NEW YORK, Aug 14, (AP): On their face, the numbers are grim. Movie ticket sales in North America are running roughly half a billion dollars behind last summer’s box office, making this one of lowest-grossing summers in years.
The 12.4 percent downturn comes at a critical juncture for Hollywood, with constantly swirling fears about the impact of streaming, television and the bazillion other entertainment options out there. AMC, the largest theater chain in the United States, saw its stock price tank recently partly because of slow sales and its forecast for “a very challenging” third quarter.
And yet much of the story at the multiplex this summer has been very positive. Few of the movies that won strong reviews and a warm reception from moviegoers didn’t also perform well at the box office. With few exceptions, when the studios supplied the goods, audiences came in droves.
The biggest smashes of the summer — “Wonder Woman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” — all earned both praise and major business. Two of those films also righted the ship for studios struggling to match Disney’s franchise power.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” was a much-needed shot in the arm for the retooled Sony Pictures, which followed that up with Edgar Wright’s music-mad original hit “Baby Driver.”
Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” set things right, finally, in Warner Bros.’ DC Comics series. The film, which recently surpassed $400 million domestically, also set a record for highest grossing film directed by a woman. Warner Bros. later gave the summer an honest-to-goodness Oscar contender in July: Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk.”
“What we all saw this summer is audiences were fickle. The stuff they liked, they really liked,” said Jeffrey Goldstein, distribution chief for Warner Bros. “The movies that were well received were rewarded with good holds.”
All but three of the No.1 films this summer were certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, including this past weekend’s top film, the horror sequel “Annabelle: Creation.”
“The irony is, it was one of the best summers to be a moviegoer, if not a theater operator,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore. “When I look at movies like ‘Guardians 2,’ ‘Wonder Woman,’ ‘War for the Planet of the Apes,’ ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ ‘The Big Sick,’ ‘Detroit,’ ‘Baby Driver,’ ‘Dunkirk,’ ‘Wind River,’ I have to say it’s been a great time as a moviegoer.
“This is sort of: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” said Dergarabedian.
You could easily add to that list, too. Though many comedies struggled, the summer produced one breakout comedy: “Girls Trip,” soon to surpass $100 million domestically. Two of the year’s most audaciously original and buzzy titles electrified art-house audiences: “Good Time,” with Robert Pattinson, and “A Ghost Story,” with a sheeted Casey Affleck. On Friday, Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh will trot out his return to movie directing, the heist film “Logan Lucky,” with Channing Tatum.
Though they haven’t always helped the bottom line, an unusual number of filmmakers and upstart distributors have tried to shake up the summer. Even the season’s most spectacular bomb — Luc Besson’s $180-million sci-fi extravaganza “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” — was a charming one. The film, made and financed outside the Hollywood system, was the kind of pricey auteur-driven overreach that today’s corporate-driven studios have largely snuffed out.
So what’s the problem? Where’s the missing $500 million? (That’s about the gap left by this summer’s overall gross of $3.4 billion.)
It’s been a rough summer at the box office, and movie theater chains are feeling the pain. It got worse last week when AMC Entertainment said US box office grosses are sinking. Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for comScore who has followed the industry for more than 20 years, says movie theaters are always vulnerable if people aren’t excited about what’s playing, but things can change quickly.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Question: Are Americans just not excited about this summer’s movies?
Answer: Currently the summer box office is down about 11 percent compared to the summer of 2016. This is despite the fact that there have been some really terrific movies. Every year has these down trends. The reason this has gotten so much attention is because it’s the summer movie season, which generally accounts for about 40 percent of the total-year box office.
I think people want more original content. It doesn’t have to be an original piece of intellectual property. It can be something like “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” that felt original because it had a different take on the Spider-Man character. “Baby Driver” was not a sequel. It was a brand new film from an innovative director (Edgar Wright).
Q: Is this a down year, or do you think things will even out?
A: The first quarter was huge, with “Logan,” “Get Out” and “Split.” The second and third quarters have been kind of tough. But one or two movies can make all the difference. It is a true roller coaster ride.
I think the industry is changing in the sense that the seasons are going away. You can have big movies any time of year, not just May through Labor Day. Even though the summer is down, and the year is down 3 percent as well, but at the end of the year, with some big titles like “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Justice League” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” all of this could turn around. We could wind up with yet another $11 billion-plus year, which I think we will.
Q: What are movie theater operators doing to compete with at-home streaming services and all the options available on people’s smartphones?
A: What they’re doing with these smaller capacity theaters that are super high end and offer all these amenities, I think that’s the way of the future. The moviegoing experience has never been better, but at the end of the day people are going to see a movie, not have a beer.
Q: Doesn’t more amenities lead to higher costs for theaters?
A: You have to have a strong stomach in that business. It’s a business that requires a huge physical footprint and constant upgrading. The theaters that are feeling the pinch now will more than make up for that once “Justice League,” “Thor” and particularly “The Last Jedi” are released.