Monday, September 4, 2017

Summer 2017 in Review

Labor Day brings an end to the summer and to the summer movie season. Here is a review of some of the trends in American cinema since May.

Box Office Armageddon
A lot has been made of 2017’s box office which was the worst summer season in a quarter century. The popular explanation for the downturn is franchise fatigue and Hollywood’s overreliance on sequels. The problem with that explanation is that twelve of the top twenty-five grossing movies released so far in 2017 were sequels and that number climbs to fifteen if we count spin offs of existing franchises like Wonder Woman and The LEGO Batman Movie. Meanwhile, plenty of original films didn’t perform well at all such as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Logan Lucky. Even The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which has been the top earner for the last three weeks, has made less than $60 million.
It could be that the summer paradigm is over. Historically, summer was a dead season for movie attendance (especially in the early years of cinema before air conditioning was commonplace). Prior to the 1970s, the fall and winter holiday season was the most lucrative time for Hollywood and major releases opened at Christmastime. After the success of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977, summer became synonymous with blockbuster spectacles and it has remained that way for the past four decades. However, we may be in a period where the calendar is shifting once again. The spring release of megahits like The Hunger Games in 2012, Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014, Furious 7 in 2015, The Jungle Book in 2016, and Beauty and the Beast in 2017 indicate that the blockbuster season is gradually moving from May-June-July to March-April-May. Indeed, five of the top ten grossing movies released so far this year opened in the spring.

The other shift is in television. Throughout the network era, the summer was a wasteland of reruns and the fall was prime TV season with new shows debuting and hit shows returning with new episodes. In the era of HBO and Netflix, new and popular television programs like last summer’s Stranger Things and this year’s The Defenders and Game of Thrones are coming throughout the year and television habits have unmoored from the traditional seasonal schedule.

There is also a more obvious answer: a lot of the big movies this summer just weren’t very good. Alien: Covenant, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Rough Night, Baywatch, and Transformers: The Last Knight were lousy movies and their box office performance reflected this. Hollywood’s constant scapegoating of Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates film reviews, is a tacit acknowledgement that these films weren’t good.

Superhero Films to the Rescue
Despite all the doom and gloom about the summer box office, one consistent performer was the superhero genre. Yes, the comic book marketplace is saturated and yes, many of these films are redundant with one another. But the fact is that several of the most successful and most entertaining movies of summer 2017 were superhero adaptations including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. In fact, it’s safe to say that 2017 offered the best crop of superhero movies since 2008.

Comedy Ain't Funny
The worst genre this summer—by some stretch—was comedy. This was the summer of The House, Rough Night, Baywatch, Snatched, and The Hitman’s Bodyguard. These movies were derivative, lazy, and not funny. Critics and audiences seemed to like Girls Trip but I wasn’t impressed.

You Probably Missed the Best Movies of the Summer
Although the superhero films dominated the summer box office, several impressive adult-oriented dramas were released this summer, some of which will be best-of-the-year-list contenders. The trouble is no one went to see them. The heavily publicized release of Detroit only generated $16 million domestically. Its box office failure is disappointing not only because it was a great movie but it was also in touch with this political and cultural moment. (Then again, that could be exactly why viewers skipped it.) Also underseen was the crime drama Wind River. This film wasn’t promoted as heavily as Detroit but it did have recognizable stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. It’s discouraging to see these films fail at the box office, especially for those of us who want Hollywood to break up its bloated end of the year release slate.

On the lighter side, there were some other great films that didn’t quite find their audience. Atomic Blonde, an R-rated action film based on a graphic novel, was another good entry in the resurgence of practical action moviemaking. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh returned with Logan Lucky, an Ocean’s 11-style heist movie that was a lot of fun. War for the Planet of the Apes was modestly successful but it wasn’t the hit that it should have been. And the best family movie of the summer was the underseen Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie.

There were also some really good indie films released this summer. The most notable was The Big Sick, starring Kumail Nanjiani as himself in the story of how he met his wife Emily Gardner. Some other interesting titles include The Wall, A Ghost Story, Ingrid Goes West, Good Time, and The Beguiled. As independent features, many of these titles didn’t open outside of metropolitan areas but many of them should be available on disc or streaming services this fall.

In Summary
The box office failure of many big budget films was the dominant story in entertainment media this summer but it tended to obfuscate that there were at least as many good films as there were bad ones.

The Best Movies of the Summer
  • Atomic Blonde
  • Baby Driver
  • The Beguiled 
  • The Big Sick
  • Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie
  • Detroit
  • Good Time
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  • Ingrid Goes West
  • Logan Lucky
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • The Wall
  • War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Wind River
  • Wonder Woman

The Worst Movies of the Summer

  • Alien: Covenant
  • All Eyez on Me
  • Baywatch
  • The Dark Tower
  • The Emoji Movie
  • The Mummy
  • The Only Living Boy in New York
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  • Rough Night
  • Snatched
  • Transformers: The Last Knight

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