Summer Box-Office Review

The North American summer has passed, along with another season of blockbuster releases, and what a season it was! Critically speaking, 2017 has been a very strong year for blockbusters – every week has seen a decent movie opening at the theatre, with a couple of films being considered as real Oscar contenders.

Sadly, audiences have not seen it that way, with a significant decline in ticket sales when compared to previous years – late August saw the worst weekend for box-office takings since September 2001, a time when America was still recovering from the infamous terror attacks of that period. There have also been a number of releases falling well-below expectation – once-popular franchises and films with high-profile actors earned far less than many anticipated.

The results are baffling, but not entirely surprising. To examine why this is the case, it’s best to see what were the top-grossing films in the North American market over the summer, which has handily been presented in table format.

Box-Office America
All data retrieved from Box Office Mojo on September 11th, 2017

For the first time in nine years, a DC movie is the highest-grossing release of the summer period – the last being The Dark Knight back in 2008. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman surpassed all expectations, earning more money than the two Marvel releases, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Things did not look promising for the superhero movie on debut, with its $100 million opening weekend being less than 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman; but critical praise and positive word-of-mouth ensured that the film had staying power, with modest week-on-week drops averaging 33 percent.

While DC’s Amazonian demigod reigned supreme at the box-office, both Marvel films still made an impact, taking second and third place in terms of overall revenue. Guradians Vol. 2 had the strongest opening of the summer, but a mixed response from audiences – some enjoyed it more than the original film, while others considered it inferior – meant that it couldn’t maintain interest. Meanwhile, Homecoming also had a healthy opening, but franchise fatigue and stiff competition from Dunkirk and War for the Planet of the Apes resulted in sharp dives over subsequent weeks, including had a shocking drop of 62 percent during its second weekend.

Franchise fatigue also plagued many other films released over the period. The fifth Pirates of the Caribbean earned substantially less than its predecessors, as did the fifth Transformers instalment; The Mummy, a remake released with the intention of kick-starting a universe of horror movies, failed to make an impact, only making $80 million; Alien: Covenant, despite having Ridley Scott as director, made just under $75 million; and Baywatch attempted to be an adult-oriented reboot of its television namesake, only to become one of the season’s biggest flops – its domestic earnings of $58 million fell short of its $69 million budget.

Live-action films weren’t the only ones to suffer, for animated films underperformed at the box-office as well. Cars 3 finished the summer at seventh place, unusual for a Pixar release; their chief rival DreamWorks fared even worse, with Captain Underpants failing to crack the top ten, despite being based on a successful book series; and then there was the much-maligned The Emoji Movie which, more than any other picture, deserved its fate. The only solid performer to speak of was Despicable Me 3, coming in at fourth place behind the three superhero releases.

As with any summer, there were also a couple of surprises, the biggest of which was Girls Trip. Much like Wonder Woman, the raunchy comedy was buoyed by positive reviews from critics and audiences, but also benefited from having an all-female, African-American cast, thereby tapping into two of North America’s oft-neglected markets. One could argue the same for Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which fulfilled a want for original screenplays that Hollywood has failed to deliver on for many years. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk also performed better than expected – the quintessentially British tale seemed to resonate with American crowds, earning a healthy $170 million and plenty of Oscar buzz.

Of course, this data will be meaningless to many of my Australian readers, so below is a table showing the ten highest-grossing movies in Australia during that same period, again in US Dollars.

Box-Office Australia
All data retrieved from Box Office Mojo on September 11th, 2017

Here, the biggest surprise is Despicable Me 3, which has earned $1 million more than second placegetter Wonder Woman, and an incredible $16 million more than the next animated movie on the list, Cars 3. It’s not unheard of for a family movie to be a top-earner – most Australian states have a two-week winter break for school students – but it is astonishing that a movie of such mediocrity should out-gross films of a greater calibre. The only major change between the American and Australian lists is Baby Driver, which was not only able to enter the top ten, but also earn more money than Transformers. Surely that’s worthy of celebration.

There are some other films released over the summer barely made an impact at the box-office, but did garner attention from critics. One is The Big Sick, an independent release which premiered at Sundance before receiving a limited release in June. Its modest takings of $50 million worldwide may seem miniscule, but such figures are quite healthy for an indie movie. That was followed a month later by Atomic Blonde, an action movie with the aesthetic of an arthouse film, and then Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky during August, which may well be the biggest flop of the summer – as of writing, it has failed to break parity, earning $25 million worldwide from a $29 million budget.

While these are examples of original properties that failed to resonate with audiences, as the boxes above show, this hasn’t stopped cinemagoers from seeing films with bespoke screenplays. Dunkirk is the strongest example of this, but even wholly original movies like Baby Driver and Girls Trip are instances of viewers ignoring already-established franchises to see something unique or different. Some would argue that the popularity of Wonder Woman is also an indication that audiences desire fresh material – it’s still a rarity to see superhero blockbuster with a female lead, and Marvel’s saturation of the market means that the genre is becoming increasingly homogenised.

If I could borrow a phrase from Veep’s Selina Meyer, 2017’s summer is one which saw continuity with change. We saw that the movie-going public was still attached to the franchises of old, but that it was also willing to support original content. What surprised was not which films made money, but which films made the most money, and how quickly others ceased making it. As well as that, this year’s summer has demonstrated that the release of great films isn’t just restricted to Awards Season – perhaps the popularity of these films, and their astonishing critical response, will convince the Academy to bestow their Grandest of Prizes among them.

Finally, below is a list of the season’s releases that I was fortunate enough to see, ranked from best to worst:

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  2. Dunkirk
  3. The Big Sick
  4. Wonder Woman
  5. Baby Driver
  6. Atomic Blonde
  7. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2
  8. War for the Planet of the Apes
  9. Logan Lucky
  10. Cars 3
  11. Despicable Me 3
  12. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Anybody wanting to read the reviews of these films can do so by clicking their titles above.

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