Summer movies aren't dead: Why experts aren't panicking (yet) about this season's weak box office

Summer movies aren't dead: Why experts aren't panicking (yet) about this season's weak box office

"Furiosa," "The Fall Guy," and "IF" all performed far worse than May blockbusters typically do at the box office — but we shouldn't have expected much better.

Are we witnessing the death of the summer blockbuster as we know it?

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga made headlines with its soft $25.5 million opening weekend, topping the weakest Memorial Day weekend at the box office since 1995 (excluding the pandemic-hindered 2020 and 2021 weekends). Mad Max diehards were disappointed by that result, and certain box office pundits suggested the sky may be falling in Hollywood, as it’s one of several splashy May releases that didn’t set the domestic box office ablaze.

David Leitch’s Ryan Gosling vehicle The Fall Guy kicked off the month with a $27.7 million opening weekend, John Krasinski’s family fantasy IF followed with $33.7 million in its first three days, and Furiosa’s Memorial Day competitor The Garfield Movie earned a cool $24 million from Friday to Sunday (adding Memorial Day Monday bumps up Furiosa and Garfield to $32.3 mil and $31.3 mil, respectively, for the holiday weekend).

Slow, but not surprising

Though these debuts are a far cry from that shiny $100-million weekend mark that studios and marketers covet, 2024’s crop of May movies didn’t fall that far below what insiders and analysts anticipated for the month. “I don't think anyone expected anywhere near a $100-million opening weekend from any of those movies, and this is coming months out,” says Daniel Loria, SVP of the Boxoffice Company. “As soon as we saw this slate, we understood that.” Anthony LaVerde, the CEO of theater chain Emagine Entertainment, agrees. “We’re in line with our internal predictions,” he says. “There's nothing, so far, that's a surprise to us.”

<p>Warner Bros./ Youtube</p> Anya Taylor-Joy in 'Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga'

Warner Bros./ Youtube

Anya Taylor-Joy in 'Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga'

No, the road to the box office Green Place was never meant to be led by Furiosa. "Mad Max movies have never ever been a number one movie at the box office,” Loria notes. “They’re great, but they’ve never been a global behemoth. Even look at Fury Road’s numbers — we all adore that movie, but that movie's not a billion-dollar movie.” (Mad Max: Fury Road made $154 million domestically and $379 million worldwide in 2015. It opened at No. 2 at the domestic box office with $45 million in its first weekend — behind Pitch Perfect 2’s $69 million.)

Ordinarily, a bigger tentpole like a Marvel project tends to kickstart summer movie season in the first weekend of May — and, indeed, Deadpool and Wolverine was once slated for that May 3 release date but was delayed to late July due to the writers’ and actors’ strikes in 2023. “The release calendar — those dates are the building blocks of momentum,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst who studies the box office at ComScore. “The health of the theatrical box office in any given weekend depends on what was leading up to it.”

Blame quantity, not quality

So far, this year’s soft box office has not correlated to the quality of the films — The Fall Guy, Furiosa, IF, and Garfield all saw positive reception from audiences who did see them, according to aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and CinemaScore. Instead, analysts and theater owners insist that the problem is with the overall supply of movies over the last nine or 10 months, as the release calendar was heavily impacted by the strikes. “We were like a grocery store without eggs and milk to sell,” says Bob Bagby, the CEO of B&B Theaters and the Executive Board Chair of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “We just haven't had the movies. Momentum builds momentum. You get people in the building for one big movie, and they get excited when they see trailers and posters and marketing for more upcoming projects. We have got to have constant product. You can't have a week of a new movie and then the next week, nothing. And that's what's happened this year.”

Dergarabedian agrees, adding, “It just shows you how important an orderly release of movies is. The frequency and number of films released can make or break a year. All the studios are rooting for someone to get that big hit on the books so that it'll help all the other movies. It's a cliché, but it's true: A rising tide does raise all ships.”

Universal Pictures Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt in 'The Fall Guy'
Universal Pictures Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt in 'The Fall Guy'

Related: The Fall Guy filmmakers break down Ryan Gosling's high-flying stunts in first trailer

For instance, Dergarabedian says, "If we had had a huge April like we did last year with Mario, I would bet you more potential moviegoers would've known about The Fall Guy. Or if a Marvel movie had opened on May 3 and then Fall Guy and the other movies opened in its wake, who knows what that would've done for them?”

Walt Disney Studios — which encompasses Marvel Studios, Pixar, Walt Disney Animation, Lucasfilm, and, most recently, 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures — has released just two movies in the first five months of 2024: The First Omen in early April and Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes in early May, both via 20th Century. Disney dominated the domestic box office in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022 (and only missed the top spot in 2020 because, well, you know, 2020). “If that dominant of a studio only puts out two new releases for the first five months of the year, that costs you something,” Loria says.

During the strike summer and fall of 2023, the company shuffled its release calendar for 2024: Pixar’s Elio shifted from March 2024 to June 2025, Mufasa: The Lion King moved from July to December, Captain America: Brave New World jumped from May to November and then landed in February 2025, Snow White bounced from this March to next March, and Thunderbolts had several 2024 release dates before settling on May of next year.

