baby Driver, Sony leveraged its marketing to set a positive tenor in this pack rat era of critics. We’re seeing this now with New Line’s It: Warner Bros. served up early screenings, and the great word has been leaking out over Twitter. RelishMix reports that #ITmovie has been tracking on average 4,500 hashtags per day over the last 4 days ago, doubling from just 2,000 a week ago. Tuesday saw a very noticeable spike to 9,762. The generic #IT is also clocking 12,562 hashtags.

20th Century Fox

But there was a divide between critics and great B.O. ticket sales when it came to certified fresh wide releases, i.e. Logan Lucky (93%, $22M), War for the Planet of the Apes (93%), Atomic Blonde (75%, $49.5M) and Alien: Covenant (70%, $74.3M). Now, the thing about a Rotten Tomatoes score is that it organically favors auteurs. But when Matt Reeves’ War and Ridley Scott’s Alien respectively dropped 63% and 71% in weekend 2, it was clear audiences weren’t happy about what they were seeing.

 “I got a suggestion for how to handle Hollywood’s problem with Rotten Tomatoes,” says one distribution chief firmly.

“Make better movies.”

Below are the top 12 movies of summer 2017 for the period of May 5-Sept. 4:


Thumb Rank Film Distributor Release Gross
1 Wonder Woman WB June 2 $409.2M
2 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Disney May 5 $389.5M
3 Spider-Man: Homecoming Sony July 7 $324M
4 Despicable Me 3 Uni June 30 $258.3M
5 Dunkirk WB July 21 $179.2M
6 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Disney May 26 $172.1M
7 Cars 3 Disney June 16 $149.5M
8 War for the Planet of the Apes Fox July 14 $144.6M
9 Transformers: The Last Knight Par June 21 $130.1M
10 Girls Trip Uni July 21 $112M
11 Baby Driver Sony June 28 $105.7M
12 Annabelle: Creation New Line Aug. 11 $90M

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