How Hollywood Saved Itself (Again) at the Summer 2017 Box Office

by Michael Curley

5 September 2017

The Summer Box Office of 2017 does not represent the death of the Hollywood. It simply represents the changing face of Hollywood accounting.
(All photos: IMDB) 

It’s the end of the summer movie season, and that can only mean one thing: Dozens of articles discussing how horrible the season has been relative to recent years and how it represents the death knell of Hollywood. This year, the most circulated of these articles appeared on the Hollywood Reporter website on 28 August. It highlighted, as I will expand upon in this article, that the Domestic Box Office was underwhelming this year, while the International Box Office, particularly due to China’s growing theatre market, was robust.

Ultimately, I saw this as an interesting summer, filled with a few clear winners, but few legitimate bombs (thanks to the international markets). Let’s look at the top films of the summer domestically and worldwide, as well as a few other notables, and what their performances may mean for blockbuster films in the coming years.

A few disclaimers before I begin: The Domestic Box Office refers to the box office receipts from the United States and Canada, which until recently has represented the majority of the revenue earned by Hollywood films. The International Box Office refers to the box office receipts from all of the countries outside of the United States and Canada, which has taken on greater importance in the past decade. The Worldwide Box Office refers to the Domestic and International grosses combined. Often when comparing the domestic grosses of current films to past films, it’s more informative to adjust the grosses of past films for ticket price inflation. This allows us to compare how many tickets were sold for each film without rising ticket prices skewing the results. Finally, the Summer Movie Season is defined as May to August, so I will be using the grosses up to 31 August 2017 (even though the films are all still earning money). All box office data is sourced from an excellent resource for such data: BoxOfficeMojo.com.

The Domestic Box Office of summer 2017 experienced a nearly 16 percent decline in revenue over last year. When adjusted for ticket price inflation, the decline is even greater. Honestly, part of this is due to the reduced emphasis on the summer season to release blockbusters. The highest grossing film of the year so far, domestically and worldwide, is Beauty and the Beast, which was released in March. April’s The Fate of the Furious, although a major decline for the franchise domestically made over $1 billion internationally, making it the second highest grossing film of the year. Star Wars films used to be summer staples, but Lucasfilm has now designated them as mid-December releases. This means that Star Wars: The Last Jedi, likely the future highest grossing film of 2017, is not a summer release. Thus, there is no dearth of Hollywood blockbuster this year, they have just been spread out across the calendar.

But summer 2017 had its share of disappointments. I will examine the films domestically first, then contrast that with the worldwide results.

Domestic Box Office

The Top Ten

1. Wonder Woman: $407 million

A major superhero film winning the Domestic Summer Box Office is not surprising news, but Wonder Woman’s success is a pleasant surprise nonetheless. Female-centric blockbusters, let alone superhero films, are depressingly rare in Hollywood. Any large-scale, female-centric successes are written-off as anomalies rather than a sign of an untapped market. They are rarely used as a model to be copied ad nauseam, like so many Hollywood trends. Wonder Woman is undeniable, however, and I would be shocked if Hollywood did not pay attention.

As a fan of Hollywood blockbusters, comics and superhero films, Wonder Woman was a welcome change of pace. Although the film quotes such past successes as Superman: The Movie, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, such comparisons undermine the uniqueness of the film and the singularity of director Patti Jenkins’ vision for the film.

Its success is all the more impressive when one considers its place in the DC Extended Universe. The three previous films in the DCEU have been rightly criticized for their grim, dark attitudes and colourless palettes. Although they have all performed reasonably well at the box office, none have had the breakout success that DC or Warner Bros. has hoped for, with 2016’s Batman vs. Superman particularly falling short of extremely high expectations. Wonder Woman, however, outgrossed all the DCEU films to-date, and is now poised to take center stage as the flagship character of the DCEU.

Hopefully, Jenkins’ brighter, more colourful, more joyous approach becomes the norm for the series moving forward.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: $389 million

This appeared to be the film to beat going into summer 2017, after the first Guardians of the Galaxy became a surprise megahit and won the summer of 2014. In the intervening years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has continued to be the most successful brand in Hollywood and the Guardians have become household names across the world.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not a disappointment, as it improved upon its predecessor’s box office by every metric. It was, however, expected to enter the upper echelon of MCU releases, joining films such as Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Civil War above $400 million. With the future of the MCU potentially playing out in the cosmic realm that the Guardians films have established, this may cause some concern. But really, it performed extremely well.

3. Spider-Man: Homecoming: $320 million

The Spider-Man films are an interesting case, as there are now three separate franchises to compare. The first trilogy, starring Tobey Maguire, is box office royalty. The series averaged an inflation-adjusted domestic gross of over $500 million and broke numerous box office records. The two Amazing Spider-Man films, starring Andrew Garfield, were more disappointing. They averaged an inflation-adjusted gross of just over $250 million.

The new Spider-Man had the benefit of an introduction in last year’s Captain America: Civil War and ties to the MCU, with Robert Downy Jr. in a supporting role. Sony and Marvel studios hoped to overcome the baggage from the previous five Spider-Man films and lead the franchise into a new era. Spider-Man: Homecoming certainly performed better than the most recent Spider-Man films. Tom Holland’s appearances in the next two Avengers films prior to the already announced Homecoming sequel in July 2019 will certainly add to the character’s profile, meaning a bright future for the web-slinger.

