Hollywood got the summer all wrong.
Filmmakers broke the cardinal rule of blockbuster season: They made too many good movies.
Since the first weekend of May we've enjoyed the most intricately satisfying X-Men sequel yet, “Days of Future Past”; a pair of genuinely funny and surprisingly well-thought-out comedies with “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street”; a truly artistic animated feature, “How to Train Your Dragon 2”; the cleverest and best-designed science-fiction action spectacular in years, “Edge of Tomorrow”; a “Planet of the Apes” sequel that compellingly advanced both the long-running series' mythology and the capabilities of computer-generated imagery; and a “Godzilla” reboot most agreed was the classiest giant lizard movie ever, even if that was a low bar to clear.
Additionally, though “Maleficent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” had their justified detractors, those movies at the very least made smart, female-conscious improvements to the generally lousy fairy-tale and young-adult genres.
The industry's reward for releasing so many fine films? The domestic box office take is off nearly 20 percent from last year's summer haul at this time, according to figures provided by Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for the global media measurement company Rentrak.
The July 4 holiday, according to Deadline.com, was down 42 percent compared to 2013's (which was the week the notorious bomb “The Lone Ranger” debuted). The only new release going into this year's Fourth was the even worse “Tammy,” which is actually doing all right for itself — kind of proving the point, if not enough to help the averages.
One problem seems to be that not every summer release can be a mirthless vanity project directed by the star's spouse. As if to emphasize that fact, last weekend's impressive $73 million for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” couldn't save the overall box office from registering a 25 percent drop from the equivalent 2013 frame — which brought us, among other things, that paragon of cinematic quality, Adam Sandler's “Grown Ups 2.”
So far, no summer 2014 release has, nor probably will, come within striking distance of summer 2013's “Iron Man 3,” “Despicable Me 2” or even “Man of Steel's” North American grosses. They finished at $409 million, $368 million and $291 million, respectively. This season's top ticket-seller remains “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which is about played out at around $230 million. That's less than the fifth-ranked movie of summer '13, “Fast & Furious 6”; and even this season's presumed juggernaut, the fourth “Transformers” headbanger, may not reach the $268 million-plus that last summer's “Monsters University” made.
So how come there's not a palpable sense of doom emanating from studio office suites? Last year at this time, there was whining and gnashing aplenty after one big-budget, would-be blockbuster after another — “After Earth,” “White House Down,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Pacific Rim” — collapsed within days of launch, while the less disastrous “Man of Steel,” “World War Z” and “Hangover Part III” were stubbornly performing below expectations.
There are several reasons. For one thing, no big-budget, would-be blockbuster has lost money this summer. This year's huge releases all have reported production budgets within a range from $145 million (“Dragon”) to $210 million (“Transformers”). If they haven't already, each will predictably gross more than what they cost to make in the U.S. and Canada. Those amounts have to be split with distributors, and won't cover millions in each film's promotional costs, but not to worry. North America is now a minority element of the overall theatrical picture.
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” had sold $752 million worth of tickets worldwide as of last Sunday; “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” $731 million. Even the unloved “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which barely crawled past the $200 million mark domestically, is in the $700 million club when overseas numbers are added. Sure, none of these is going to match “Iron Man 3” or “Despicable Me 2's” global numbers, but the profits will be spread more evenly among more than half a dozen titles. That includes the $178 million “Edge of Tomorrow,” which has yet to score $100 million here, but is the 10th biggest earner of the year worldwide, where it's at the break-even threshold of $350 million.
Finally, despite all of the angst last year, the summer ended up logging the biggest domestic box office of all time. Executives weren't expecting to top that $4.7 billion number by Labor Day (although if it doesn't happen next year, there will be blood). So, at the moment, no panic.
Still, it seems apparent that a lot of money has been left on the table.
Executives kind of fell down on the job by not whispering into Bryan Singer's ear that, maybe, the latest X-Men could've used a little more overloaded, cacophonous action and a cute, pointless kid like “Iron Man 3” had. Why didn't they tell Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman to make “Edge of Tomorrow's” visual effects uglier and its story more nonsensical, so it might at least have had a chance of stumbling toward the $202 million “World War Z” eventually made here? “Dawn” is about a war between apes and people, for heaven's sake; sure, billions have been killed by a virus at the start of the movie, but why couldn't 100,000 or so more have violently bought it by the end, like in “Man of Steel”?
It's like they've forgotten what summer entertainment is all about.
Wait, you say. For the most part, this year's good summer movies have done OK, while obviously bad ones like “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “Million Dollar Arm,” Sandler's “Blended,” “Think Like a Man Too,” “Jersey Boys” and “Earth to Echo” haven't. “Tammy” is going to be Melissa McCarthy's poorest performer in many years, and the widely reviled “Age of Extinction” will be the lowest grossing of the four “Transformers” here, if not the rest of the world.
Well, you're right. And that's even more alarming than so many exceptional movies doing only decent box office this summer. This season of great films is an anomaly for Hollywood, terribly difficult to duplicate and unlikely to be repeated for, maybe, a decade or more. When audiences stop going in droves to the usual summer garbage they've been eating up for years, though, the system is really in trouble.
Follow Bob Strauss on Twitter: @bscritic