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Summer box office is down 2% from last year despite ‘Lion King’ and other hits. Should Hollywood worry?

Lion King
Disney’s “The Lion King” was a hit in an otherwise lackluster summer at the box office.
(Disney )

Despite hits such as the Walt Disney Co.'s “The Lion King,” Hollywood’s summer had a lower roar than last year.

Ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada are projected to total $4.33 billion for summer movies, down 2% from a year ago, according to data firm Comscore. The decline reflects a number of major flops, such as Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and 20th Century Fox’s “Dark Phoenix,” that outweighed hits including Pixar’s “Toy Story 4" and Sony Pictures’ “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

So far this year, ticket sales have reached $7.64 billion, representing a 6.4% decline from the same period a year ago, Comscore said.

There are multiple explanations.

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Box office results are largely cyclical and depend on the quality of the movies, but analysts have also placed some blame on other factors. Films have to compete with a growing number of at-home entertainment options, including streaming services, making it harder for all but the most crowd-pleasing blockbusters to get attention. The market for adult-oriented midbudget movies and art-house films has been especially difficult for theater owners and distributors, with bombs including Amazon’s “Late Night,” Annapurna Pictures’ “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” and Fox’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain.”

Additionally, last year’s sales may have been boosted by MoviePass, the subscription service that let subscribers see an unlimited number of films in theaters for a low monthly fee. The service collapsed as it lost money and as theater owners bet on their own subscription services.

The main winner among the studios was Disney, which again dominated the summer with brands that audiences were already very familiar with, including “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Toy Story 4.” However, there were some non-Disney franchises and originals that worked, such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood,” released by Sony, and Lionsgate’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.”

Still, even Disney wasn’t immune to summer struggles, as the Fox titles it inherited from its recent $71.3-billion acquisition bombed, weighing on its quarterly earnings. “Dark Phoenix,” the latest in the X-Men saga, resulted in an impairment charge for Disney.

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Summer movie season — stretching from the first weekend of May through Labor Day — has long been considered a make-or-break period for the film industry, consistently accounting for 40% of annual ticketing revenues.

That is, until recently.

Summer has become less important in recent years as studios have increasingly released their tent pole movies in the winter, fall and spring. In 2018, the summer made up 37% of the total box office grosses. The portion of annual sales generated in summer was 34.7% in 2017.

The trend is expected to continue this year. Box office analysts expect 2019 sales to hit $11.7 billion for 2019, which would be down slightly from the $11.86-billion record the industry set in 2018, not adjusted for inflation. If that projection holds, this year’s summer season would be about 37% of the total.

“Seasons don’t have the importance they once enjoyed in this now truly 52-weekend-a-year blockbuster business,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, in a recent email.

This weekend won’t change the trajectory. The only significant new release is Blumhouse’s supernatural thriller “Don’t Let Go,” starring David Oyelowo and Storm Reid, which is opening in about 900 theaters.

Last weekend brought some relief when Millennium Films and Lionsgate’s “Angel Has Fallen,” the third movie in a Gerard Butler action series, debuted with $21.4 million, far more than analysts expected.

Additionally, Universal Pictures’ “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” opened with a strong $101 million in China to top the weekend charts in the world’s second-largest film market, according to movie business consulting firm Artisan Gateway.

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China has been a bright spot for the film business this year. According to Artisan Gateway, the portion of Chinese box office generated by the major U.S. studios is 34.6% so far this year, up from 28% during the same period in 2018.

Domestic theater chains are counting on a string of potential blockbusters in the fall and holiday seasons to buoy business. Highly anticipated films include Warner Bros. and New Line’s “It Chapter Two” (Sept. 6), Fox’s “Ford v. Ferrari” (Nov. 15) and Disney’s “Frozen 2" (Nov. 22) and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (Dec. 20).


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