After summer duds, Hollywood pins hopes on fall ticket sales

The fall season will also bring potential megahits like Thor: Ragnarok, Blade Runner 2049 and Justice League
Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations, an entertainment research firm, summed up Hollywood’s dismal summer at the domestic box office — estimated ticket sales fell to a 22-year low — by going on an “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” rant.

“The message from American moviegoers over the summer was not subtle,” Mr. Bock said. “Please, we are begging you, give us something more than soulless, half-baked sequels and remakes that are made by committee and primarily designed to sell merchandise.”

Even so, studios are unlikely to shift gears anytime soon. Overseas audiences continue to devour what Hollywood serves up. And many studio executives dismiss the recent slump in North America, which remains the world’s 

No. 1 movie market, as a normal part of a cyclical film business. Box office behemoths, they insist, are just around the corner.

On Friday, for instance, New Line Cinema, a Warner Bros division that has been a resurgent force in the horror genre, is expected to blow the cobwebs off theater seats with “It.” An adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel about Pennywise the demonic clown, “It” may arrive to $70 million or more in domestic ticket sales, breaking September box office records, analysts say. The fall season will also bring potential megahits like “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Justice League.”

However, it will take more than a handful of blockbusters to undo the damage of a lethargic summer. From the first Friday in May to Labor Day, a period that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales, box office revenue in the United States and Canada is expected to total roughly $3.78 billion, a 16 per cent decline from the same period last year, according to comScore, which compiles ticketing statistics.

To find a slower summer, you have to go back to 1995, when “Apollo 13” and “Pocahontas” were top draws, according to Box Office Mojo, an online database. After adjusting for inflation, the summer of 1995 had about $3.76 billion in ticket sales.

Recent days were particularly terrible. Friday to Sunday, theaters in North America sold about $74.7 million in tickets, a 25 percent decline from the same period last year. With no new wide releases, the No. 1 draw was again “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” (Lionsgate), which collected an estimated $10.3 million, for a three-week total of $55 million.

The only new offering was the long-gestating drama “Tulip Fever,” which the Weinstein Company released with little fanfare in 765 theaters. That poorly reviewed film arrived to a dismal $1.2 million in ticket sales. Audiences also ignored the 40th anniversary rerelease of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (Sony), which took in about $1.8 million in 901 theaters.

Although an overreliance on superheroes is a perennial analyst worry, the summer months — in one positive development for Hollywood — brought little evidence that moviegoers are tiring of comic-book adaptations. Indeed, the top three ticket sellers at domestic theaters were Warner’s “Wonder Woman,” with $409 million; Disney’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” with $390 million; and Sony’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” with $324 million.

Several non-superhero movies also succeeded. “Dunkirk,” with $178.8 million in domestic ticket sales, became the most successful summertime drama since “Pearl Harbor,” which collected about $277.5 million in 2001, after adjusting for inflation. Two modestly budgeted movies — “Girls Trip,” a buddy comedy about four black women, and “Baby Driver,” a quirky heist caper — broke through and took in more than $100 million apiece. Among indies, “The Big Sick,” an unconventional romantic comedy, was a big hit, with about $40 million in ticket sales.

A single thread ran through each one of those successes: They received euphoric reviews from critics (a positive score of 89 or higher on the Rotten Tomatoes 100-point scale), sending a message that they were high-quality endeavors and thus worthy of a trip to theaters. “This was the summer when the scales really tipped toward quality,” Mr. Bock said. “Serving up sludge for a story? No, thanks — we’ll stay home and stream.”

Subpar storytelling undoubtedly contributed to clunkers like “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” “Baywatch,” “The Dark Tower,” “The Mummy,” “The House” and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” all of which were battered by bad reviews. More than ever, moviegoers also seemed to decide that most mid-budget dramas and comedies were skippable, at least during their theatrical runs. The well-reviewed “Detroit” bombed. 

“Logan Lucky,” “Rough Night,” “Snatched” and “Atomic Blonde” all fell short of expectations. Film festival darlings like “Patti Cake$” and “Brigsby Bear” collapsed.

Analysts chalked up another group of misfires to franchise fatigue. “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third chapter in a rebooted series, and “Alien: Covenant,” the eighth “Alien” installment, were box office letdowns. So was “Transformers: The Last Knight.” “Cars 3” delivered the second-lowest domestic gross in Pixar history, ahead of only “The Good Dinosaur.” (On the plus side, “Cars 3” got better reviews than “Cars 2,” perhaps polishing up that franchise’s reputation.)

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” and “Despicable Me 3” were both seen as domestic disappointments, with ticket sales that fell roughly 35 percent behind their respective franchise predecessors, after adjusting for inflation.

But both of those films were smash hits overseas — thus explaining why studios will continue to rely on sequels. The latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” took in $792 million worldwide for Disney, and “Despicable Me 3,” from Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures, was the No. 1 movie of the summer on a global scale, with ticket sales of $976 million.

©2017 The New York Times News Service

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