As Hollywood’s summer movie season winds down over Labor Day weekend, the box office results can be summed up in one word every studio executive wants to hear: up. But a season that saw more than its share of surprise hits also had a handful of surprise misses — and proved the only reliable trend is the bankability of superhero blockbusters.
Below, a look at five lessons learned from the biggest flubs and triumphs of the season.
Though Disney’s “Avengers: Infinity War” opened a week before the official start of the summer box office season, the movie’s mammoth success established early on that this would be a summer of sequels.
By the first weekend in May, the film (released April 27) remained at No. 1 and, with $112.5 million in ticket sales, earned the second-biggest domestic gross of all time for a film in its second weekend. It went on to bring in $678.7 million in North America and over $2 billion worldwide during its run in theaters.
Franchise fever continued into July, when the month’s sole original wide release — “Skyscraper” — took a box-office beating despite star Dwayne Johnson. By the end of the month, every film in the top five (and eight of the top 10) was a sequel.
In fact, the lion’s share of this summer’s box office went to sequels and franchise reboots. According to figures from measurement firm ComScore, the top 10 films of the summer, including “Avengers,” were all sequels: “Incredibles 2,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” “Deadpool 2,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation,” “Oceans 8,” “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
Pure comedies are no laughing matter
Summer box office season is generally reliable for producing at least one highly successful mainstream comedy: in 2009 it was “The Hangover,” with a domestic gross of $277 million. In 2011, “Bridesmaids” earned $169 million and forced the industry to reckon with the potentiality of female-driven comedies. The following year, “Ted” made $219 million. And last year’s “Girls Trip” rained in a cool $115 million.
But this summer is the first in more than 20 years in which no traditional comedy has managed to gross more than $100 million at the domestic box office. In fact, many studio comedies released this summer fell flat, quickly slipping out of the top five.
Comedies like “Tag,” “Life of the Party,” “Book Club,” “Show Dogs,” “Action Point,” “Uncle Drew,” “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” “Dog Days” and “Overboard” failed to leave much impression on moviegoers, either garnering bad reviews, lackluster ticket sales or both. Last week, the $40-million budgeted “The Happytime Murders,” starring Melissa McCarthy and a cadre of crass puppets from the Jim Henson Creature Shop, opened below expectations and earned negative reviews from critics and audiences alike.
Big-screen summer comedies have faced a slump in recent years as the genre has been enjoying a boom on the small screen. And as humor has stealthily infiltrated big-budget spectacles in films like “Jumanji,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and “Deadpool 2,” studios may have to reconsider the bankability of purely comedic films during the summer season.
Documentaries are having a moment
As big-budget superhero films have (predictably) continued to flourish, smaller films about real-life heroes have also performed well, becoming some of the biggest success stories of the summer.
Magnolia Pictures’ ”RBG,” a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career, grossed $6 million in four weeks despite a limited-release run of fewer than 415 theaters. The film opened with an impressive $560,000 in just 34 locations, a per-screen average of $16,471, and went on to gross $13.9 million domestically during its theatrical run.
Focus Features’ Mister Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was another surprise hit. The film grossed $12.4 million in five weeks, making it the year’s biggest documentary. It went on to earn $22.3 million over the course of its domestic run.
Neon’s “Three Identical Strangers,” about triplets separated at birth and later reunited, opened in five theaters with $171,503 (or $34,301 per screen) before going on to gross $11.1 million.
Other documentaries including Focus Features’ “Pope Francis — A Man of His Word,” Roadside Attractions’ “Whitney,” Bleecker Street’s “McQueen” and Quality Flix’s “Death of a Nation” all managed to gross over $1 million, a positive result for films in limited release.
August needn’t be a dumping ground
The dog days of summer are often the slowest at the box office.
By the final week of August 2017, wide-release newcomers were slumping into theaters with opening grosses of less than $6 million each. As studios simply failed to produce films that audiences wanted to see, Warner Bros.’ “Annabelle: Creation” and Lionsgate’s “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” were the only films to perform.
This summer, Warner Bros.’ “Crazy Rich Asians” has enjoyed a late August dominion over the box office (and remarkable 6% second weekend drop), proving that if studios produce good films, moviegoers will head to the multiplex. (And suggesting comedies can still perform, at least when mixed with a healthy dose of romance and melodrama too.)
The studio’s “The Meg” has also emerged as a late-summer success. Doubling analyst predictions, the film opened with $44.5 million and continues to perform, quickly amassing $105.3 million after three weekends in theaters.
And Disney saw decent returns for “Christopher Robin,” an expansion of the Winnie the Pooh universe that has hooked family audiences to a domestic gross of over $80 million.
Meanwhile the rest of the month generally lived down to the usual low expectations: “The Happytime Murders,” “A.X.L.,” “Mile 22,” “Alpha” and “Slender Man” all came up short of projections and were poorly reviewed.
Everything is relative
Despite producing two of the highest-grossing films of the summer with “Incredibles 2" and “Avengers: Infinity War,” Disney faced a high-profile misstep when “Solo: A Star Wars Story” failed to live up to the lofty expectations of its franchise.
Though the film debuted at No. 1 (and maintained the position for two weeks), it was quickly declared a flop when it flew far below analyst predictions for its opening weekend gross.
Initially expected to earn between $140 million and $150 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, “Solo” banked $103 million through the holiday, including $84.4 million in its first three days.
Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures’ “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” was widely hailed as one of the biggest successes of the summer when the film opened in first place with a series-best $61.5 million three-day weekend.
Despite spending the same length of time at No. 1 as “Solo,” the $178-million “Fallout” opened within range of analysts’ $50 million to $65 million predictions.
Perhaps the biggest difference between “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Wars” is the breathing room between new installments: “Fallout” was released three years after the previous entry, “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” while “Solo” came out just six months after “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The film’s underperformance can likely be attributed to fatigue among longtime fans of the franchise as well as stiff competition over the weekend from relatively new releases like “Deadpool 2" and Disney’s own “Avengers.”
By the end of the summer, “Solo” grossed $213.6 million while “Fallout” earned $196 million (and counting), proving that when it comes to box office success, everything is relative.
follow me on twitter @sonaiyak