Who Won and Who Lost in the Summer Movie Box Office Wars?

What a summer. The first half was dominated by the talk of sequelitis doom. After some major sequels opened in May and early June to disappointing returns the industry and entertainment media was obsessed with the idea that audiences were looking for something new. Then The Conjuring 2 and Finding Dory opened and those naysayers quieted for a bit as clearly the quality of the sequels had something to do with their performance.

The second half of the summer season featured some major releases that dishearteningly underperformed and a few hits only a select few predicted (Bad Moms, Lights Out, Don’t Breathe). Overall though 2016 didn’t have the record setting box office we saw just a year ago with Jurassic Park, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out and Minions, among others, setting fireworks off around the world. No one was saying movies were over then, where they?

Before we take a look back at the summer of 2015 here are three important facts you should take into account when looking at theatrical receipts for a movie.

  1. In general, theater owners receive half of the box office grosses and the distributor or studio gets the other half. That’s pretty standard around the world except for China where Hollywood only earns around 25% of the receipts.
  2. Marketing movies in the summer is often inherently more expensive than other times of the year. A U.S. marketing budget for a tentpole summer movie can fall anywhere between $25-125 million per picture (some studios will spend even more). Marketing budgets for the rest of the world rarely fall below $50 million and can be substantially higher.
  3. Studios can make up losses in ancillary markets such as VOD, digital downloads, TV rights, etc. but those revenues are nowhere near where they were in the late ‘90s and early 00’s when a movie could break even or get into the black after brisk VHS or DVD sales (for example: the second Austin Powers had a substantially larger budget because of the first film’s success in the home entertainment market).

Now, keeping that in mind let’s take a deep dive into the hits and misses, shall we?

Horror Movies: Hollywood’s Summer Success Stories

It used to be that no one wanted to release a horror movie in the summer. Sure, there would be a surprise hit or two such as The Blair Witch Project or Freddy vs. Jason, but those were few and far between. You only released a horror flick in the summer if it didn’t play and you wanted to dump it in August to try and cut your losses. Horror usually made its money in the fall before Halloween or in the middle of winter after the holiday movie season winds down. Those two windows are still great times to open these flicks, but this summer proved Hollywood has learned that horror plays when its sunny out. Universal’s The Purge: Election Year ($79 million domestic, $105.6 million global), the third Purge film to open in the summer, became the franchise’s highest grossing installment to date. Warner Bros.’ The Conjuring 2 duplicated its predecessors’ summer success taking in $102 million domestic and $319 global (almost exactly what the original earned three years ago). Indie release The Darkness earned its $4 million budget back with a $10 million take and Screen Gems hit a home run with the critically acclaimed Don’t Breathe which opened to $26.1 million off just a $9.9 million production budget. The biggest surprise of the summer frame though has to be Lights Out with $65.4 million stateside and $125.6 million around the world. The New Line production cost just $4.4 million making it one of the most profitable pictures of 2016 overall. It goes without saying Hollywood won’t hesitate to release even more horror flicks next season.

The Warner Bros. Comeback No One Is Writing About

2015 was not a great year for Warner Bros. It’s highest grossing flick of the year (and the summer) was San Andreas which earned just $473.9 million worldwide and it was the first time in 15 years that the venerable studio didn’t release a $200 million grosser domestically. Warner’s 2016 isn’t on par with the eye-brow raising grosses Disney is pulling off on a regular basis or the history making 12 months Universal Studios experienced last year. It has, however, released an unexpected string of profitable flicks that few in the media are giving them credit for.

Admittedly, the summer got off to a rocky start as critics’ favorite The Nice Guys disappointed with just $36 million, but the studio only had U.S. rights and wasn’t on the hook for a majority of its $50 million prod budget. And, frankly, It’s been pretty smooth sailing ever since. The romance Me Before You cost just $20 million to make, but has earned an unexpected $196 million worldwide. We’ve already noted the success of The Conjuring 2 and Light’s Out, but Dwanye Johnson and Kevin Hart’s Central Intelligence became the comedy hit of the summer with $127.1 million in the U.S. and $212 million globally off just a $50 million budget (can you say new franchise?). The studio even surprised industry analysts who thought The Legend of Tarzan was going to be one of the biggest bombs of the year. With $352 million worldwide off a massive $185 million production budget it will be decades before David Yates’ passion project gets in to the black, but no one ever believed it could gross $125 million in the U.S. That marketing success was almost a win in itself. Unfortunately, there is one other eye sore: War Dogs. With just $42.6 million global to date it doesn’t look like Todd Phillips‘ dramedy will ever make back its $50 million negative cost. And, of course, there’s Suicide Squad. It wasn’t the mega-blockbuster the studio hoped for, but it wasn’t a bomb either (more on that later).

