It's taken a few months, but moviegoers finally found another summer movie they adore. “Boyhood” has a very passionate fan base, but that awards-worthy player still isn't in enough theaters to come close to qualifying for nationwide release. No, America and some parts of the world have gone nuts for James Gunn's “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and with not a moment to spare.
Frankly, this summer movie season has mostly been a box office dud from a studio perspective. That's somewhat perplexing considering the quality of films in May and June were surprisingly strong. “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Neighbors,” “22 Jump Street,” “Maleficent,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” guaranteed there was at least one good movie opening almost every weekend over the first six weeks of the summer. The box office results were mixed, however. “Days” was the biggest Fox “X-Men” universe movie since “The Last Stand,” but didn't turn into the $300 million smash many were expecting. “Edge of Tomorrow” will take years to break even and “Dragon 2's” domestic performance has frankly been depressing for anyone who is a fan of the original, animation in general or Dreamworks Animation. All three films are, like most releases these days, making up for it overseas. The other four films mentioned, on the other hand, are all legitimate smashes based on their production and marketing budgets, with “Fault” in the running for the most profitable film of the year. And that's really the story of this past summer.
If you compare to previous summer frames, Hollywood has endured significantly less financial misfires on its ledger. A movie may have disappointed, but that doesn't mean it won't make money. “Tammy,” for instance, will still be profitable even though it's the first Melissa McCarthy movie to not earn $100 million since she broke out in “Bridesmaids.” And sure, “Million Dollar Arm,” “Blended,” “Deliver Us From Evil,” “Earth to Echo” and “Jersey Boys” are all in the red, but they aren't cringe-worthy disasters like “R.I.P.D.,” “White House Down” “The Lone Ranger” and “After Earth” were in 2013, or “Dark Shadows,” “Battleship,” “That's My Boy,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “Total Recall” were in 2012. So, while profits are up for some studios (we're looking at you 20th Century Fox) and losses are down, theater owners are still seeing less moviegoers in seats. Which means they are getting squeezed since less bodies are buying popcorn and red vines.
All you need to know is that there hasn't been one $300 million picture in all of 2014. Last summer alone, “Iron Man 3” earned over $400 million, “Despicable Me 2” $368 million and “Man of Steel” came oh so close with $291 million. How bad is the megablockbuster drought? This year's current #1 movie, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” would only rank eighth on the top grossers of 2013 list. Not third, not fourth — eighth. Considering we're now in August, theater owners have every right to get nervous, even if the studios feel they have costs under more control. And that's where “Guardians” comes in.
Do a quick scan over social media and you'll discover a groundswell of love for Marvel Studios' latest endeavor that few films have earned in the past 12 months. When the final numbers came in today, “Guardians” slightly outperformed its $94 million estimate by $300,000. With a lack of serious competition — something that eventually hurt “The Winter Soldier's” returns — “Guardians” should be this year's first $300 million hit. What theater owners are praying for, though, is that the “Guardians” experience convinces more people to get back in the groove of going to the movies again. Movie-going is a cyclical experience for many now, but if you go and have a good time, chances are you'll go back again and again, assuming there is quality product. Can “Guardians” bridge the gap?
August brings “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Into the Storm,” “The Giver,” “The Expendables 3,” “Sin City: A Dame to Kill,” “Let's Be Cops” and “If I Say.” The month ends with “As Above/So Below” and “The November Man” trying for counter-programming Labor Day weekend gold. Are any of those really big hits? We're not so sure.
Theater owners then have to endure three weeks of weak product until “The Maze Runner,” “This Is Where I Leave You” and “A Walk Among Tombstones” try to get September started. They will then hope the back-to-back-to-back weekends of “The Equalizer with Denzel Washington, David Fincher's “Gone Girl” with Ben Affleck and “The Judge” with Robert Downey Jr. make the Fall significantly more potent than normal. Oh, and did we mention Seth Rogen and James Franco are back with their R-rated comedy “The Interview” during that span? These are the films theater owners are crossing their fingers over before “Interstellar” and the new “Hunger Games” blow up in November.
If the Fall's programming turns things around, you'll be able to credit the filmmakers and the reliable movie stars they cast. And if the love for “Guardians” grows, a talking raccoon and a Pixar-esque grunting tree might end up taking some of the credit, too. Maybe.