Hollywood just suffered its worst Memorial Day weekend in 18 years, an eye-popping omen for what’s shaping up to be a bleak summer box office.
All signs suggest Warner Bros. is about to deliver a much-needed hit with Diana of Themyscira, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, whose long-awaited feature film gets its wide release this weekend.
But that probably won’t be enough to lift the movie business out if its funk, with summer ticket sales down 9% from the same period last year, according to ComScore. Last weekend’s debut of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” topped the charts with $77 million in the U.S. and Canada, down significantly from its 2011 predecessor “On Stranger Tides.” Paramount Pictures’ “Baywatch” wiped out with $27.6 million in five days, thanks to poor reviews.
“Summer box office is off to a terrible start,” Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz said in a Tuesday note to clients.
Individual movies are not the only problem, analysts say. This summer has been hampered by Hollywood’s over-reliance on tent poles and aging franchises, coupled with worsening attendance levels because of increased competition from at-home entertainment.
Why so glum?
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” started May off in a big way ($338 million to date), but it’s been mostly downhill since then. Warner Bros’ “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” was a $175-million flop, and Fox’s “Alien: Covenant" was a lackluster performer.
Memorial Day weekend ticket sales totaled $173 million in the United States and Canada, the lowest result for the four-day holiday frame since 1999, according to data from ComScore. The sluggish results are validating pre-summer predictions that the season would fall as much as 10% from last year.
American audiences seem to be growing weary of the preponderance of sequels and reboots of old franchises. The latest “Alien” movie opened with $36 million in ticket sales, nearly 30% lower than its predecessor “Prometheus.” The three-day opening of the latest “Pirates” was also down 30% from “On Stranger Tides,” though the movie is making up ground internationally.
Growing competition from buzzed-about prestige TV and streaming shows may also be siphoning attention from summer film fare, making it harder for would-be blockbusters to lure patrons.
“There are so many options for entertainment, and that certainly raises the bar,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. “But the main thing is, you need movies that keep people coming back to the theaters.”
Smaller movies normally billed as “counter programming” are getting squeezed. Amy Schumer’s R-rated comedy “Snatched” did modest business, and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” also failed to register at the box office. Not even the charisma of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson could save the raunchy “Baywatch.”
It’s not all gloom-and-doom, though. The 2017 full-year box office is still running about 2% higher than last year because of earlier hits like “The Fate of the Furious,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Logan.”
Need a hero?
The summer blues are bringing even more attention to “Wonder Woman,” a $150-million production starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. The film is expected to make history as the first female-fronted superhero blockbuster and a rare big-budget picture directed by a woman.
The 75-year-old character’s first stand-alone movie is likely to gross $80 million to $90 million in ticket sales Friday through Sunday, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys. The studio is trying to keep expectations in check, projecting $65 million to $70 million. In one promising sign, early reviews for the film have been overwhelmingly positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Online ticket seller Fandango last week named “Wonder Woman” as the summer’s most-anticipated movie.
“We need a reset, and ‘Wonder Woman’ gives us that reset,” Dergarabedian said.
Analysts caution that it will take more than one big hit to revive Hollywood from its summer doldrums. Industry observers are closely watching what happens to other big summer movies including “War for the Planet of the Apes” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
This weekend, 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation are hoping to attract family audiences with the new cartoon “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.” The PG-rated flick is expected to take in a modest $20 million domestically.