Every summer movie season has its highlights and low points – but from a commercial perspective, this year’s edition was mostly just bleak. The final numbers aren’t in yet, but 2017 is projected to be the lowest-grossing summer since 2006. (For perspective: That was the year that the Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises first launched.) Sure, people still spend tons of money at the multiplex – the final box office tally is estimated to be around $3.8 billion. But, with a few major exceptions, there simply weren’t the breakout, must-see event movies and critically acclaimed indies that make the warm-weather months such a great time to head out to the theater.
Setting aside the gloom for a minute, though, let’s zoom in on the crucial lessons we learned from this cinematic summer. If Summer 2017 wasn’t one for the record books, it still helped us understand some key industry trends and hinted at what the future might hold for viewers. Below, we highlight 10 major takeaways from a season full of superheroes, war movies, unconventional rom-coms and some rough, rough nights.
1. Movies that seemed like bombs were saved overseas.
Back in June, Universal’s attempt to kick-start a cinematic universe populated by the studio’s legendary stables of monsters seemed to crash and burn after the poor showing of Tom Cruise’s The Mummy. It received terrible reviews and was barely able to crack $80 million in the U.S. … so, it was a bomb, right?
Not at all: The Mummy grossed more than $325 million across the rest of the globe, easily turning a profit on a reported $125 million budget. (Handy, Albeit Simplified Movie-Biz Rule of Thumb: For a movie to end up in the black, its gross needs to at least double its budget, since roughly half of a film’s take goes to the theater chains.) Yes, this star vehicle-cum-inaugural Monsterverse entry wasn’t a franchise-launching smash like Iron Man or Batman v Superman, but on Universal’s books, it’s a hit – and that’s because overseas markets made up for the shortfall.
And The Mummy wasn’t alone in having international audiences save its skin. Transformers: The Last Knight had the weakest domestic opening of any of Michael Bay’s clattering robot flicks, limping its way to a mere $130 million domestically. Thankfully for Paramount, The Last Knight landed an additional $471 million overseas – or 78 percent of its total gross. More often these days, that domestic/foreign disparity is a feature and not a bug: Everything from Despicable Me 3 (74 percent) to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (78 percent) made significantly more money from international markets. So the next time you hear that some lame summer movie stiffed at the U.S. box office, don’t count it out just yet. See how it performed in China first.
2. Three (or four or five) was not the magic number.
This summer, we had Cars 3, Despicable Me 3 and a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers. And depending on which Alien movies you consider “real” Alien movies – those Alien vs. Predator flicks shouldn’t count, right? – Alien: Covenant was the sixth (or eighth) of that series. Each franchise has its own range of commercial expectations, of course, but the cold-hard fact is that each of these new installments ranked dead last, either by total dollars or adjusted for inflation, in their respective series.
That would seem to fly in the face of the prevailing Hollywood wisdom that we’re living at a time when intellectual property (or IP) is more valuable than good-old-fashioned star power. Studios pump out sequels, reboots and spinoffs because, in theory, those movies are far more likely to be successes since we’re familiar with the underlying material. But it does seem that we’re reaching a breaking point with some of these once-mighty IP powerhouses. Not that studios are listening: A standalone Bumblebee movie hits theaters December 2018, whether Transformers fans – or you – want it or not.
3. Say hello to the Conjuring Universe.
When it comes to box office, expectations and perception are often more crucial than dollars and cents. Which explains why, although they cost far less than their superhero peers, The Conjuring and its spinoff films are quietly becoming a big deal in their own right.
Starting with 2013’s The Conjuring, a superb throwback to old-school horror that grossed $318 million worldwide on a budget of $20 million, Warner Bros. has carefully positioned sequels and the Annabelle standalone films as event movies for horror fans. This month’s Annabelle: Creation, advertised as part of the “Conjuring Universe,” has already earned $161 million worldwide on a reported budget of $15 million, and the studio is flaunting the fact that the four films have collected $1 billion, an impressive haul considering the movies have a combined budget of less than $85 million.
Here’s where expectations matter: Four MCU movies have each grossed more than $1.1 billion, which makes the Conjuring films’ performance seem pretty insignificant by comparison. But in a summer of movies with bloated budgets and disappointing returns, Creation demonstrated that major profits could still be scared up.
4. Guardians was the only established franchise that thrived.
With the possible exception of Spider-Man: Homecoming, which out-grossed the weakly received Andrew Garfield movies but failed to match the huge totals enjoyed by the Tobey Maguire trilogy, there weren’t many unqualified smashes among the established franchises. The real, and only, winner was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which made more domestically ($389 million to $333 million) and worldwide ($863 million to $773 million) than its predecessor.
You could argue that Vol. 2 benefited from its sweet first-Friday-in-May release date, which has long been the unofficial launch of summer movie season. But second installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe don’t always perform better than the original: Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron did less well than Iron Man and The Avengers, while Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier earned more than their predecessors.
Did it help that this was only the second Guardians film, and that we haven’t seen these characters in all the other MCU movies? Very likely – which makes you wonder when franchise fatigue will catch up with Star-Lord and his pals, too.
5. The bigger hits this year were before summer started.
A generation ago, summer movie season stood apart from the rest of the release calendar as the time to see huge action blockbusters. That hasn’t been the case for quite some time, but this summer that reality couldn’t have been starker. Six of 2017’s top 10 domestic box-office hits (to date) opened before May 5, when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hit theaters. To be fair, three of the year’s top four hits are summer releases, but the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast (released in March) remains 2017’s biggest moneymaker. And there there’s Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a smart, social-thriller take on horror
flicks made for $4.5 million – and which has scared up $175 million domestically
and $252 million (!) worldwide.
