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The Humdrum Summer and Why It’s Okay

Here’s an interesting business-related letter I got earlier this week:

Is it just me, or does it seem like movies aren’t making as much money as they used to? The big summer movies so far don’t seem to be having as big opening weekends as I remember them having before.

Indeed, the big summer movies, including those of a science-fiction or fantasy nature, are down a bit from previous years, at least domestically — although “down” is something of relative term. For example, the latest Pirates of the Caribbean installment is likely to be the least successful of that series at the domestic box office. But it had a $90 million opening weekend (the 22nd best of all time), it’s made over $200 million so far, and it will likely hit $250 million here at home before it wanders out of the theaters. We should all underperform so well.

Likewise, Thor has not scaled the financial heights this year that Iron Man did a few summers ago, but it’ll end up in the neighborhood of $180 million domestically — a sum generally considered to be in hit territory. Ask most filmmakers if they would like to have produced a movie that makes $180 million, and they’ll say, “Oh, yes, please.” And they would be right to do so.

Relative or not, however, the box-office numbers don’t hit the heights they have before. What’s the cause? I have a few thoughts on the matter, naturally.

1. Sequel blahs: Outside of science fiction and fantasy, sequels are chugging along fine — note the performances of both The Hangover Part II and Fast Five — but within these genres things are sort of so-so, with the aforementioned Pirates film and also Kung Fu Panda 2 chugging along fine but not spectacularly. I personally suspect that the upcoming Transformers pic will underperform relative to the previous movies in the series. In the cases of Pirates and Transformers, at least, part of that has to do with the fact that these films are following installments that weren’t actually very good; the last Pirates film was confusing and had to follow through on what felt like several dozen story lines, while the last Transformers film was just flat-out stupid.

But I think it’s also because there’s a general feeling from audiences that they’ve seen everything these series have to offer. They’re are at the point where familiarity breeds — if not contempt — at least a certain lack of urgency, which translates into “It’s okay for me to miss it in the theater.” The one movie I think may beat this phenomenon this summer is the final Harry Potter film because it is the last in the series, which will go out with a bang, making it worth seeing on the big screen (but not necessarily in 3-D, which I will get to).

2. Comic-book-rebuilding year: With the exception of X-Men: First Class (which has suffered some of the sequel blahs noted above), most of the comic-book series currently in production are in an off year. Batman and Iron Man are nowhere to be seen, and Spider-Man’s reboot isn’t quite ready yet. So what we have is a year where the studios are trying to launch new heroes, in an era when the superhero segment of the industry is already pretty saturated. It’s not impossible, but it’s more work than it was before, and both DC and Marvel have already run through their A-list characters and are working to get you excited about a lower tier of heroes. (Hey, my favorite DC character is Green Arrow, so don’t look at me like that.) The studios aren’t stupid, and they know that this year is a rebuilding year. That is to say, if they give these new characters a decent launch, then you’ll be excited for — and pay even more money to go see — the sequel a couple of years down the line.

This is a long process for them, in other words, and this year is just the first step — particularly for the folks at Marvel, who are planning to jam all their heroes into a single Avengers film that they clearly expect to vacuum up all the money in the known universe.

3. 3-D burnout: I went over this a couple of weeks ago, so there’s no reason to go over it again in detail, but it’s still a factor. Audiences are more discriminating about what films they really want to see in 3-D, and the answer seems to be “Not too many of them.”

But if you’re planning to feel bad for the movie studios about their relatively modest movie returns this summer, don’t: nearly all the big summer films so far this year are doing better in the international box office than they are here, at home. (In the case of the new Pirates, it’s the most financially successful of the series, internationally speaking.) So the studios are fine. The real lesson of the summer so far is that the domestic box office is even less a driver of a studio’s bottom line than it was before.

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