Summer box office 2019: what are the major lessons of the season?
Less rebooting! More Keanu! Less Shaft! The summer season is over and it’s time to sift through the hits and misses to see what the industry can learn
Disney remains in charge of the kingdom
Finally some good news for those plucky young upstarts at Disney. While it might not be a surprise that the studio made money this season, not many could have predicted just how much money it would make. With four $1bn-plus hits, Disney broke a new record and ensured that the industry survived another summer with their films accounting for 50% of the overall gross for the season. What’s most important is that their successes come from three different strands (Marvel, live-action/CG remakes and Pixar) and while none of their hits are based on original properties, it’s a sign of how the company has grown in the last decade.
Avengers: Endgame, the endlessly hyped concluding chapter in the Avengers franchise (for now, anyway) made even more money than anticipated with $2.796bn worldwide, edging away from Avatar to become the most successful film of all time. It was the ending that Marvel and Disney have been working toward for the last 11 years since the original Iron Man and together with pre-summer hit Captain Marvel bringing in over $1bn, it shows that audiences are yet to grow fatigued.
The underwhelming box office for March’s Dumbo might have concerned some higher ups at Disney given that 2019 would see three more live-action, or CG, spins on animated classics but comparisons are close to pointless given how the fanbase for the 1941 original isn’t there in quite the same way as it is for The Lion King and Aladdin. Both were huge this summer, the former already the ninth biggest film of all time, and while a Maleficent sequel this October won’t scale such heights, the practice remains hugely profitable (next year sees Mulan aiming for more cash).
Then finally, their standard summer Pixar offering hit harder than usual given that it was Toy Story 4, the latest in a franchise that had already made the studio $2bn in ticket sales alone. While the latest chapter seemed unnecessary as a concept, given how the third had ended with such operatic perfection, critics were still warm and so were audiences with the film just days away from becoming the biggest Toy Story to date globally. With Disney+ months away from potentially dominating the streaming market as well, the studio looks set for yet more happy ever afters.
Sleeper hits are hard to find
While the summer season is most obviously associated with big hitters, it’s also traditionally been a time for smaller films to shine, appealing to those weary of explosions. Past seasons have seen Julie & Julia, Little Miss Sunshine, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, The Blair Witch Project and The Big Sick all over-perform, buoyed more by word of mouth than aggressive, and expensive, marketing.
But this year has been something of a bloodbath for lower rung titles, even those with name casts and wide releases. In January, a number of big acquisitions had experts suggesting that Sundance was regaining its position as a competitive marketplace for studios seeking crowd-pleasing sleepers with surprise megabucks deals for a number of titles. Cut to the summer however and execs might be regretting all that chequebook-flaunting with Amazon’s $13m Late Night failing to crack $16m in the US while New Line’s $15m Blinded by the Light has yet to make it over $9m. The problem is that while both might have seemed commercial and audience-friendly in Park City, that’s when surrounded by smaller, more opaque titles and with an eager inbuilt festival audience. Getting a wider public to get out and see films about diversity in a late night writers room and a Bruce Springsteen-soundtracked coming-of-age story in 80s Luton is an entirely different prospect.
Elsewhere, Sundance hit The Last Black Man in San Francisco couldn’t break $5m, Diane Keaton wasn’t able to turn Poms into another Book Club-level hit despite similar release dates, commercially-leaning music indies Teen Spirit and Wild Rose couldn’t crack $3m between them, Where’d You Go Bernadette’s bad buzz translated into bad BO, Jim Jarmsuch’s starry zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die died and Booksmart’s critical adoration didn’t impress audiences who mostly shunned it despite a bold wide release strategy. There was some decent news for Sundance purchase The Farewell which is almost up to $15m (but losing financial steam), a solid number but given the film’s reviews and commercial appeal, it’s not the slam-dunk distributor A24 would have hoped for.
The dog days of summer did finally throw up something close to a sleeper in Good Boys, the first R-rated comedy to make it to number one since The Boss in 2016, although its $21m opening is a far cry from previous comedy hits of summers past such as The Hangover ($44m), Girls Trip ($31m) and Central Intelligence ($35m). Its mild success, especially compared to other so-called original films of the summer, shows that ribald humour and an easy-to-sell concept (kids being rude) attracts audiences more than festival acclaim and big stars at least during the warmer months.
Never underestimate 90s movie stars
Articles mourning the death of the movie star have been circulating for years now thanks to the increased power of franchises making star-led projects less desirable to audiences. In the last 12 months, we’ve seen flops from Matthew McConaughey, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Mark Wahlberg, Steve Carell and Will Ferrell leading many to question whether any name alone was enough to open a movie.
