Moviegoers are showing up in droves to see Marvel's new "Guardians of the Galaxy" release this weekend, providing an early dose of rocket fuel for the key summer box-office season. But that probably won't be enough to avoid a depressing sequel for Hollywood.
Industry insiders predict that ticket sales for the period from the first weekend of May through Labor Day will fall 5% to 10% compared with last year, when the summer box-office gross clocked in at $4.45 billion in the U.S. and Canada. Barring some surprise hits, that means total revenue could land as low as $4 billion, which would be the worst in a decade.
There's always a chance that a massive hit will come out of nowhere to pump up grosses during the next four months, when studios collect about 40% of their annual ticket sales.
Still, some executives are worried that the industry is once again relying too heavily on sequels from aging franchises, and that audiences are growing weary at a time when they have more entertainment options at home. People might be excited for the return of their favorite interplanetary outlaws from "Guardians," but how many want another "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie? How about a fifth "Transformers"?
"Some of the tent poles are just not as strong this year," said Chris Aronson, head of domestic distribution for movie studio 20th Century Fox, which is putting out new movies from the "Alien" and "Planet of the Apes" series. "'Pirates?' It's the fifth one. 'Transformers?' It's the fifth one."
Competition from TV and streaming video, and a culture that appears to be more interested in what's happening on the small screen than what's on the cinema marquee, is compounding the problems. Some are worried that when consumers talk about pop culture on social media now, they focus more on acclaimed television shows like "The Handmaid's Tale," which recently premiered on streaming service Hulu, and less on summer film fare.
"They don't have the word-of-mouth momentum that they once did," box-office analyst Jeff Bock of the tracking firm Exhibitor Relations said of summer releases. "That's been taken over by streaming shows."
Though studios have always relied on sequels and reboots, to offset the risks of making big-budget movies for a mass audience by giving the people what they want, that strategy has become less reliable as audiences become more discerning with the help of social media.
Last summer, sequels to "Star Trek," "X-Men," "Independence Day," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Alice in Wonderland" all performed worse than their predecessors.
Now, even though they could be poised for a repeat of that scenario, Hollywood studios are sticking with the same strategy. Why? At a time when the risks of failure in the movie business have become more costly, studios are still focusing their efforts on films that are perceived as safe bets, especially with overseas audiences that increasingly drive profits. Additionally, the movie business is notoriously slow to change course because of the time it takes to make big films. So, in some cases, it may be too late for studios to pull the plug on movies that already appear doomed long before they hit theaters.
"Man, this is depressing," one prominent producer, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect studio relationships, said of the summer lineup. "It is just entirely sequels and franchises, and something's got to give."
Indeed, much of the 2017 lineup looks strikingly familiar, despite new faces in the old roles. Remember when Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire played Spider-Man? Now Sony Pictures is trying to reboot the web-slinging hero for the second time in five years, this time with the young Tom Holland as the title character. Universal Pictures is hoping to induce some collective amnesia as it brings "The Mummy" back to the big screen with Tom Cruise in the lead role, about a decade after Brendan Fraser ended his run in the popular franchise.
As they serve audiences more of the same on the big screen, studios are putting extraordinary effort into keeping their creaky franchises alive as long as possible. Sony teamed with Marvel Studios, owned by rival Walt Disney Co., for "Spider-Man: Homecoming," due out July 7. The trailers for the new "Spider-Man" emphasize Robert Downey Jr. in the movie as Tony Stark (Iron Man), one of the most popular Marvel characters.
The upcoming "Transformers: The Last Knight" — which incorporates the legend of King Arthur into its mythology -- originated from a gathering of writers on the Paramount lot to hatch ideas for an expanded cinematic universe based on the Hasbro toys. Paramount and director Michael Bay have touted the new camera rigs Bay used to film the movie in Imax 3-D.
"It's a different game now, and everybody feels the pressure to go the extra mile," said Megan Colligan, president of worldwide distribution and marketing for Paramount Pictures. "Nobody sits around and says, 'Let's do what we did last time.'"
Disney, for its part, twice delayed the release of its latest installment of the barnacle-crusted "Pirates" series to make sure the movie was seaworthy. As part of a viral campaign for the film, the studio recently sent star Johnny Depp to Disneyland in character as Captain Jack Sparrow, to the delight of fans there.
A representative for Disney declined to comment.
To be sure, the summer includes some movies that are expected to be hits. Among them are "Despicable Me 3," Illumination Entertainment and Universal's animated comedy starring Steve Carell, and Pixar Animation Studios' computer animated repeat "Cars 3."
Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," one of the only original studio films getting significant attention in the coming months, is widely considered a promising wildcard for Warner Bros. A World War II mission to rescue thousands of Allied soldiers from a French beach may not sound like typical popcorn fodder, but few analysts would bet against a visually spectacular action movie from Nolan, the maker of the "Dark Knight" trilogy.
Warner Bros. also is betting Gal Gadot, a standout from last year's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," can make "Wonder Woman" a standalone hit when it's released June 2. Another question is whether the charisma of Dwayne Johnson can turn an R-rated, raunchy "Baywatch" adaptation into a winner for Paramount.
As the big brands battle for dominance, analysts are holding out hope that Edgar Wright's action comedy "Baby Driver," A24's horror indie "It Comes at Night," or the Judd Apatow-produced comedy "The Big Sick" could become sleeper hits. Same goes for "Atomic Blonde," a Focus Features action flick starring Charlize Theron as an ultraviolent super-spy.
"There's so many movies that could go one way or another," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com.
Then there are the expensive gambles that look like trouble from the outset. Guy Ritchie's big-budget "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" is expected to do just $25 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend. Later comes "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," writer-director Luc Besson's adaptation of a French comic book series said to carry a production budget of $180 million. For August, the box-office cupboard looks bare after Sony Pictures releases its risky adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dark Tower."
Even if the summer turns out to be a dud, the industry still has a chance to make up ground during the rest of the year. To the studios, the summer movie season is becoming less important as more of the biggest blockbusters now hit theaters in months like February and March. This year has already seen hits including "Get Out," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Fate of the Furious." As of last week, movies have grossed $3.7 billion in 2017, up 4% from the same period of time a year ago.
"It is a 12-month calendar, and because there's so many tent poles, everybody spreads them out," said Jeff Goldstein, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros.
Additionally, the franchises on their third or fifth iterations are still expected to do big business internationally as studios turn their focus to global audiences even if they decline at home. Though "The Fate of the Furious," scored far less business in the U.S. and Canada than 2015's "Furious 7," countries including China pushed the movie past the $1-billion worldwide box-office mark.
"It's just a natural thing," Robbins said. "This is a great example of where studios' attention are shifting to international grosses."