Monday, September 3, 2018

Summer 2018 in Review

Labor Day represents the end of the summer movie season so here is a look back at the past few months. The industry rolls out its prestige pictures in the fall and winter but the summer is all about entertainment and box office. The summer most clearly demonstrates Hollywood’s priorities and the season allows insight into what the production and exhibition industries are doing right and doing wrong.

The Box Office Returns  .  . . Sort Of
The summer of 2017 was dominated by headlines about the depressed box office which was the worst in twenty-five years. Less attention was paid to the box office of 2018. According to The Hollywood Reporter, revenue was up by fourteen percent and this summer is projected to be the fifth best season on record. However, the attendance figures—the actual number of tickets sold—was the second worst since 1992. That means fewer people were going to the theater and paying more money to do so. Even though both attendance and revenue were up over last year, the overall trend is not a healthy one for theaters.

Where Are the Family Films?
Something that’s been missed in the reporting of the summer box office was the dearth of family films. By this I mean movies that are rated G or PG and are intended for parents and small children. (PG-13 action films don’t count.) Over the last twenty years Hollywood has mostly given up on this field. Admittedly, some G and PG hits of earlier decades like Planet of the Apes, Jaws, and Top Gun would probably get a PG-13 rating today but a PG title like E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial just isn’t fashionable right now and isn’t a part of Hollywood’s release slate. Aside from animation houses like Pixar, no one is turning out truly family oriented movies and the only notable animated releases of summer 2018 were Incredibles 2 and Hotel Transylvania 3. This lack of family films may help explain the overall lack of ticket sales. Where a title for older audiences may attract single or double ticket buyers, a family film will attract parents and their kids who purchase three to five tickets at a time.

Still More Sequels
One of the ironies of the 2018 summer box office recovery is its reliance on sequels. The dominant narrative of the 2017 season was that audiences were staying away because of “franchise fatigue.” However, eleven of the top twenty films of summer 2017 were franchise titles. In 2018, franchise releases accounted for fourteen of the top twenty summer films. Clearly, “franchise fatigue” wasn’t the answer. What was different was quality. Summer 2017 was dragged down by such lousy films as The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Transformers: The Last Knight. The summer of 2018 had its own disappointments like The Meg (which was lousy but nevertheless an international box office hit) and Mile 22 but the major releases were generally of high quality and the box office reflects this.

What to Make of Solo?
The popular understanding about Solo: A Star Wars Story is that the movie was a financial disappointment. But the numbers indicate something a little more complicated. Solo earned $213 million domestically and $392 million worldwide, putting Solo among the top ten grossing movies of the year so far and among the top five titles of the summer. But there are two variables here. The first is cost. Variety reports the production budget of Solo to be about $250 million with another $150 million spent on promotions. And since studios and theaters split the ticket revenues, Solo would have to make about $800 million just to break even. The second issue is expectations. This is the first Star Wars title under the Disney regime to make less than one billion dollars worldwide and it is the lowest grossing live action Star Wars feature film (unadjusted for inflation). Solo’s failure has bigger implications for the summer box office and for the industry as a whole. If a movie can be among the year’s top earners and still be a financial disappointment that indicates studios are spending too much money and have unrealistic box office expectations. That’s not sustainable and it could very easily blow up in Hollywood’s face.

Smart and Subversive Films
The summer box office is synonymous with popcorn entertainment and 2018 certainly provided that with titles like Avengers: Infinity War, Crazy Rich Asians, and Mission: Impossible – Fallout. But there was a surge of smart and subversive movies, many of them by filmmakers of color, that provided an alternative summer movie experience. BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, The First Purge, and Blindspotting were in touch with the political zeitgeist and offered stories that were innovative and challenging as well as entertaining. Although prestige titles are usually released in the fall, a few summer releases will likely be candidates for best of the year lists including Eighth Grade and First Reformed. Documentaries also did very well including the Ruth Bader Ginsberg profile RBG and the Mr. Rogers biography Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The latter became the highest grossing biographical documentary. These films are encouraging. They represent an artistic bedrock underneath Hollywood’s decadent extravagance and these titles point a way forward when the event film paradigm eventually crumbles.

In Summary
The Best of Summer 2018:
  • Avengers: Infinity War
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Blindspotting
  • Crazy Rich Asians
  • Eighth Grade
  • First Reformed
  • Hereditary
  • Incredibles 2
  • Mission: Impossible – Fallout
  • Sorry to Bother You
  • Tag
The Worst of Summer 2018:
  • Bad Samaritan
  • The Book Club
  • Life of the Party
  • The Meg
  • Mile 22
  • Super Troopers 2

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