Labor Day has come and gone. The kids are back in school, the days are getting shorter and, in a seasonal rite, the movie industry is crunching numbers to assess its summer winners and losers.
This year’s victors included Disney’s “Finding Dory” and “Captain America” but despite the success of those two movies, the rest of the summer proved punishing for films that rested on the franchise films that came before them. Pair that with ticket sale padding additions, and you’ve got a deceiving summer for cinemas.
Overall ticket sales for the summer hit $4.49 billion, dead even with last year. However, that’s partly because of an increase in ticket prices driven by premium theater experiences with add-ons such as Imax and recliner seating. The actual attendance is estimated to be down 3.5% to about 513 million tickets sold.
Underneath these broad-strokes numbers are some troubling trends. Despite the success of a few, multiple big-budget remakes, sequels and remakes did significantly worse than their predecessors There was a large number of high-profile flops that hurt the studios’ bottom lines.
It wasn’t just retreads and reboots no one asked for, like “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Independence Day: Resurgence” and “Ben-Hur.” The casualties included well-reviewed, new-to-the-screen fare like “The BFG” and “Nice Guys.”
Of the 16 movies released this summer that cost more than $100 million to make, at least 10 were considered disappointments. “Ben-Hur,” which cost Paramount Pictures and MGM $100 million to produce, was especially disastrous, grossing just $11 million in its opening weekend.
Summer grosses were driven by a handful of huge hits (“Captain America: Civil War,” “Finding Dory” and “The Secret Life of Pets”). Warner Bros.’ “Suicide Squad” just hit the $300-million mark domestically this weekend. But between “Suicide Squad” and the rest of the pack, there’s a $150-million gulf — the closest runner-up is “Jason Bourne” at $156 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Without an easy explanation, many analysts bemoan the tendency of Hollywood studios to put out more of the same kinds of movies to draw a massive, baked-in audience. But the glut of big, so-called event films means there’s too much competing for the same group of moviegoers.
Another problem is that, with the growing number of entertainment options like Netflix and premium TV competing for audience’s attention, it takes something especially enticing to draw people to the multiplex.
“There seems to be a problem with getting films into the middle tier of success,” said box office analyst Bruce Nash of Nash Information Services. “There’s a lot of stuff out there, but there’s not a lot of stuff that’s really interesting and original to look at.”
There were pockets of success amid the clashing box-office titans.
Films targeting women proved their strength, shown by STX Entertainment’s R-rated “Bad Moms,” which has grossed a healthy $100 million so far. Audiences also rewarded fresh concepts, including Sony’s foul-mouthed food cartoon “Sausage Party.”
Low-budget horror films such as “The Purge: Election Year,” “The Shallows” and “The Conjuring 2" also showed signs of success, relative to their production costs. Warner Bros. scored with “Lights Out,” a $5-million horror film based on a YouTube video that has taken in $66 million.
On the Labor Day weekend, Sony-Screen Gems’ scare-fare “Don’t Breathe” project landed at No. 1 for the second week in a row. In its first 11 days, the Fede Alvarez-directed film has earned just under $55 million, a notably large draw for a movie budgeted at just under $10 million.
Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at the data firm ComScore, praises “Don’t Breathe” as almost a summer movie palate cleanser. “[It’s] the perfect end-of-summer antidote to all of the typical summer fare including big-budget sequels, remakes and reboots that are the bread and butter of the season.”
Perhaps it was a break from that “typical summer fare” that drove a number of critics to note the low quality of the season’s major studio roster. The Times’ Justin Chang, for example, described “an unusually dispiriting summer at the movies” by citing artistic failures including “Suicide Squad,” “Ghostbusters” and “The Legend of Tarzan.”
"[F]or the regular moviegoer,” wrote Chang, “this season’s steady IV drip of sequelitis and overall multiplex mediocrity seemed to usher in a kind of slow spiritual death — one from which only a parallel diet of art-house fare and the prospect of fall Oscar-bait could offer any real hope of resurrection.”
Although Labor Day weekend marks the symbolic end of the summer movie season, it’s normally a slow one. The record opening for the weekend occurred in 2007, when the reboot of the horror franchise “Halloween” banked just over $30 million.
But similar to the surprising numbers that tied with last summer, this Labor Day will help propel August’s box-office total to over the $1-billion threshold, only the second time that milestone has been surpassed, according to media measurement company ComScore. The month’s estimated earnings fell just shy of the record set in 2014, when “Guardians of the Galaxy” drove movie fans into seats.
Behind this past weekend’s “Don’t Breathe” success was “Suicide Squad,” which is in its fifth week of release. Though critically panned — Rotten Tomatoes gave it a mere 26% positive score among critics — the movie continues to earn. It made an estimated $12.8 million on the way to surpassing the $300-million mark, according to Box Office Mojo.
Disney’s animated reboot of the children’s movie “Pete’s Dragon” jumped into the third spot in its fourth week of release. After falling to No. 6 last week, the film generated 15% more revenue over Labor Day for a tally of $8.5 million and a cumulative $66 million.
And now all eyes will turn to the next crop of gigantic franchise offers including November’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” birthed from the “Harry Potter” behemoth, and December’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Will these be the franchise offerings the public is looking for?