Not even superheroes could save Hollywood this summer.
The movie industry suffered its worst May-to-Labor Day season since 1997, after adjusting for inflation. U.S. ticket sales dropped 15% compared with last summer. It was a disappointment for an industry that had hoped movies with giant robots, mutants and talking apes would follow up last year's stellar season with another blockbuster summer.
Even more telling, no film crossed the $300-million mark domestically for the first time since 2001. That's despite much-hyped releases such as 20th Century Fox's "X-Men: Days of Future Past," Paramount Pictures' "Transformers: Age of Extinction" and Sony Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man 2."
The lack of breakout hits hurt the prospects for other movies. Hollywood is a momentum-driven business. Big hits help draw in filmgoers, who then see trailers that bring them back the next week. That was not the case this summer.
At least several other factors were to blame as well. Studios bet on big-budget action sequels instead of taking a chance on new franchises, and the number of animated films — box office catnip most summers — was down sharply, primarily because of scheduling problems at the studios.
"It's been disappointing that there hasn't been a film that's really broken out like a $400-million hit domestically," said Bruce Nash, who runs the box-office analysis site the Numbers. "We haven't had a film this year that has been a 'Harry Potter' or an 'Avengers,' and that inevitably knocks things down a bit."
Summer movies ended up grossing $4.05 billion this year, compared with $4.75 billion last year, according to entertainment data provider Rentrak.
The studios might have played it a little too safe after reaching last year's heights. The industry focused on franchise films that have delivered hits in the past and avoided taking chances on expensive fresh offerings.
Making matters worse, some highly anticipated films were bumped off the schedule. "Fast & Furious 7," for example, was pushed back after the death of actor Paul Walker. Warner Bros. yanked "Jupiter Ascending" from its summer lineup to finish its special effects.
There was also a dearth of animated movies, which typically draw wide audiences during the summer, when school is out. Just two were released in that crucial period this year, compared with six last summer.
Things would have been worse without the powerful draw of "Guardians of the Galaxy," an unconventional comic book movie starring Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel and Zoe Saldana (and Bradley Cooper voicing a raccoon). The sci-fi action film took in $280.5 million in the U.S. and Canada, set August box-office records and ended up as the summer's highest-grossing film.
Family favorite "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," distributed by Paramount and Nickelodeon Movies, was another late-summer hit. The film — which stars Megan Fox, Will Arnett and the turtles — has grossed more than $166.3 million in four weeks.
"It [was] a very strong August, and the summer certainly needed that," said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. "People tend to forget that it takes just one movie to really turn things around.... That's clearly what happened with 'Guardians.'"
But even with the August surge, the disappointing season may keep Hollywood from breaking last year's full-year record of $10.9 billion. Ticket sales are down 5% year-to-date.
The National Assn. of Theatre Owners projected that 501 million tickets were sold this summer. That's fewer than any year since at least 2002, which is as far back as the organization's data goes for the season.
The drop-off is blamed in part on a trend in which moviegoers wait for films to come out on cable television, video on-demand or streaming sites such as Netflix and Amazon. This is only exacerbated when movies fail to measure up with audiences, hurting overall box-office results.
Another trend noted by analysts is that movies with a female lead character were a big draw during the summer. They included 20th Century Fox's "The Fault in Our Stars," Universal Pictures' "Lucy" and Warner Bros.' "If I Stay."
Disney's "Maleficent," starring Angelina Jolie, was the summer's third-highest-grossing movie. It has so far racked up $238.7 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada.
"'Maleficent' ends up being that proof that a female-driven story can draw all segments of the population," said Dave Hollis, Walt Disney Studios' executive vice president of theatrical distribution.
The box office for R-rated comedies was mixed. Sony's "22 Jump Street" and Universal's "Neighbors" were undisputed successes. The Seth MacFarlane gross-out western "A Million Ways to Die in the West" withered like a tumbleweed.
And amid the sequels, superhero spandex and sex comedies, a few independent movies managed to pull in strong numbers. Jon Favreau's food truck comedy "Chef," the Weinstein Co.'s "Begin Again" and writer-director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" were favorites with audiences beyond the art-house cinema crowd.
Hollywood executives shrugged off the summer slump as being cyclical and expect box-office returns will bounce back in the months to come.
"I don't believe that the movie business is in trouble in any way shape or form," said Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox's head of domestic distribution. "Sometimes it spikes up and sometimes it spikes down, but it all has to do with the products themselves."
Studio executives are optimistic for the fall season, which will include "Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1," the final "Hobbit" installment and Christopher Nolan's potential awards-contender "Interstellar." Other movies have the potential to break out because they get Oscar buzz. One possible example is "Unbroken," the highly anticipated film directed by Jolie.
And movie studios are already looking to 2015 for big business. Next summer is also expected to surpass this year's numbers with films such as "Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Fast & Furious 7" and "Jurassic World." Rentrak senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said next summer could enjoy a lift of 15% to 20%.
"It comes down to the movies — and they have to deliver," he said.