They've toppled like dominoes this summer. Expensive movies that were supposed to be blockbusters failed at American multiplexes one after another. In two months, there were eight such flops, or about one per week. "The Hangover Part III," "After Earth," "The Internship," "White House Down," "The Lone Ranger," "Pacific Rim," "Turbo," "RED 2," and "R.I.P.D." all crashed or at least seriously underperformed expectations. Even this weekend, when "The Wolverine" opened at an estimated $55.0 million, box office analysts found those numbers disappointing, at least by the standards of the "X-Men" franchise and summer superhero flicks in general.
With so many costly movies missing the mark, you'd think Hollywood would be in a panic. After all, earlier this year, no less a box office stalwart than Steven Spielberg predicted an "implosion" in Hollywood if just three to six of these films failed to open big.
And yet, studios don't seem worried at all about this summer's box office. Moreover, they have no apparent plans to change their ways; a look at the summer calendars for 2014 and 2015 finds them just as crowded with action spectacles, sequels, and reboots as this year.
Shouldn't Hollywood be fazed by the parade of mega-flops? Why are the studios so sanguine about this summer?
Turns out there are quite a few reasons for the optimism. Not the least is that, for all the misses, this summer's box office is still running 11.5 percent above last summer's, so says Exhibitor Relations senior box office analyst Jeff Bock, who tells Moviefone he expects this season will easily top 2011 as the most lucrative on record.
Only a little of that increase over last summer can be attributed to ticket prices, which are up an average of 20 cents over 2012 prices, or 2.5 percent. The rest is due to some enormous blockbusters that outperformed even the most generous predictions ("Iron Man 3," "Despicable Me 2"), but also a number of modest-to-large sleeper hits that few saw coming, like "Now You See Me," "The Purge," "This Is the End," "The Heat," and "The Conjuring." And there were other films, Bock notes, that succeeded despite negative pre-release buzz, namely, "The Great Gatsby" and "World War Z."
As for the flops, many of them are making it up with overseas earnings. Foreign grosses now account for 70 percent of a Hollywood movie's box office, and that's true even for movies North American audiences spurned. Sure, "After Earth" tanked with just $59.8 million here, but it made another $175.9 million overseas. Same with "Pacific Rim," which earned just $84.0 million here but another $140.0 million abroad. This weekend's premiere of "The Wolverine" included a foreign take of $86.1 million, for a worldwide total of $141.1 million in three days.
And then there are the movies that are victims of their own inflated standards. Chief among these is "The Hangover Part III." It earned far less than the first two "Hangovers," both domestically and internationally. Nonetheless, it still made $112.0 million in North America (where it's the 15th highest-grossing movie of the year so far) and another $238.8 million abroad, for a worldwide total of $350.8 million. Only by the standards of a movie whose previous installments made $586.8 and $467.5 million worldwide would that $350.8 million figure look like a disappointment. "For any other comedy, that would be considered ludicrously good," Bock says.
Same with "Wolverine": its $55.0 million American opening looks pitiful compared to the $85.1 million debut of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" four years ago and ho-hum next to the $55.1 million opening of "X-Men: First Class" two years ago. And yet, $55 million is a huge number compared to where most mainstream wide-release movies open, at $25 million or below.
Nevertheless, some of these movies were so expensive that even overseas grosses aren't going to help them recoup their production costs. "The Internship," "White House Down," "The Lone Ranger, "Turbo, "RED 2," and "R.I.P.D." all look like they're going to leave theaters before they break even. But maybe an August that still has such potential hits as "The Smurfs 2," "2 Guns," "Elysium," "Planes," and "The Butler" yet to open will keep those movies from doing too much damage to the studios' balance sheets. As Bock puts it, "Sure, there was a dry run for over these last few weeks, but with overseas grosses hitting the jackpot with nearly every blockbuster, and the overall box office covering the spread, no one is really worried about a couple bad hands."
A more interesting way to look at the summer might be to gauge whether focusing on sequels and reboots at the expense of original movies was a worthwhile strategy. After all, "The Lone Ranger," "RED 2," and "R.I.P.D." (based on a comic book) failed, while original scripts ("Epic," "Now You See Me," "The Purge," "This Is the End," "The Heat," "Pacific Rim" and "The Conjuring") all did well. Or did they? Remember, "The Internship," "White House Down," and "Turbo" were all original ideas that failed, while most sequels reboots, and book adaptations ("Iron Man 3," "The Great Gatsby," "Star Trek Into Darkness," "Fast and Furious 6," "The Hangover Part III," "Man of Steel," "Monsters University," "World War Z," "Despicable Me 2" "Grown Ups 2," "The Wolverine") were successful.
So, are there lessons that can be drawn? "It has been an odd summer," Bock acknowledges. "[It] may be a while until we can wrap our heads around what this means for the industry." Citing "Hangover III" as a typical example of this summer's movies, he says, "Content wasn't great, but films still made boatloads of money. Thus, change is a looooong ways off." He adds, "I don't think the misfires will change the release paradigm anytime soon."