How does this compare to past years? From 2014 to 2016, only four of the year’s top 10 highest grossing films were summer movies. So this season is echoing a trend we’ve seen for several years now. And we have the major releases during Thanksgiving and the Christmas season – like a new Thor film, a Justice League team-up and Star Wars: The Last Jedi – still to come.
6. Diversity ruled – up to a point.
Let us now toast Wonder Woman, the summer’s highest-grossing hit and one of the season’s best stories. Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot torpedoed several media assumptions – a female superhero movie is risky, the DC Universe is on its deathbed – while delivering a very fun, sneakily feminist action movie.
Its success highlighted a summer in which diversity translated to resounding box office – which, because Hollywood is a business, is the only metric that matters to executives. Girls Trip was a word-of-mouth sensation, becoming the year’s first pure comedy to cross the $100-million threshold. Atomic Blonde was a solid performer among hardcore action fans. Big Sick star/co-writer Kumail Nanjiani proved to be one of the season’s breakout names. The industry still has a long way to go in terms of being more inclusive, but at least this summer had some feel-good stories on that front.
But if this season demonstrated that audiences are craving movies that don’t always star white dudes, they remain discerning. The poorly reviewed and listless Rough Night tanked at the box office. Nobody could say it was because viewers won’t turn out for a movie featuring four funny women, however – the female ensemble comedy was doomed because it was just kinda terrible.
7. Good, original movies still thrive – but on the margins.
Summer is always an ideal time for counterprogramming, as adventurous indies and left-of-center studio fare offer higher nutritional content than the normal blockbuster junk food. And 2017 had its share of happy endings. The Big Sick, which Lionsgate scooped up at Sundance for $12 million, has so far grossed $38 million in the U.S. Baby Driver has pulled in approximately $175 million worldwide while only costing $34 million. And Atomic Blonde has thus far earned $74 million worldwide on a budget of $30 million.
Some well-reviewed indies like A24’s Good Time have just started their commercial run, while the studio’s A Ghost Story, which reportedly only cost $100,000, managed to make over $1 million (having well-known stars in Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara no doubt helped). But the lesson with all these movies is that summer can still be a breeding ground for quality motion pictures – their backers just have to be careful not to spend too much on them.
8. Good reviews weren’t always enough.
What exactly happened with War for the Planet of the Apes? Outside of Dunkirk, the third installment of the Apes prequel series received the best reviews of any blockbuster, with many critics calling it the strongest movie in the trilogy. And yet, War failed to electrify audiences, grossing less than Rise or Dawn both domestically and worldwide. (However, the film doesn’t hit China until September, and it pays to remember that 2014’s Dawn did very well there, grossing over $100 million.)
Even then, though, the latest Apes movie will probably be viewed as a commercial letdown. But why? Did audiences not want to see a grim, intelligent war parable in the midst of the Trump administration’s incompetence and cruelty? Were we suddenly tired of monkeys? Or was it the general franchise fatigue that affected so many of this summer’s seemingly major releases? Even despite all the things we learned over the last few months, some outcomes remain hard to explain.
9. Blockbuster directors made small movies that were disasters.
In an era in which indie directors are being scooped up by studios to direct their tentpoles – think of Cop Car‘s Jon Watts for Spider-Man: Homecoming – it should have been exciting that some of those filmmakers returned to their low-budget roots for personal projects. Alas, these films resulted in some of the season’s biggest bombs.
First, there was Colin Trevorrow, who graduated from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World and is now slated to direct Star Wars Episode IX. But this summer, he put out The Book of Henry, casting Naomi Watts as a single mom who, after the death of her son, goes on a strange journey to fulfill her dead child’s final wishes. Based on an original screenplay and released through Focus Features, Henry is exactly the kind of small, back-to-basics drama that’s supposed to reconnect a blockbuster filmmaker with his artistic side. Instead, it received poisonous reviews and sank without a trace, forcing Trevorrow to reassure nervous fans that he was still the right guy for the next Star Wars film.
Then, there’s the case of Marc Webb. Coming to prominence thanks to (500) Days of Summer, the director then made the two Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films before returning to character-driven work with this spring’s Gifted, which was a modest hit for Fox Searchlight. But he didn’t have the same luck with this summer’s The Only Living Boy in New York, a tortured coming-of-age tale starring Callum Turner, Kate Beckinsale, Jeff Bridges and Pierce Brosnan that critics detested and audiences ignored. We can throw shade at soulless blockbusters all we want. It’s important to remember, however, that awful indies are hardly better.
10. Christopher Nolan can do whatever he wants.
Almost alone among blockbuster filmmakers, the man behind the Dark Knight trilogy is fortunate to be able to pursue challenging, non-IP projects, secure in the knowledge that studios will bankroll his ambitious visions. Nolan takes huge creative risks – think of Inception and Interstellar – but they consistently prove to be major box-office hits.
That hot streak continued with Dunkirk, which wasn’t just the best-reviewed film of the summer – it’s also one of the season’s biggest smashes. Detailing World War II’s Battle of Dunkirk from numerous overlapping viewpoints, the film cost only $100 million – a Transformers movie’s budget is easily twice that – and has already brought in almost $400 million worldwide. And that’s with no major A-list stars. (Harry Styles doesn’t count.) People came out because of Nolan and because they’d heard it was a great movie. It’s cheering when quality and originality still matter.