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After a subpar summer, Hollywood needs a holiday rescue

November 27, 2014, 12:00 PM UTC
A LAPD helicopter flies over the Hollywood sign in Hollywood
A Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) helicopter flies over the Hollywood sign in Hollywood, California February 21, 2014. To match TRAVEL-HOLYWOOD REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY TRAVEL) - RTX19A0U
Photograph by Mario Anzuoni — Reuters

In movie theaters across the country right now, Jennifer Lawrence — as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 — is battling a brutal totalitarian regime in a dystopian future.

In reality, Lawrence and the latest installment in the Hunger Games franchise face another tall order: saving Hollywood’s 2014 box-office. Of course, that job depends on how many people buy tickets for the film — which had a decent opening weekend — and the performance of other holiday blockbusters.

At this point, 2014 U.S. movie theater sales are down nearly 4% from where they were at the same point last year, and more than 5% below 2012’s numbers, according to Box Office Mojo. That’s mostly because of a disappointing summer season that suffered from a shortage of reliable big action money-makers and underwhelming ticket sales by films that had been expected to do well.

Summer ticket sales were down 16.4% this year, and only 14 films released during that period grossed more than $100 million domestically. That is five fewer than the previous summer.

“The summer was almost a disaster,” says Standard & Poor’s entertainment analyst Tuna Amobi.

Of course, 2012 and 2013 were record-breaking years at the box-office, with the latter taking the crown with a full-year gross of more than $10.9 billion. So judging 2014 against such a high bar isn’t entirely fair.

Amobi says this year could still be considered decent if a handful of successful holiday releases can push full-year sales beyond the $10 billion-mark. It is a threshold the industry has exceeded every year since 2009.

“I don’t think that’s something you can sneeze at, given what has happened,” Amobi says about the possibility of reaching $10 billion in sales.

Year-to-date, ticket sales are around $9.2 billion. And, with a promising slate of holiday films, led by the likes of The Hunger Games and the latest from Warner Brothers’ The Hobbit series, the film industry may just squeak by the $10 billion mark.

The two previous Hunger Games movies made a massive $832 million combined for Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF) in the U.S. Meanwhile, the previous two Hobbit installments made a total of $561 million.

Hollywood’s ability to play catch up suffered a bit of a setback this past weekend when Hunger Games had a relatively underwhelming opening weekend. Make no mistake, the movie still made more than $120 million in what was the year’s biggest opening weekend — outpacing the previous title holder, Transformers: Age of Extinction‘s $100 million premiere in June. But Hunger Games’ third installment’s still fell well short of its predecessors, each of which topped $150 million in their first weekend.

Amobi warned against reading too much into film failing to live up to “the lofty standards” set by the rest of the Hunger Games franchise. He said he still expects Katniss and the gang to give a huge lift to seasonal box-office sales.

Post-summer surprise hits like Gone Girl, a 20th Century Fox (FOX) film released in October, have taken some of the pressure off by grossing more than $157 million in the U.S. Meanwhile, Paramount’s sci-fi flick Interstellar has taken in more than $120 million since its release earlier this month while The Walt Disney Company scored another hit with the animated film Big Hero 6, which has made $137 million after three weeks in theaters.

The strong start to the fall season and strong line-up of holiday films has already lifted the confidence of movie theater operators who “got hammered” over the summer because of empty seats, Amobi says.

It is also welcome news for film studios, nearly all of which suffered drop-offs in summer receipts this year. Only Fox can really claim a successful summer with sales of $884 million, a 48% increase in sales year-over-year. The company is also in the lead for the full-year title, with about $1.6 billion in sales and a holiday slate that includes likely family hits in Penguins of Madagascar and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.

Disney (DIS), which scored the surprising hit of the year so far with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, is in second-place at $1.5 billion for the year. The “Mouse House” has one more big release up its sleeve with the musical Into the Woods, which comes out on Christmas Day.

Warner Brothers (TWX) has grossed $1.3 billion so far, but a huge showing from The Hobbit could vault the company into the lead. Lionsgate, which has grossed about $540 million in 2014, is not likely to crack the leaderboard even with Hunger Games likely success.

Perhaps most importantly for Hollywood is that next year is expected to be better for box office sales because of a bigger slate of blockbuster film releases including new installments of several popular franchises. A holiday rescue mission is unlikely to be needed next year.