summer box office 2014Remember last summer, when movie industry insiders as lofty as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were predicting that it would take only a couple of megaflops to bring Hollywood's entire blockbuster-driven business model crashing down? Indeed, there were a number of such flops last summer, and yet there were enough big hits offsetting those failures to wind up with a record-breaking summer, worth $4.85 billion.

This summer? Also a number of megaflops, but not as many successes to balance them out. As a result, the summer winds to a close with a total of $3.77 billion, down a full 22.2 percent from last summer. It's the lowest-grossing summer since 2005; adjusting for inflation, it's the worst since 1992. The numbers are so bad, they're likely to make Hollywood executives wonder: are Spielberg and Lucas's dire predictions finally coming true?

For perplexed box office observers, here's a question-and-answer guide to what happened this summer, and what lessons the summer has to offer.

Weren't there any big hits this summer?
Sure. "Guardians of the Galaxy" is not only the biggest hit of the summer (it finished at No. 1 again this weekend for the third time in five weeks) but of the entire year so far. Even so, it's earned just $274.6 million to date. Last summer's top movie, "Iron Man 3," earned $409.0 million. In fact, three movies last summer (including "Despicable Me 2" and "Man of Steel") earned more than "Guardians."

What happened to all the would-be blockbusters?
Some did as well as expected -- "Transformers: Age of Extinction," "Maleficent," "X-Men: Days of Future Past," and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." Others underwhelmed, like "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "Godzilla," "How to Train Your Dragon 2," "Edge of Tomorrow," "Hercules," and "The Expendables 3," all of which grossed $203 million or less.

What about the other genre movies?
You mean like R-rated comedies and horror movies, two genres that typically do well during the summer? This year, people finally seemed to lose interest in raunchy comedies, judging by the grosses of "A Million Ways to Die in the West" and "Sex Tape." (On the other hand, "Neighbors" and "Tammy" did well, and "Let's Be Cops" has earned a solid $57.3 million in three weeks.) And there were hardly any horror movies at all; aside from "The Purge: Anarchy" (arguably, not a horror movie at all), there was just "Deliver Us From Evil" ($30.6 million) and... that's about it. Labor Day weekend is traditionally a strong weekend for horror, but this weekend's release, "As Above/So Below," earned just $8.3 million from Friday to Sunday.

Why did these movies do so poorly?
In a word, execution. Audiences found them disappointing and stayed away. It seems like make-better-movies-and-people-will-come should be a truism, but it doesn't always work that way. ("Edge of Tomorrow" got some of the best reviews of any action spectacle this summer, but Tom Cruise is still box office poison stateside, though he still does well overseas.) But people actually seemed to pay attention to reviews and word-of-mouth this summer and avoided movies with bad buzz.

Why did advance word matter?
One reason is that the summer audience contained a larger contingent of older viewers -- the ones who read reviews -- than summer movie programmers usually account for. Movies like "Guardians" (with it's all-oldies soundtrack), "22 Jump Street," "Neighbors," "Godzilla," "Apes," "jersey Boys," "The Hundred-Foot Journey," "Sex Tape," "Million Dollar Arm," "Expendables," "Chef," "Get On Up," "America," "Boyhood," "When the Game Stands Tall," "Magic in the Moonlight," and this weekend's "The November Man" (which opened with $9.4 million) were all marketed toward older viewers, or at least attracted people over 25 as a large percentage of their audiences.

Where were the kids and teens?
Aside from the likes of "Transformers" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," the young folks were expected to flock to teen melodramas, but only "The Fault in Our Stars" drew them in large numbers (to the tune of $124.5 million). "If I Stay" and "The Giver" both stumbled -- again, because of bad advance buzz.

Did star power matter this summer?
No, unless your name was Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson. The former drove "Maleficent" to a $238.5 million gross. The latter helped make a $117.8 million hit out of "Lucy" They certainly fared better than male box office stalwarts like Cruise, Dwayne Johnson (whose "Hercules" grossed just $70.9 million), Adam Sandler (whose "Blended" earned jus $46.3 million), and Sylvester Stallone (just $33.1 million for "Expendables 3"). Still, the summer's two biggest movies, "Guardians" and "Transformers" -- and many more among the top 10 -- weren't star-driven at all, just concept-driven. People came for the premise and the title -- because, for the most part, sequels, spinoffs, and reboots still sell, no matter how tired of them viewers claim to be.

What lessons does this summer offer, then?
Don't discount older viewers. Get more women in front of the camera (and behind it). Most of all, make good movies that people actually want to see. (Sounds simpler than it is, granted.)

What lessons will Hollywood actually learn?
Probably none. Business is cyclical, and executives haven't stopped planning to make giant action spectacles, space operas, comic-book adaptations, and spinoffs of familiar titles, in the hopes that what failed this summer will succeed next time. Often, these slumps are followed by a call for austerity and lowering production costs and salaries, but Hollywood is simply too invested in the blockbuster business model to try those solutions. It's all Hollywood knows how to do anymore.

CATEGORIES Movies, Box Office