Related: Kevin Feige teases Harrison Ford's presidential role in Captain America: New World Order

It’s not just Disney delays that left 2024 with a smaller supply of new movies, either. Other studios’ films, including Mission: Impossible 8, The Karate Kid, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, Venom: The Last Dance, and Dirty Dancing, were all initially set to debut in the spring or summer of this year but were bumped to later dates after the strikes.

Help is (hopefully) on the way

Still, there is cause for hope on the horizon — though many insiders believe it's mostly up to the House of Mouse to save the day. While Pixar’s Inside Out 2 is premiering about six weeks after the typical early-May summer kickoff, analysts and theater owners have high expectations for the sequel, which hits cinemas June 14. “The real test is going to be how Inside Out 2 plays out,” Loria says. “It could really kickstart the box office in a way that we haven’t seen yet this year.”

Disney 'Inside Out 2'
Disney 'Inside Out 2'

Related: Drew Barrymore gets emotional while discussing Inside Out 2: 'I have chills everywhere'

Theaters also anticipate a massive performance for Disney's Deadpool and Wolverine, which has already set the record for the highest presales for any R-rated movie in history and also has sold the most advance tickets of any 2024 release thus far. “Deadpool's certainly going to open over 100 million. Then the emotions and the narrative will change,” Dergarabedian assures.

Beyond Disney’s two major tentpoles, analysts have high hopes for Despicable Me 4 and are tracking surprisingly strong anticipation for Twisters. Meanwhile, Horizon: An American Saga, A Quiet Place: Day One, Alien: Romulus, and Bad Boys: Ride or Die are all expected to perform solidly, though experts hope one or two of them might mount a surprising overperformance.

Related: Why making Horizon has long been Kevin Costner’s (manifest) destiny

<p>Lee Isaac Chung</p> Daisy Edgar Jones, Anthony Ramos, and Glen Powell in 'Twisters'

Lee Isaac Chung

Daisy Edgar Jones, Anthony Ramos, and Glen Powell in 'Twisters'

Theaters are even more bullish about buzzy releases this fall and winter, with expectations that 2024’s fourth quarter will greatly surpass last year’s. This year’s home stretch will see two sequels to billion-dollar grossers — Joker: Folie a Deux and Mufasa: The Lion King — as well as numerous other recognizable titles such as Wicked, Moana 2, Venom: The Last Dance, Gladiator II, Kraven the Hunter, and Sonic the Hedgehog 3. With a strong winter in mind, the theater industry projects that 2024 will end up being viewed as a good year at the box office despite being a transitional recovery period after the strikes.

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Adjusting expectations (and budgets)

Some analysts believe that studios need to reimagine what box office success looks like after the pandemic transformed moviegoing habits. “There has to be a recalibration or readjustment of what we think of as a hit opening weekend and an increased focus on the long-term playability of films,” Dergarabedian opines. “There've been a lot of movies that opened to under $100 million that, given a chance to play, did really well. But there is a fixation on that $100-million weekend, and while that’s understandable, it’s not rooted in the new reality of what the industry looks like today. That's why movies have to be given a chance to play in theaters, to have that period where they can take time to build that audience."

For instance, some of the post-COVID era’s sweetest box office success stories — including Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, Anyone but You, and Elemental — came not from massive openings but long, steady legs that allowed them to reach impressive totals after months of consistently solid performance.

Related: Top Gun: Maverick sinks domestic box office record held by Titanic

“I think Challengers is a great example of that,” LaVerde says. “It opened to a decent opening and then continued that momentum for many weeks. It's a terrific film, and it maybe didn't have the biggest marketing buzz around it, but word of mouth spread, and it continued to perform well in weeks two, three, and four. And it’s now nearing $50 million.”

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor in 'Challengers'
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor in 'Challengers'

After all, not all movies are designed to conquer the world. “Sometimes when we talk about moviegoing and talk about the box office, we have to step back and realize that not every movie has to be this huge high-grossing thing,” Loria says. “Some movies connect with smaller audiences and play a role in the marketplace and contribute to the cultural aspect of moviegoing.”

Studios may start second-guessing inflated budgets for certain projects. “It's like when you put your hand in the fire and you get burned, you're a little more cautious,” Dergarabedian says. “Bigger budgets certainly play a factor in the perception of movies as either hits or misses.”

The future is bright

Exhibitors and experts remain optimistic about the future of theatrical moviegoing, especially since 2024 will mark the first full year with a typical slate of Hollywood film production since 2019. That means 2025 and 2026 should have a much steadier supply of new movies spaced throughout the year than we’ve experienced this decade, as strikes and pandemics will be firmly in the rearview.

Loria also notes that theatrical moviegoing has already swung back to pre-COVID levels on numerous occasions over the last three years, as five of the top 15 domestic grossers of all time — Spider-Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and Barbie — were released after 2020. “That's a pretty good representation of companies going on there,” he says, noting that each film was produced and distributed by a different studio.

“People are going to be amazed at what happens to this industry in the next couple of years after so many tough setbacks,” Bagby says. “I wish that these first six months would've been better, of course. But we're coming back, baby. We're coming back.”

Read the original article on Entertainment Weekly.