Despicable Summer: Franchise Fatigue, Content Glut Swamp Movie Box Office

Labor Day Weekend will see the lowest level of movie going in the U.S. in two decades, capping the worst summer in ten years. It isn’t the end of movie going but it is a sign of a huge sea change that is rocking the industry

The sale of movie tickets in American theaters will hit its lowest point for a Labor Day weekend in 22 years this weekend, which is a fitting end to a dismal summer that will finish with less than $4 billion for the first time in at least a decade – compared to $4.5 billion last summer - down about 14 percent from last year.

Labor Day Weekend has never been a big time for movie-going. People are off on vacation, gone to the beach, or barbequing at home. The difference is this weekend, the major Hollywood distributors just gave up without a fight.

For the first time in years there is not one new release opening on at least 1,000 screens. The top movie of the weekend, the poorly reviewed The Hitman’s Bodyguard, will gross only a little over $10 million this weekend.

The biggest “new” release is actually a re-release of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, to mark its 40th anniversary. Playing in 901 theaters, it drew a tepid $1.8 million.

There were a few movies that did well earlier this summer. Wonder Woman grossed over $409 million, boosting it to become the fifth biggest superhero movie of all time (surpassing Iron Man).

Disney’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 grossed a solid $390 million and Sony successfully revived its faltering Spiderman franchise with Spiderman: Homecoming, grossing $324 million.

There were also some success stories from non-super hero movies led by Dunkirk, from director Christopher Nolan, which grossed about $179 million. It was the spectacularly visual movie that even those with 75-inch surround sound home movie theaters had to go out and see on a big screen to appreciate.

A couple smaller pictures also broke through including Girls Trip, a female buddy comedy about African American women, and Baby Driver, a heist caper that defied the critics and grossed more than $100 million.

On the indie side the big hit of the summer was The Big Sick, which grossed an impressive $40 million. Overall, it was not a strong summer for indie movies however.

From the perspective of overall box office, this summer that could not make up for the disappointing domestic performance of some of the most expensive movies of the year. That includes the bomb King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the drowning of Baywatch, and the failure of the super expensive indie movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

The sequels to Alien, Transformers and Planet of the Apes, Pirates of the Caribbean and Despicable Me all fell short domestically.

To be fair, Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment have the number one grossing movie of the summer worldwide with Despicable 3, with ticket sales just short of $1 billion. However, the bulk of that is from outside the U.S.

Still, the lack of domestic success hurts. Cars 3, which got good reviews, was the poorest performing Pixar movie in years, indicating that franchise is running out of gas.

Many of the movies were unable to overcome bad reviews, which is part of the change in the movie market. For years, a big action movie with name stars could overcome critical brickbats, and in some cases, laugh at the critics.

In the age of the Internet and consensus reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics are more important than they have been in years. People want to know a movie is good as well as big and noisy before they get off the couch

Even young people, who refuse to stay home even if it is a100 inch TV screen, are playing video games, going out, surfing social media or watching the endless choices available on streaming media and on demand cable TV.

There were some well-reviewed movies like the drama Detroit, which just never clicked with ticket buyers. Other movies that critics liked but audiences did not include Logan Lucky, Rough Night, Snatched and Atomic Blonde.

In many cases the movie distributors will make up for the domestic disappointments overseas where there are more theaters and more movie goers than ever, but that isn’t enough to save this summer.

The distributors can still hope to see an uptick for the rest of the year. Fall is typically the time the Oscar worthy movies arrive along with a few of the better blockbusters.

In a week, Warner Bros./New Line is expected to have a sizable hit with Stephen King’s It, based on the 1986 novel about a demonic clown. It could gross $70 million its first weekend.

The fall could also see hits with Thor: Ragnarok, Blade Runner 2049 and Justice League.

There is also a new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, coming for Christmas that is likely to light up the tree once again. At least so far, Star Wars has proven to be a consistent performer since it was acquired by Disney and re-launched.

However, the long-term trend is tough. Movie theater stocks are down this summer because Wall Street sees that even what were once sure fire sequels are no longer a sure thing.

Theaters continue to get better – projection, seating, refreshments, amenities, and those lovely rocking chair seats. But the home experience is also getting better all the time and the number of choices is already galactic in size.

Now distributors are discussing opening movies for home viewing even more quickly, which could chip away at the theater experience even more.

It’s hard to say any of this will hurt production because there is more content being created than ever before, just not for theaters alone. Network, cable, streaming and digital are all growing as platforms and that will continue.

However, for those of us who grew up thinking of the in-theater experience as the supreme way to enjoy movie quality content, the trends are disturbing, or at least cause for sadness.

The big Hollywood companies are multinational conglomerates that have interests in every form of distribution, so if theaters falter, they will do fine with digital, streaming or whatever is next.

The big change is that movies and content are becoming more of a commodity. They are still necessary but the ownership is shifting to the technology and telecom companies that see movies as an assembly line product to support their real business, the delivery of platforms to carry content.

So, AT&T is soon to own Warner Bros., Comcast already owns Universal and Disney is moving into streaming.

People will continue to want to be entertained. It just isn’t going to be the same way as before, or be done by the same companies, or achieve the same results; but in the end, there will be no shortage of stuff to see from today and yesterday.

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