When the Tent-Pole Sags

November 10, 2017
A thought by James Berardinelli

(Note: There are a lot of numbers in this piece. Feel free to skim but I wanted all the data I used to be available for those who are interested. As for a conclusion…I don’t have one. I can see what the numbers are saying but how will the studios interpret them? This will require a follow-up at some point.)

It’s widely accepted that the first true summer blockbuster was Jaws. At the time of its release in 1975, it became a phenomenon, its power extending beyond theaters to beach communities where people were genuinely frightened of going into the ocean. Nevertheless, as influential as Jaws was in the summer of 1975, it didn’t start a trend. However, when Star Wars arrived two years later to a similarly ecstatic box office, Hollywood began to take notice.

The target audience for the summer blockbuster was identified as being “teenage boys” (specifically, males between the ages of 12 and 19). This wasn’t some fly-by-night designation; it was the result of an analysis of ticket buying. In the late 1970s, girls were busy doing other things (there were female Star Wars fans, to be sure, but they were vastly outnumbered by males) and older adults tended to view these movies as “being for kids.”

The year in which the blockbuster came into its own was 1981. A quick perusal of the summer release schedule for 1980 reveals only three PG-rated (there was no PG-13 in 1980 and an R rating eliminated more than half the target demographic) blockbuster-type titles: The Empire Strikes Back (released the weekend before Memorial Day), Airplane! (June 27), and Smokey and the Bandit II (August 15). There were a few other wannabe blockbusters, like Xanadu, but the above three were the only ones to gross >$50M, the going rate for huge success in that era.

In 1981, nine movies crossed the $50M threshold. Of those nine, six were PG-rated summer releases, including such notable titles as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, and For Your Eyes Only. 1982 continued the trend with five summer blockbusters – E.T. (which for many years was the #1 movie of all-time), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan & Poltergeist (which were released on the same day), Rocky III, and Annie (okay, not all big movies were targeted at teenage boys). The season as we now know it was off to the races.

The concept of the summer blockbuster continued unabated for more than three decades. There were some changes. As a portion of the teenage boy bloc deserted theaters in favor of video game playing, teenage girls filled the gap. Young adults (men and women ages 19-30) formed a growing portion of the audience. But, despite these changes, the basic summer movie template originated by Jaws and Star Wars didn’t change substantially – focus on thrills, chills, spills, action, and special effects. Leave drama for the spring and fall.

Something is happening, though. It’s subtle but detectable. The summer blockbuster is starting to lose its luster. There have been hints of this in the recent past but it has been more evident than ever in 2016 and, especially, 2017.

Going forward, when I refer to a box office figure, it will be inflation-adjusted. That’s the only way to make a reasonable comparison. One of the big Hollywood lies is to makes claims based on unadjusted numbers. A recent example: Early this year that the studios were making the (accurate) claim that the 2016 box office was the biggest of all-time @ $11,377M, beating out the previous “champion” of 2015 ($11,129M). However, when one digs a little deeper, it can be seen the number of tickets sold, a more reliable measure of box office health, decreased by 5 million between 2015 and 2016. The all-time high? 2002. The number of tickets sold in 2002 exceeded those sold in 2017 by 260 million. That’s huge and that’s why Hollywood is getting worried. Putting aside the perturbations that occur from year-to-year, the trend in tickets sold is downward. The use of “gross box office” is a marketing tool to trick consumers into thinking that the movie business is more solid than it is.

To limit the scope, I’m going to start with 2012 and work forward. This analysis is focused only on certified blockbusters, or movies that made more than $200M. It also only looks at movies that opened between May 1 and August 8, the recognized summer blockbuster season. That means Star Wars: The Force Awakens won’t be considered although it’s such an outlier that it’s questionable how much its massive gross means. (And, for what it’s worth, an inflation-adjusted A New Hope beats it by about 60%.)

In 2012, 14 inflation-adjusted titles made more than $200M. Of those 14, seven were summer releases. The top two grossing films, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, were superhero films and sequels. Two were animated (Brave and Madagascar 3). Only one (Ted) was a unique non-animated property. The other two (The Amazing Spider-Man and MIB 3) were sequels. So that’s a total of five sequels and two original properties. Inflation-adjusted, the total gross of all summer films exceeding $200M was $2.445B.

In 2013, 14 inflation-adjusted titles made more than $200M. Of those 14, seven were summer releases. The top grossing summer film, Iron Man 3, was a superhero film and sequel. There was another superhero movie, Man of Steel, among those seven. Two were animated (Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University). Only one (World War Z) was a unique property. The other two (Fast & Furious 6 and Star Trek into Darkness) were sequels. So that’s a total of six sequels (considering Man of Steel a sequel because it’s part of an established franchise) and one original property. Inflation-adjusted, the total gross of all summer films exceeding $200M was $2.185B.

In 2014, 16 inflation-adjusted titles made more than $200M.  Of those 16, nine were summer releases. The top grossing summer film, Guardians of the Galaxy was a comic book/superhero film and original property. X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 were two other superhero movies/sequels among the nine. There were no animated films. Aside from Guardians, there was one original property, Maleficent. The other five were either sequels or part of established franchises (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, 22 Jump Street, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). So that’s seven sequel/franchise movies and two original properties. Inflation-adjusted, the total gross of all summer films exceeding $200M was $2.233B.