4. Despicable Me 3: $255 million

Despite a solid gross, Despicable Me 3 is somehwat of a disappointment at the Domestic Box Office. Despicable Me (2010) earned just over $250 million. Three years later, Despicable Me 2 earned $368 million. The year 2015 saw the release of the spin-off film, Minions, which earned $336 million.

A return to the main franchise seemed poised to continue the upward trend of Despicable Me films, potentially pushing it over $400 million, making it a dark horse contender for biggest movie of the summer. Again, $255 million is nothing to scoff at, but the film is one of several examples of franchise continuations not performing up to expectations this summer.

5. Dunkirk: $175 million

Although not as high grossing as Christopher Nolan’s recent epics, Dunkirk’s success is impressive. It’s the highest grossing non-franchise film of the summer. It’s a historical war film, a genre that has not seen much success since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan and 2001’s Pearl Harbour (although many quality films set during WWII have released and done well since). Dunkirk is a historical war film about a retreat, making it a bleaker than many war films. It was a British retreat, as well, potentially narrowing its appeal to North American audiences assumed to be only interested in the “American side” of WWII storytelling.

Despite all of these factors, Dunkirk managed to nearly double its budget in North America (which happily debunks the above assumption). Nolan has become synonymous with epic spectacles that demand to be seen in theatres, and it seems that audiences will gladly show up for the quality historical films he produces.

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: $172 million

After the creative high of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and the commercial high of 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest it may be inexplicable that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is still going. Despite poor reviews and diminishing domestic returns for the previous two Pirates films, the worldwide grosses both topped out at around $1 billion, guaranteeing another installment.

The six-year wait between the fourth and fifth films did the franchise no favours, however. Dead Men Tell No Tales is by far the lowest grossing of the Pirates films, with its domestic gross falling well below the $230 million budget. However, international receipts were still robust (see below), so a sixth film is not out of the question.

7. Cars 3: $149 million

Going into the summer of 2011, Pixar was the closest Hollywood had ever seen to perfection in a production studio. The studio had released 11 films up to that point. Each had been enormous critical successes and each could be considered commercial hits. The imminent release of Cars 2 gave many people pause, however, as the film seemed to be crafted for solely commercial reasons rather than a strong creative mandate that typified Pixar productions.

Cars was Pixar’s least regarded film, but it had been a merchandising juggernaut. Cars 2, sadly, was Pixar’s first miss, more of a crass “product” than any Pixar film before, with Pixar’s lowest domestic gross (adjusted for inflation). The film tarnished Pixar’s reputation and made the studio fallible in the eyes of moviegoers for the first time ever.

All this is to establish that the existence of Cars 3 is pretty surprising. Not surprising, however, is that the film is the second lowest Pixar film, between Cars 2 and the commercial nadir that was 2015’s The Good Dinosaur. Despite efforts to market Cars 3 as a return to form, and as a darker, more complex film, it failed to rehabilitate the franchise’s reputation—or Pixar’s image.

8. War for the Planet of the Apes: $143 million

What a remarkable film. This particular incarnation of the Planet of the Apes series began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which traced the life of lab ape Caesar from birth and experimentation to de facto leader of an ape revolution. The film was mostly set in a recognizable world populated with a mostly human cast.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) moved to a mostly wilderness setting and featured Caesar’s apes more prominently as they endeavoured for peaceful coexistence with the remaining humans.

The success of those two films emboldened the filmmakers and studio to close out the trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes, a bleak film that spends large stretches featuring only computer-generated apes performing sign language. That the film was even made, and that it earned as much as it did, speaks to the potential sophistication of franchise blockbusters and their audiences, given the right film. War for the Planet of the Apes is certainly the lowest grossing of the franchise, but I give itcredit for taking such a risk with the subject matter.

9. Transformers: The Last Knight: $130 million

The Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers franchises have a lot in common. The first film in both series is generally agreed to be the best one, with the quality declining from there. Both series saw a domestic box office high with their second films. Both series released their fifth installment this summer to dreadful reviews and huge declines in domestic box office.

After the fourth Transformers film, it was reported that the producers had assembled a writers room, similar to a television series, where they could discuss and plan the future of the franchise. This may have lulled some filmgoers into a false sense of security, thinking the franchise may be improved upon. It was not. There’s a Bumblebee spin-off film in production, so the Transformers will continue on the big screen. But the series will need a major course correction to prevent damaging diminishing returns.

10. Girls Trip: $110 million

As discussed with Wonder Woman, above, female-centric films are not, unfortunately, prevalent in Hollywood. When there are successes (Bridesmaids, Sex and the City), they are films that tend to star white women. This makes Girls Trip one of the biggest successes of the summer on many fronts.

Girls Trip stars African-American women, and it’s aimed at a female audience. It was a huge success (making nearly six times its budget). Hopefully this type of success, perhaps even paired with Wonder Woman’s success, with finally convince studios that a market exists for female-centric films.

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