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The Summer 2019 Box Office Was Pretty Topsy-Turvy

First, the good news: this summer, a record five movies crossed the $1 billion threshold at the global box office (Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Toy Story 4, and Aladdin).

Now, the bad news: Even superhero blockbusters couldn’t invigorate the box office, which is down 6.4% so far this year.

North American ticket sales for the summer (Friday, May 3 to Sunday, Sept. 1) totaled $4.32 billion, a dip of 2% from last summer’s $4.41 billion take, according to data firm Comscore.

That’s not exactly a reason to celebrate, but the news isn’t as dismal as summer 2017 when domestic ticket sales hit a 10-year-low at $3.84 billion.

With Labor Day behind us, it’s time to review what worked at the summer box office and what didn’t.

Sequels and Remakes Weren’t Guarantees

As usual this summer, Hollywood bet big on so-called tent-pole titles, established franchises based on proven intellectual property (think sequels, reboots, and remakes) to boost the box office.

But by mid-summer, audiences seemed to be experiencing “franchise fatigue” as a steady series of star-studded sequels and reboots, including Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The Secret Life of Pets 2, Dark Phoenix, Men in Black: International, and Shaft underwhelmed at the box office.

But when Toy Story 4 debuted on June 21, scoring one of the biggest domestic opening weekends for an animated film with $120 million, talk of “franchise fatigue” was quickly forgotten. Other successful summer franchises included John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.

“I don’t think there’s a mandate by audiences against franchise films or sequels,” says Paul Dergarabedian, Comscore senior media analyst. “But if those movies don’t get great reviews and don’t seem fresh or exciting, then audiences will check out. They have a lot of options.”

Dergarabedian points to John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum as an example of a franchise film “that still feels fresh even in its third installment. They keep mixing it up.”

While most summer sequels failed to live up to their predecessor’s success, John Wick: Chapter 3 was an outlier, easily surpassing John Wick: Chapter Two at the box office.

Lionsgate and Millennium’s Angel Has Fallen, the third in the action franchise, also exceeded box office expectations when it hit theaters in late August.

Original Films Struggled—With a Few Notable Exceptions

Overall, original films—those not based on existing intellectual property—struggled to find an audience this summer as viewers craving original fare presumably stayed home and binge-watched original series such as Stranger Things (which, ironically, was inspired by iconic summer blockbusters such as Steven Spielberg’s E.T.)

“Audiences can get their fix of a lot of original content on the small screen and then they’re going to the movie theater to see those bigger-than life-epic films, particularly in the summer,” says Dergarabedian.

Original comedies, in particular, disappointed this summer, with audiences staying away from films such as Long Shot, the romantic comedy starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen, Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s high school comedy, and Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling.

“Films like Late Night, Booksmart, and Long Shot were all terrific films, but I think audiences gravitated more towards the tried-and-true this summer and seemed less inclined to take a chance on an original idea,” says Dergarabedian. 

In August, audiences rejected original films such as The Kitchen, starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, and Sundance Film Festival favorite Blinded by the Light, both Warner Bros. releases.

Some Bright Spots for Original Content

Quentin Tarantino and Sony's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was the summer’s only original film (not based on an existing brand) to cross the $100 million threshold at the domestic box office.

Once Upon a Time differentiated itself by harkening back to the movies of old, a big epic, original movie from a brand-name director that audiences felt they had to see,” says Dergarabedian.

But there were other original studio films which stood out at the box office. Universal’s Good Boys was the first original R-rated comedy in three years to top the box office charts. (since 2016’s The Boss). It’s also only the second original film to open in the number one slot this year (the other one was Jordan Peele’s Us). In its first three weeks of release, it’s exceeded $70 million at the global box office.

Universal’s Yesterday, inspired by The Beatles is generally considered the summer’s sleeper hit. The romantic musical recently crossed the $100 million mark internationally. In the U.S., it has earned over $73 million plus an additional $61 million globally, particularly impressive considering the film’s reported $26 million budget.

Rocketman, the Elton John biopic from Paramount, has almost hit $100 million domestically ($96.3 million). As with Yesterday, though Rocketman was an original film, it benefited from built-in brand appeal because of its association with a musical icon. One could say that Elton John is a franchise himself.

Disney Ruled

Summer 2019 belonged to Disney, the studio with three of the top five summer films at the box office—The Lion King, Toy Story 4, and Aladdin—which each earned over $1 billion worldwide.

Even Sony’s blockbuster hit Spiderman: Far From Home, was co-produced by the Disney-owned Marvel Studios.

There's also Disney and Marvel's Avengers: Endgame, which hit theaters April 26, one week before the official start of summer, but contributed to the summer box office’s final tally. The latest installment of the Avengers franchise has earned $858.2 million domestically and $1.94 billion overseas for a worldwide take of $2.8 billion, making it the top-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation).

With $523.5 million in domestic ticket sales, The Lion King takes bragging rights as the summer’s highest-grossing film.

“Disney has certainly dominated this summer. That’s what happens when you control an enormous among of the content,” says Dergarabedian. Disney commands around 40% of the domestic box office.

There were some box office disappointments for Disney this summer, mostly due to the Fox titles it acquired as part of its $71 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Disney blamed the failure of costly Dark Phoenix for hurting the company’s quarterly returns. Disney also inherited box office duds Stuber and The Art of Racing in the Rain.

If there’s one overarching takeaway from the summer box office, it’s that in spite of screening options, audiences still want to leave their homes to see a movie—as long as that movie promises to payoff in entertainment value.

That means we’re likely to see more tentpole sequels based on existing IP next summer. Look out for Marvel Studio’s Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johanssen, Fast & Furious 9, and Wonder Woman 1984, among other established franchises slated to hit theaters in summer 2020.

“On the part of audiences, there’s still the mindset that when it’s the summer, they want a big over-the-top popcorn experience,” says Dergarabedian.

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