In 2015, 11 inflation-adjusted titles made more than $200M. Of those 11, five were summer releases. The top summer movie, Jurassic World, was a non-superhero movie sequel. The top superhero movie was Avengers: Age of Ultron. No other superhero movies were among the five. Two were animated (Inside Out and Minions). There were no non-animated original properties. The other film was a sequel, Furious 7. That’s four sequels/franchise movies and one original property. Inflation-adjusted, the total gross of all summer films exceeding $200M was $2.468B.

In 2016, 13 inflation-adjusted titles made more than $200M. Of those 13, only four were summer releases: Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, The Secret Life of Pets, and Suicide Squad. So that’s two animated films (one original) and two superhero movies. Inflation-adjusted, the total gross of all summer films exceeding $200M was $1.635B.

2017 isn’t finished yet so it requires a little guesswork to determine how many blockbusters there will be overall. But let’s take the safe route and assume that the as-yet unreleased Justice League and The Last Jedi will pass muster. Unless something else sneaks across the $200M threshold (like Coco, for example), it looks like 2017 will end up with 11 titles making more than $200M. Four summer movies made the cut: Wonder Woman, Guardians 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Despicable Me 3. The total gross of all summer films exceeding $200M was $1.4B.

Obviously, these numbers don’t tell the whole story but they indicate a trend. In 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, the summer numbers were comfortably above $2B. The last two years, they are down significantly. Why? The so-called tent-poles aren’t generating as much individually and there are a lot of supposedly big summer movies that are underperforming. 2016/17 have also seen more movies being released outside the summer season which may have cannibalized the summer numbers. (March and April are starting to show strength as potential landing-spots for high-profile titles.)

Now let’s look a little deeper. Over the course of this period, starting with The Avengers, the Marvel superhero movies have moved toward team-up outings. There have been five of these with multiple A-list heroes, four of which had summer releases. (Note: Although Guardians of the Galaxy is part of the so-called MCU, it hasn’t yet been integrated with the more conventional superhero films.)

2012: The Avengers, $698M

2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron, $482M

2016: Captain America: Civil War, $420M

2017: Spider-Man: Homecoming, $334M

The trend is unmistakable. Following the enthusiasm for The Avengers, excitement dropped considerably by the time of the sequel then continued declining for the superhero smackdown Captain America: Civil War and even more for the Spider-Man MCU return with Iron Man and Captain America. (It’s too early to determine the gross for the November-release Thor: Raganarok, with Thor, Hulk, and Dr. Strange, but it looks unlikely to top Spider-Man: Homecoming.) Superhero fatigue? Perhaps but it could also be blockbuster fatigue.

Next, how about non-Marvel superhero sequel performance? Here are a selection of a few franchises that are still considered active and have released at least one summer installment in either 2016 or 2017:

Star Trek: Star Trek into Darkness ($250M), Star Trek Beyond ($165M); delta: -$85M

Transformers: Transformers: Age of Extinction ($267M), Transformers: The Last Knight ($130M); delta: -$137M

Despicable Me: Minions ($353M), Despicable Me 3 ($264M); delta: -$89M

Planet of the Apes: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ($228M), War for the Planet of the Apes ($147M); delta: -$81M

X-Men: X-Men: Days of Future Past ($255M), X-Men: Apocalypse ($155M); delta: -$100M

Wolverine: The Wolverine ($145M), Logan ($226M); delta: +$81M

Pirates of the Caribbean: Pirates: On Stranger Tides ($271M), Pirates: Dead Men Tell No Tales ($171M): delta: -$100M

Cars: Cars 2 ($239M), Cars 3 ($153M); delta: -$86M

Alien: Prometheus ($141M), Alien: Covenant ($74M); delta: -$67M

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 1 ($363M), Volume 2 ($390M); delta: +27M

Of those ten major franchises, only two showed an upward trend (Wolverine, Guardians). 20% is a terrible ratio, especially when one considers how dramatic most of those drops have been. This is evidence of a strong underlying weakness in Hollywood’s franchise tent-poles.

If the 2016/2017 summer/tent-pole numbers are so bad, why do the full-year numbers continue to look respectable? It doesn’t take a lot of digging to unearth one reason: nostalgia. All of the biggest grossing outliers of the past few years (The Force Awakens, Rogue One, Beauty and the Beast) have something in common (besides having been distributed by Disney): they plunder the past to cross demographics and inflate their audience numbers. What young-ish parent wouldn’t want to take their child to see a remake of a film that delighted them 25 years ago when they were a kid? And who can resist the full-blooded return of Star Wars? But nostalgia is fickle and expecting it to continue to pump up the box office for years to come (with more Star Wars sequels and additional animated-to-live action conversions) isn’t reasonable. And as the drawing power of these movies diminishes, the cracks in the foundation will be evident.

I’m not sure what I expected when I started running these numbers but it wasn’t something this bleak. My assumption was that the domestic box office has been slowly eroding but I wasn’t aware of how badly franchises were faring. Hollywood has staked its future on two things: the continued strength of franchises (both superhero and non-superhero) and the foreign box office. The latter is uncertain and now the former seems to be in jeopardy.

Short-term activity may not be indicative of long-term trends. Maybe things will reverse themselves next year. With Avengers 3 leading the way, maybe 2018 will be a banner year. Or maybe people are just getting tired of an endless assembly line of sequels and remakes where each looks depressingly like the next. Maybe the only ones still looking forward to these movies are the fanboys/girls. If that’s the case, then the studios are going to have rethink things and maybe, just maybe, that could signal a return to smaller original productions that favor narrative and character over spectacle. I can dream, can’t I?