I know it’s more than a month past summer, but this feels like a good time to look back at the summer movie box office with a little perspective and see what lessons we can take away. This was one of the more successful summers for Hollywood in a while, up significantly from summer 2014 (which, admittedly, was one of the worst in a while, making the comparison easier.)
The Hollywood Reporter, in their summer movie debrief, ran an interesting article on how inaccurate tracking was this year. Tracking is the surveying studios do to determine what they think a movie will gross opening weekend. Many seem to believe the culprit in the failure of recent tracking is social media. Word of mouth travels faster now. Audiences sniff out the bombs by the end of opening day, making pre-release polling less reliable. Rotten Tomatoes was also cited as affecting consumer decisions, reversing the conventional wisdom of the last decade that reviews don’t matter.
The obvious conclusion that the Hollywood Reporter (and the industry at large) seems unwilling to explicitly draw is that quality matters now more than it ever has. Make a movie that audiences and critics like – Trainwreck (85% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), Straight Outta Compton (90 percent fresh), Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (93 percent fresh) – and you will over-perform tracking. Make one they don’t – Terminator: Genisys (26 percent fresh) or Vacation (27 percent fresh) – and you will under-perform. No amount of advertising can save you – Vacation had the biggest TV ad spend of any movie this summer.
Of course quality is subjective. We’re not talking highbrow artistry here. In fact, “specialty films” did not perform particularly well this summer – for the first time since 2008, none broke $20 million, according to Hollywood Reporter. We’re talking about entertaining, crowd-pleasing movies that are intelligent enough that critics don’t pan them.
Perhaps this is good news for screenwriters. Perhaps there will be a new emphasis on good writing over “pre-sold properties,” since awareness no longer means as much to box office success as a good experience. Hopefully, but I wouldn’t count on it – quality is a squishy concept. It’s much easier to point to how many issues a certain comic book sold, or how popular a TV show was in the eighties. Studio executives like to have facts and figures to back up their decisions.
Successes and failures can spawn trends, so for screenwriters it’s a good idea to examine what kinds of movies are succeeding and failing in order to plan what kind of material you might want to spec. Looking at the winners and losers of summer, a few things stand out to me:
Women once again flexed their power, with three female-driven movies placing in the top dozen domestic grossers: Pitch Perfect 2, Spy, and Trainwreck. Despite the shameful statistics on female employment, the industry does seem to be responding to this trend (as evidenced by each of these movies getting made). It takes a few years to develop, produce, and release movies, so I would expect the female-driven movie trend to continue to grow.
Original stories made some noise. San Andreas, Spy, Inside Out, and Trainwreck all did well – that’s one third of the top 12! (You could argue Straight Outta Compton is an original too – some people consider movies based on true events to be original stories.)
Sequels and movies based on underlying properties were a mixed bag. Four of the top five domestic grossers were sequels: Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Minions, and Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation. On the other hand, three of the five biggest flops, according to the Hollywood Reporter, were based on “proven IP”: Tomorrowland, Fantastic Four, and The Man From Uncle – losing a combined $290 million dollars. (You could also argue Pixels, which lost about $75 million was based on underlying material – a viral video). Furthermore, sequels Terminator: Genisys, Ted 2, and Magic Mike XXL were all disappointments, though Terminator made up a lot of ground internationally.
In fact, Terminator: Genisys provides an interesting case study. It was poorly received and bombed in the U.S., but did great business overseas. Perhaps quality is not quite as important overseas as it is in the U.S. Not all countries are as wired into social media as we are. The downside for studios is that they take home a significantly smaller portion of the box office from overseas. Despite its strong international grosses, the planned sequels to Terminator are currently in doubt.
From a genre standpoint, the top 20 is really pretty diverse, considering we’re talking about blockbusters. There are plenty of science fiction and super hero movies, of course. You have a couple animated family films, as well as the live-action family adventure Tomorrowland. There are a couple of horror films sneaking in at the bottom of the list. There are, by my count, eight comedies (including the animated films). And there is a music biopic (Straight Outta Compton), a disaster film (San Andreas) and Magic Mike XXL, which I’m not sure how to classify.
The feature screenwriting biz has been tough lately with the emphasis on major franchises. But this summer suggests there may be hope to get original stories through the system.
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