Disney Simply Can’t Lose…or Can They?

Walt Disney Studios has practically been printing money over the past few years thanks to hit after hit from Marvel Studios, Pixar, its Disney Animation Studios and, more recently, Lucasfilm. 2016 already provided unexpected smashes with Zootopia and The Jungle Book and summer started off strongly with Avengers 3, er, Captain America: Civil War grossing $407 million stateside and $1.15 billion around he world. Pixar also delivered the highly anticipated Finding Dory with a fantastic $479.6 million and $929.1 million globally. The Disney marketing machine that stretches from television to theme parks is too good to fail, right?

Well, yes and no. The studio released two of its biggest misfires in quite awhile this summer with Alice Through the Looking Glass ($294 million global, $170 million prod budget) and Steven Spielberg’s first real bomb in two decades, The BFG ($153 million global, $140 million prod budget). Neither film was very good, but that doesn’t explain why the exceptional Pete’s Dragon has also underperformed. Even with a 71 on Metacritic, an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes and an A grade from Cinemascore, Disney hasn’t been able to fully sell it to families. The remake has only earned $54 million stateside and $74 million globally to date. With a number of major markets to go overseas it still has a shot to break even theatrically, but it isn’t the word of mouth hit many believed it would be. When the Disney marketing machine can’t make a hit out of a very good movie should there be a bit of self-reflection? Probably, but don’t cry too long for the Mouse House. They still have expected moneymakers Doctor Strange, Moana and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on the horizon.

It Took More than Cool Moms to Make ‘Bad Moms’ a Hit

STX took a massive hit with the Matthew McConaughey misfire Free State of Jones, but ended up with the biggest word of mouth hit of the summer, Bad Moms. The studio positioned the R-rated comedy as the next Bridesmaids (even down to the same marketing color scheme) and when it hits $100 million Labor Day weekend it will have quadrupled its $23 million opening weekend. Frankly, for a wide release that’s almost unheard of these days.

‘Star Trek Beyond’ Isn’t the Summer Savior Paramount Was Hoping For

Paramount announced this month it was appointing two new execs as co-presidents of marketing while the former president was banished to run marketing for home entertainment. When this sort of shuffle happens its because the power brokers at the top of the chain are unhappy with the studios’ box office performance (of course it never seems to be the fault of those same top execs who greenlight the pictures that bombed in the first place). The fact Paramount made a change somewhere wasn’t that surprising. Outside of 10 Cloverfield Lane and the recent mini-hit Florence Foster Jones (an Oscar player that should stick in theaters for quite awhile), it’s been a god awful 2016. The summer was supposed to turn things around, but things only got worse. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows earned half of what the original reboot made in 2014. Then again Shadows’ $242 million global cume wouldn’t have been a disaster if the picture hadn’t cost $135 million to make. Paramount thought Star Trek had become a reliable franchise since J.J. Abrams re-launched it in 2009, but Star Trek Beyond’s fate looks almost as troublesome as TMNT. There are sill a number of major international markets left to open such as China, Mexico, Brazil and Japan, but the $185 million sci-fi adventure has taken in just $95 million overseas so far. That’s less than half of what Star Trek Into Darkness earned outside the U.S. three years ago. Moreover, it wasn’t as big a player stateside either grossing just $150 million which was off a staggering $78 million from Into Darkness’s return. Unless, China surprises with a miraculous gross Beyond proves that even a well-received Star Trek flick needs a better marketing or story hook to get audiences to see it in a theater.

Kate Beckinsale Proves Amazon Studios’ Model Can Work

She’s finally escaped the Underworld shadow. Trading skintight vinyl bodysuits for Victorian corsets, Kate Beckinsale surprised many with a critically adored performance in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship at Sundance this past January. What many didn’t expect, however, was for the Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions release to become one of the biggest art house hits of the summer. Love & Friendship has earned $13.9 million in the U.S. off a $3.3 million production budget. That sort of profit margin is chump change to Amazon, but it proves their model of using different distributors for their releases can be successful. Of course, The Neon Demon (released through Broad Green) was a complete disaster, but it’s not like Jeff Bezos noticed, right? The good news is Love & Friendship and the upcoming Manchester by the Sea will provide a ton of awards season love to truly put Amazon on the map as a significant industry player.

