Much has been made about the huge failure of this summer’s Hollywood movies. The numbers are grim: Total U.S. box office was $4.02 billion, a drop of 17% from last year and the worst total since 2006. But actually, adjusted for inflation, this was the worst summer since 1997 – seventeen years ago! Moreover, the National Association of Theater Owners reports that this summer’s ticket sales (501 million) was the lowest since they started keeping seasonal records in 2002. Also of note, no film crossed the $300 million mark at the box office during the summer (Guardians of the Galaxy made it after summer ended). That’s the first time that’s happened in fourteen years.
So what does summer 2014’s box office mean for screenwriters? We are independent contractors – essentially small business owners – so the fate of the marketplace affects us. Of course, it’s risky to try to deduce trends from a single season. Movies are unique products, and variations in quality make for volatile short-term economic numbers.
However this summer has offered ample evidence that much of Hollywood’s “conventional wisdom” no longer applies (if it ever really did). Whether or when Hollywood producers and executives recognize this remains to be seen.
One bit of conventional wisdom is that teenage boys drive box office. A corollary to this is that movies with male leads will be more successful.
Yet this summer female driven movies such as Maleficent (ranked #3), Lucy (#12) and The Fault in our Stars (#13) were some of the most profitable films. And this follows the success of Divergent this spring. Among the broad audience films, the ones that appealed more to women such as Guardians of the Galaxy (#1) did best. The exception was Transformers: Age of Extinction (#2 with a heavily male audience).
(FiveThirtyEight.com has an interesting article showing that films that pass the Bechdel test – two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man – are typically more profitable than those that don’t.)
The emphasis on youth also seems to be outdated. According to The Hollywood Reporter, frequent moviegoers between the ages of 12-17 plunged 15% last year (2013), while moviegoers 18-25 plunged 17%. Or perhaps, given that total box office is also dropping, what this really means is that what Hollywood thinks will appeal to young people is completely outdated. Perhaps being out of touch with the young audience is a big reason for the weak summer.
The Hollywood Reporter article compares this summer’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the 2007 Sam Raimi Spider-Man 3. The recent movie’s audience was 39% female compared to 46% for the former, while only 41% of the recent movie’s audience was under 25 vs. 65% of the 2007 movie’s audience. The result? This summer’s Spider-Man movie was the lowest grossing of the franchise.
In fact, the reliance on franchises and well-known properties (the safest approach according to Hollywood conventional wisdom) didn’t pay off very well this summer. While the latest X-men movie managed to nearly match the last one, the latest Transformers and Spider-Man movies were among the lowest grossing in their series. And the reboots of Teenage Mutant Turtles ($188 million) and Godzilla ($200 million) did just okay at best. The only real exception was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which beat its predecessor. (Maybe this indicates that the other franchises were simply played out.)
The summer’s biggest hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, was technically based on a comic book, but one almost nobody had heard of. This might indicate audience really want something fresh. Lucy, which grossed $125 million on a $40 million budget, is also a point for originality.
On the other hand, perhaps the scariest summer movie for studios and screenwriters was Edge of Tomorrow. It featured big stars in Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, was a high-concept genre movie, was loved by critics (90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and well-liked by audiences (B+ Cinemascore). Yet it was a big flop, grossing just $100 million domestically on a budget of $178 million. If a high-quality, commercial movie like that can fail, what does that mean for original content?
Perhaps it means, like William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything” when it comes to box office.
The other real question is whether domestic box office really matters anymore. International box office can completely change a movie’s fate. Though Transformers: Age of Extinction was pretty ho-hum domestically, it is the number one movie of the year worldwide, with a gross over a billion dollars. (Interestingly, the female driven Maleficent comes in at #2, and Lucy holds the #12 position for the year-to-date worldwide.)
Of course box office gross might not tell us much either. Studios typically take a much lower percentage of the box office from foreign theaters than domestic, so grossing $100 million in China is not as good as grossing $50 million in the U.S. And, gross isn’t the same as profit – why Lucy is wildly successful while Edge of Tomorrow is a bomb. Furthermore, theatrical exhibition is only a small part of the studios’ revenue stream, though box office success does tend to increase the value of secondary revenue – television and cable networks, Netflix, Hulu, etc. pay more for a hit movie than a flop. Hits can be licensed to toy and video game companies; flops seldom are.
It’s enough to make a poor writer’s head spin. My takeaways are: First, the industry should stop ignoring the female audience and avoiding female stars. Second, we desperately need some fresh franchises. Perhaps that will influence the kind of material I choose to work on going forward.
(Note: I relied on Box Office Mojo heavily for my numbers)
(UPDATE: Apparently Box Office Mojo shut down within hours after I posted this!)