There's been a bit of confusion in the media as of late about the performance of this year's crop of summer movies. Pieces abound about the so-called dismal state of the season, and yet when you look at it purely from a numbers perspective, 2016 actually ranks as the second-best summer ever in terms of domestic box office (2013 remains firmly in first place).
So why all the doomsaying? First, let's take a look at a list of this summer's out-and-out “flops” — a designation that can roughly be judged by measuring a film's budget-to-gross ratio. Historically, for a title to be deemed “profitable” it has to have made at least two times its production budget, and by that measure, the last four months have produced a total of six outright box office failures. They are:
Star Trek Beyond
Budget: $185 million
Worldwide gross: $285 million
Budget: $144 million
Worldwide gross: $219 million
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Budget: $135 million
Worldwide gross: $244 million
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Budget: $170 million
Worldwide gross: $295 million
Budget: $140 million
Worldwide gross: $160 million
Budget: $100 million
Worldwide gross: $53 million
Judging by this list, the season's box office doesn't look too bad; six is, in fact, a pretty standard number of high-profile flops for any summer. But when you broaden the picture to include films that came in far below expectations domestically, things suddenly look a whole lot bleaker. Here's a list of those titles:
Budget: $120 million
Domestic gross: $156 million ($223 million international)
Budget: $178 million
Domestic gross: $155 million ($387 million international)
The Legend of Tarzan
Budget: $180 million
Domestic gross: $125 million ($230 million international)
Independence Day: Resurgence
Budget: $165 million
Domestic gross: $103 million ($280 million international)
Now You See Me 2
Budget: $90 million
Domestic gross: $65 million ($258 million international)
Ice Age: Collision Course
Budget: $105 million
Domestic gross: $62 million ($327 million international)
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
Budget: $35 million
Domestic gross: $55 million ($52 million international)
Budget: $160 million
Domestic gross: $47 million ($386 million international)
Budget: $65 million
Domestic gross: $66 million ($28 million international)
(Before going any further, I'll note here that while it hasn't yet doubled its production budget in worldwide grosses, I included Pete's Dragon in the latter count because it opened less than a month ago and has been demonstrating pretty good legs in subsequent weeks. I would guess that once final grosses are in, it will surpass — if not get reasonably close to surpassing — the threshold needed to be considered “profitable.”)
If you add the two lists together, that's a total of 15 mid-to-big budget titles that posted disappointing box office results, if not belly-flopped completely. Sure, X-Men: Apocalypse made over half a billion worldwide, but when you consider a) its budget; b) the studio's no-holds-barred marketing campaign; c) the fact that it's the latest entry in an immensely-popular superhero franchise; and d) previous installment Days of Future Past's $233 million domestic/$747 million worldwide tallies two years prior, I think it's more than fair to skew the film as a disappointment.
Of course, calling a film a “disappointment” is different than calling it a “flop.” “Disappointments” like Warcraft, which made a whopping 86% of its $433 million gross overseas, aren't necessarily money-losers. What the latter list instead represents are films that, while not bona fide “flops” financially (at least not as far as our “double-the-budget” metric is concerned), failed to effectively appeal to American audiences. And that, more than anything, is why Summer 2016 is being viewed as a disappointment by so many. As Box Office Prophets founder David Mumpower put it:
“Studios have spent too much time planning for international revenue. They overcompensated. The market correction is that the box office they counted on in North America, the piece of the pie that's still the most important, is no longer a foregone conclusion. In other words, the harshest lesson studios have had to re-learn this summer is that they need to make better movies, and those features MUST appeal to domestic movie-goers first and foremost. Otherwise, they're going to face the prospect of financial wipeout on their most expensive projects.”
Make better movies. Simple, right? Hardly. Still, with the social media sphere becoming an increasingly important factor in what the public chooses to shell out money for in theaters, bad buzz travels much more swiftly than it did in the pre-Twitter era — and at least domestically, that can “wipe out [a film's] box office potential,” in Mumpower's words. So, while it may not be easy to make better blockbusters, if the studios want to keep a hold on the all-important youth demo they'd damn well better try harder.
So, Lesson #1: Make better blockbusters. That, to me, is the most simplistic and alternately the most important takeaway for Hollywood decision makers from a summer movie season that — numbers be damned — hasn't inspired a ton of confidence amongst either the entertainment media establishment or the American moviegoing public. So what other wisdom can we impart to the suits this post-Labor Day week? I spoke with a number of box office experts to get their take on the past four months, and here's what they came up with.
