It’s been a roller coaster summer at the box office with some thrilling peaks and dramatic dips. As we edge into the dog days of August, it’s time to assess what’s worked and what hasn’t so far at the summer box office.
But first, it depends on how you define “summer box office.” Traditionally, the “summer” season has run from the first Friday in May through Labor Day Weekend. But this year and last, Disney released the latest installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe the weekend before Memorial Day Weekend. So depending on how you define the summer movie season, this summer at the North American box office is either slightly up or slightly down from last year’s gross.
If you include Avengers: Endgame and last year’s Avengers: Infinity War in the summer box office tally, this summer’s box office is up nearly 1.9% from last year during the same time period, according to figures from Comscore. If you go by the traditional summer season dates, there’s a slight 1.4% dip from last year at the same time.
A strong start to summer
Regardless of how you spin it, there’s no denying that summer 2019 unofficially kicked off on April 24 when the season’s first tentpole release, Avengers: Endgame hit theaters, obliterating a number of box office records. Most notably, it recently beat Avatar’s record to become the highest grossing film of all time, with an estimated $2.79 billion in worldwide grosses in just 13 weeks (granted, that figure isn’t adjusted for inflation).
Though Avengers: Endgame continued to thrive at the box office, a number of other franchises didn’t perform as well as expected based on their predecessors.
A case of franchise fatigue?
During a couple of weeks in June, box office numbers seemed to indicate a so-called “sequel slump” or “franchise fatigue” with a steady series of sequels and reboots disappointing at the box office. Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The Secret Life of Pets 2, Dark Phoenix, Men in Black: International, and Shaft failed to attract audiences, proving that an established brand alone was not enough for a box office hit.
The Secret Life of Pets 2, for example, opened to $46.6 million, less than half of the original, which raked in over $100 million in its opening weekend in 2016. The fourth installment in the Men in Black series opened with $28.5 million, far below the $50 million range that the previous Men in Black films earned over their opening weekends. It didn’t help that Men in Black: International got a meager 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Just as Hollywood was diagnosed with a case of “sequel-itis,” the massive success of John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum, Toy Story 4, Aladdin, and The Lion King proved that franchises, sequels, and remakes still bring in audiences.
“It’s all about quality. When it comes to franchises that didn’t resonate, it happened when there wasn’t great marketing or there was a low critics’ score,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore. “With so many options for entertainment, audiences are becoming more selective. If they’re going to commit money and time to going to the movie theater, whatever they’re seeing better be as good as what they’re able to get at home on their small screen for a monthly subscription.”
Disney dominates summer—and 2019 so far
Without a doubt, the big box office winner this summer—and for the year so far—has been Disney.
Including Avengers: Endgame, the top five movies of the year at the box office are all Disney properties: Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4, The Lion King, and Aladdin. All of them except for Captain Marvel were released over the summer.
Since acquiring Fox’s film assets earlier this year, Disney now owns over 40% of the domestic market share. The company recently set the record for highest-grossing year for a studio, with $7.67 billion worldwide, smashing the record it set in 2016 with $7.61 billion.
“Some of the biggest brands in film are under the Disney umbrella and that’s a really good place to be,” says Dergarabedian. “They have marquee brands, including Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar, that have a following around the world.”
Audiences didn’t even seem to mind the poor reviews for Aladdin (it gets a 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s made over $1 billion worldwide so far. The Lion King just surpassed that impressive benchmark, and Toy Story 4 is poised to pass that milestone soon.
“Certain brands have so much goodwill and equity,” Dergarabedian told the Associated Press earlier this month. “Reviews clearly didn’t matter at all.”
Still, there were a couple of notable disappointments, including the X-Men spinoff Dark Phoenix and the pre-summer release of Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which took in a relatively modest $114 million domestically.
But Disney hasn’t been the only winner at the box office this summer.
Sure, Sony’s latest Men in Black: International was a box office dud, but that was all the way back in June. July has been an entirely different story.
“For the month of July, Sony has had a really incredible month,” said Dergarabedian, pointing out that Spider-Man: Far From Home, which hit theaters over the July 4th weekend, recently passed the billion-dollar mark at the global box office, becoming the first Spider-Man film to do so (not adjusting for inflation).
Sony’s investment in Quentin Tarantino paid off with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which raked in an impressive $40 million haul over its first weekend after opening on July 27 and seems to be gaining momentum.
“With a big superhero movie and a Tarantino film, Sony has two very different films reaching audiences this month,” said Dergarabedian. “Disney isn’t the only studio who has had a good summer.”
Original R-rated comedies faltered
Early in the summer, audiences ignored Long Shot, the romantic comedy starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen. After a tepid $10 million debut, the R-rated comedy bottomed out, despite decent reviews (it’s got a 81% Rotten Tomatoes rating).
Similarly, despite a strong social-media marketing campaign and excellent reviews (97% on Rotten Tomatoes), Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s high school comedy, fell flat during its wide release over Memorial Day weekend, earning about $6.9 million.
Soon after Booksmart fell short of expectations, fellow festival favorite Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, fizzled at the box office. Amazon paid $13 million for domestic rights to the film after its Sundance premiere—and shelled out an additional $33 million for marketing—but it’s earned just over $15 million domestically since it hit theaters on June 7.
There were a number of other original (non-franchise) box office misfires, including Stuber, the buddy action comedy, which Disney inherited from the Fox inventory, which earned only $8 million when it was released on July 12.
Some original films stood out
While in general mid-budget original films had a hard time breaking out this summer, there were a few notable exceptions.
Universal’s Yesterday, “remains a solid movie for the summer,” says Deragabadian. The fantasy comedy, which features new versions of hit Beatles songs, earned a respectable $17 million in its opening weekend and has grossed over $110 million worldwide since its June 28 release.
Indie A24 found success this summer with the release of Sundance favorites The Farewell, which netted the biggest per-theater box-office average so far this year and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which has grossed over $4 million so far, as well as the buzzy Midsommar from director Ari Aster. Again, audiences are seeking out quality. As of this post, The Farewell has 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Summer’s not over yet
But, wait. There’s more. The summer movie season won’t wrap until after Labor Day. There’s still at least one more box office behemoth to come. This weekend will bring the latest installment in the Fast and Furious series, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Aug. 2). One of the biggest non-Disney franchises, Hobbs & Shaw could rake in over $65 million in its domestic box office debut, according to early tracking, and is poised to do massive business overseas.
If there’s one key takeaway from the summer box office this year, it’s that there’s no such thing as a guaranteed hit.
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