The record success of this summer’s Murder Mystery on Netflix showcased the sustained appeal of 90s stalwarts Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston but given the low involvement of a streaming watch, it only really equalled that of say the cast of Big Little Lies or any other TV series boasting A-list talent. But this summer saw two major box office hits that relied almost exclusively on star power. In May, Keanu Reeves pushed John Wick 3 to huge, series-best numbers, almost doubling what the previous film made, a whopping $321m worldwide for a franchise that started out with limited expectations. Its success led to him being courted by Marvel as well as a green light for a fourth Matrix film.
Two months later, 90s heartthrobs Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio helped push Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to $239m to date, a number that’s likely to further increase in the following weeks. It’s a rare, impressive number for an original movie released in the summer and the star power of all three was undoubtedly a bigger factor then the subject matter.
If in doubt, don’t make a sequel
The season saw critics and audiences in almost universal agreement over what to avoid with the biggest flops virtually all carrying with them a rotten rating. They also all shared one striking similarity: they were sequels that no one needed.
While international box office might have edged 2014’s Godzilla reboot up to a robust $529m worldwide, uninspiring characters and a non-existent fanbase made a sequel a risky proposition, especially one that cost an exorbitant $170m but thudding into cinemas regardless came critically loathed Godzilla: King of the Monsters at the tail end of May. It made just over half of what its predecessor devoured in the US and less than $400m worldwide, barely scraping past what the 1998 version mustered. Much-hyped crossover Godzilla vs Kong hits cinemas in March and Warners will be in panic mode from now up until then. The studio also stumbled with their misjudged Shaft sequel, wisely dumped on Netflix internationally, crawling into US cinemas where it made a pitiful $21m, immediately ending the series.
Sony’s Men in Black: International went down as badly as one might expect given the franchise’s utter invisibility in the pop culture lexicon, making just $253m worldwide and guaranteeing that a follow-up is all but impossible, at least one without Will Smith returning. The studio has struggled to figure out how to squeeze more money from the brand for years and we should at least be thankful that their mooted MiB/21 Jump Street hybrid never came to fruition. There was similarly queasy news for Fox who arrived at Disney’s doorsteps with a prize turkey: Dark Phoenix. The X-Men spin-off/sequel/unnatural disaster had been shifted around the schedule for a while and finally dumped in a prime slot accompanied by negative reviews and then audience apathy, its total haul the same as what X-Men: Apocalypse made in its opening weekend.
The common theme was predictable disinterest, audiences and critics responding in unison to lazy and unnecessary repackaging, at odds with the sequels which did work this season, such as Spider-Man: Far From Home, Toy Story 4 and Avengers: Endgame, which continued stories with wit and ingenuity.
Kids are discerning!
There are few surefire ways to make money in Hollywood, unless you’re Disney, but traditionally one of the safest is to make a film targeted at viewers young enough not to care if it’s good or bad and parents exhausted enough not to tell the difference. But this summer, and year in whole, has been rather disastrous for kids movies.
Before the warmer months had began, Warners had weathered a franchise-killing result for The Lego Movie Part 2 which couldn’t cross $200m worldwide (compared to the predecessor’s $469m) while Paramount’s Wonder Park was far from it, limping past $119m globally. But these were solid gold hits compared to the summer crop. A few weeks before Endgame officially kicked off the season, Missing Link, Annapurna’s first film with acclaimed boutique animation company Laika, was a huge bomb making less than $17m in the US from a $100m budget. In May, the ailing studio STX saw one of their biggest flops to date with Uglydolls, pitched in ads as “the movie musical event of the year”, but received by audiences as the very definition of a non-event, bringing in less than $30m worldwide and putting a quick end to hopes of a franchise. Then, while it was far from a flop, Universal will be concerned about The Secret Life of Pets 2 bringing in less than half of the original’s whopping $875m worldwide. Recent weeks have also seen Sony’s The Angry Birds Movie 2 stumble, opening to a pitiful $10m compared to the original’s $38m, despite positive reviews, while Paramount hoped their Dora and the Lost City of Gold would kick off a new series but a middling $60m worldwide to date from a $49m budget is not the splashy kick-off they were hoping for. Even the weirdly reliable subgenre of films about dogs sputtered with both A Dog’s Journey and The Art of Racing in the Rain struggling to make it to $25m a piece.
Making big bets on questionable material (does anyone still play Angry Birds?) is a key problem but there’s also an issue of saturation and with Disney monopolising the multiplex with three $1bn hits squarely aimed at younger audiences, there just wasn’t enough to go around.
PUKmedia \ The Guardian