Zac Efron’s Summer of Declining Returns

He may have made Olympian Simone Biles’ summer, but it’s been a troublesome few months at Zac Efron’s day job. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising was a disappointment for Universal taking in just $107 million global after the original earned $207 million worldwide just two years ago. Efron’s second summer comedy, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, has grossed only $66 million global off a $33 million production budget. Mike and Dave have a few more international markets on its release schedule, but 20th Century Fox won’t even break even on this one until ancillaries and even that is an optimistic forecast. Considering Efron has mostly starred in comedies the past two years (We Are Your Friends excluded) it might be in his best interest to branch out in other creative directions following the release of Baywatch next summer. Especially since that flick isn’t guaranteed to be a hit even with Dwayne Johnson in the mix (we’ve seen the CinemaCon footage, trust).

‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ Becomes the Poster Child for Waiting too Long to Greenlight a Sequel

Did America really want to revisit the nostalgia of the first ID4 this past Fourth of July? It appears not so much. Twenty years after the first flick took home $306 million domestically, Resurgence barely squeaked by the $100 million mark with $102.8 million in the U.S. The Roland Emmerich monstrosity did much better overseas ($279.4 million), but thanks to a massive marketing budget 20th Century Fox shouldn’t expect to recoup its reported $165 million production budget any time soon. If Will Smith returned would it have made a difference at the box office? Likely, but the bigger issue is that audiences were more invested in going to see a sequel 10 or 15 years ago. Not so much in 2016.

Three Blockbusters that Weren’t so Big Back Home

It used to be that movies that bombed in the U.S. could then make money overseas and turn a profit all the time. With the advent of day and date releases and global word of mouth through social media that usually isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Except this summer turned into a time warp for three unique pictures. 20th Century Fox’s Ice Age franchise has always done better internationally but the fifth installment – Collision Course – um, crashed in the U.S. with just $61.7 million to date ($100 million less than its predecessor). Overseas? Oh, just a profit making $305 million. Lionsgate’s Now You See Me 2 did about half of the original’s $117 million domestic take grossing only $65 million. Overseas? Oh, just $258 million including an astounding $97 million in China.* And, of course, we have Universal and Legendary’s Warcraft. The media saw it as a bomb months before its release and in many ways they were correct. A $47 million domestic gross off a “reported” $160 million production budget is usually disastrous. Overseas? A much different story as the Duncan Jones CG fantasy earned a mammoth $386.3 million based mostly on $220 million from China alone. Of course, as we mentioned earlier, Chinese quota laws mean Hollywood films only return on average 25% of box office receipts as opposed to 45-50% in other markets. Still, it was enough to unexpectedly squeak Warcraft into break-even status.

*It should be noted that Lionsgate often sells a significant portion of its foreign rights beforehand to cover as much of its production and domestic marketing costs as possible. It’s still unclear how that affected Now You See Me 2, but a third chapter is officially in the works so read into that what you will.

The Curious Case of ‘Ghostbusters’ and Sony’s Not-so-Bad Summer

It’s very hard to spin Paul Feig’s reboot as a box office success. The $124 million U.S. gross is strong for a summer event flick, but that’s less than the under hyped The Legend of Tarzan earned. The problem was that the $144 million budgeted action comedy took in just $92.6 million internationally. Yeah, unless it turns into a monster on other platforms a sequel seems like a longshot at best. The surprise for Sony Pictures is how well the rest of their summer went. Jodie Foster’s Money Monster will eventually break even after a $93 million global tally off a reported $27 million production budget. The Shallows was a major sleeper hit also taking in $93 million global, but off a more economical $17 million prod budget. Annapurna and Sony partnered on the $19 million adult animated comedy Sausage Party which is well on its way to making $100 million in the U.S. alone. And, as previously noted, Don’t Breathe is the last surprise hit of the summer. Maybe we should give Sony Pictures Chairman Tom Rothman some credit for once?

‘Suicide Squad’: The Hit Fans Loved and the Financial Disappointment Critics Railed Against

You can argue that Warner Bros. and DC Comics are playing with fire after the questionable quality of both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and this August’s Suicide Squad, but the question remains: is the latter actually a hit? Currently on track for $300 million domestic, Suicide should reach a minimum of $675 million global if it can pull in $10 million from its Japan release next month (a reasonable assumption). If the reported $175 million production budget is true (and it may not be) and marketing costs were around $150 million worldwide (that may be conservative) it should break even theatrically. If those estimates are low then Suicide Squad may look like a hit, but turn out to be one only in the eyes of its hardcore fanbase. In either case, it’s not the smash WB was clearly hoping for.

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