Lesson #2: The coveted under-25 demo can be reached far more easily (and cheaply) than ever before.
David Mumpower: “Clever studio marketers know exactly where their target audience is. The answers are YouTube and Twitch. With the decades-old version of television consumption completely blown up by the current generation, the children of the internet, it's easier than ever to reach these potential movie-goers through advertising. We saw the latest example of this with Don't Breathe, a movie scarcely shown in television commercials. Those who watch a lot of YouTube and Twitch, however, were inundated with a full court press of marketing.”
Lesson #3: Be more creative with your “mid-tier” movies/potential future franchises.
“I think it's OK to be relatively uncreative with the tentpoles, just because the investment is so huge,” said The Numbers founder Bruce Nash. “But the studios aren't really taking many creative risks with the films they hope to turn into tentpole franchises either. Deadpool…and Sausage Party are arguably exceptions to that rule…but that highlights how few fresh ideas there are in the industry at the moment.”
Lesson #4: The difference between the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes is about more than just quality — it's about a failure to correct for mistakes.
While it's worth noting that the DC superhero blockbuster Suicide Squad cleaned up both domestically and internationally with $674 million in the coffers thus far despite garnering a dismal 27% “Rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes — thereby proving that, at least for the moment, anything DC or Marvel is essentially Teflon at the box office — there's nevertheless a wide gap between the performance of that film and this summer's Captain America: Civil War, which brought in over $400 million domestically and a whopping $1.15 billion worldwide. The difference? Civil War garnered a 90% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a score that, along with the fact that audiences actually loved it, likely accounts for most of the monetary discrepancy between those titles.
Suicide Squad's performance continues a trend that started with the somewhat divisive Man of Steel but really kicked into high gear with this year's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. While the latter title made over $872 million worldwide — a success by almost any measure — it was widely viewed as a disappointment given its status as the first major title to bring DC's two biggest superheroes together in the same movie. Falling short of the billion mark is undoubtedly the result of the film's dismal critical and fan reception, and yet as Mumpower puts it, the powers-that-be at DC have thus far demonstrated a failure to remedy their blunders as Marvel has.
“Marvel can admit when they're wrong and adapt,” Mumpower said. “Age of Ultron received a lot of criticism, so they worked that much harder to redeem the brand with Captain America: Civil War. …Meanwhile, DC absolutely panicked with Suicide Squad, and they wound up releasing another mess. How did they respond to the internal struggle? They promoted one of the people involved all these cinematic debacles, to give Geoff Johns more power, and they let Zack Snyder shoot Justice League. If an ordinary person screws up at their job, they get in trouble, possibly even fired. At DC, they fail upward professionally.”
Lesson #5: It's no longer necessary to pack all your big movies into the summer season.
“If we're looking at the year to date, we're doing quite well, actually,” said Box Office Media analyst Daniel Loria. “I think it's a reflection of something that exhibitors have been calling for, for a number of years, and that distributors have realized the great value [of], and that is a year-round release schedule where if you have a movie that used to be called this one summer movie, it can really work any month in the year.”
Lesson #6: If you're Disney, you might want to rethink your live-action summer release strategy.
Though the Mouse House is of course currently responsible for distributing both the enormously-successful MCU and Star Wars films, their in-house live-action productions have stumbled over the last few summers, with a couple of notable exceptions. Indeed, for every Jungle Book, there's an Alice Through the Looking Glass, The BFG, John Carter, Lone Ranger, and Tomorrowland. Said Mumpower:
“One of the least heralded catastrophes in recent years is Disney's handling of their live-action summer releases. The Jungle Book took the sting out of it, but Alice Through the Looking Glass joins other busts like John Carter, The Lone Ranger, and Tomorrowland. Then, they threw The BFG on the pile. They should have a lot of concern about their non-franchise live action summer titles moving forward. They don't seem to pick well, and the marketing is generally muddled, too.”
Lesson #7: Ignore women audiences to your own detriment — specifically, women over a certain age.
Guess what? No one, and I mean no one, expected Bad Moms to gross over $100 million this summer, and yet here we are. Along with Don't Breathe, the ensemble comedy starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Applegate, and Annie Mumolo is perhaps the summer's biggest sleeper success story, and in my mind the reason is simple: it's one of the few films this summer that appealed to women, particularly “older” women. According to official estimates, 82 percent of the audience for the film's opening weekend was female and 48 percent of those women were over the age of 34, suggesting there's a lot more cold, hard cash to be wrung out of this underserved demo.