A-List: Top Five Lessons from Summer Box Office

By J. Don Birnam

September 10, 2015

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Well, that was fast. The summer movie season officially ended over Labor Day weekend, although we all know that by the time August rolled around, most summer blockbusters have been seen (or not) by audiences. It seems like only yesterday that I was listing Jurassic World, Terminator, Inside Out, San Andreas, and Avengers: Age of Ultron as my most anticipated movies of the summer. And it seems almost impossible to believe, even with hindsight, that one of those five eked out the opening weekend record, smashed many other box office records, and dominantly triumphed over its rivals.

As we look back at another summer that was, we look at the five most prominent lessons that stick out about the summer box office. There are, truth be told, many stories one could focus on. One that sticks out in my mind is the fact that Universal just grossed more through August than the previous record-holder, Fox, did all last year. However, that is not, strictly speaking, a summer box office story, as Universal did it in part with its springtime releases 50 Shades of Grey and Furious 7 (query, of course, whether the summer box office has now firmly began in April).

Undoubtedly, however, the summer of 2015 provided many lessons for those in the business of predicting box office performance.


5. There is no such thing as a built-in audience for superhero movies.

Could 2015 be the year we look back on as the beginning of the demise for the ultra-profitable superhero movie, a genre that has raked in billions for studios since Spiderman wowed audiences way back in 2001?

With over two dozen superhero movies slated for release over the next several years, it sure would be devastating to studios if that were the case. Of course, I do not really believe that superhero movies are done, but some results in 2015 arguably exhibit minor fatigue with the comic book hero movie. It’s not just that Avengers: Age of Ultron failed to meet expectations and fell short of the mark set by its predecessor - hey, it still made a boat load of money. It’s also the mostly tepid reception for the bizarre Ant-Man (which looks too much like Spider-Man), and the absolute disaster (yet again) of the Fantastic Four franchise.

Clearly, audiences like going to these movies, but they are looking for something different and exciting. If you give them non-classic superheroes - for example, Guardians of the Galaxy - audiences are more than willing to show up in droves. But it seems that when it comes to superhero movies, audiences are starving for truly original content.

It is admittedly not intuitive to posit that there is no built-in audience for superhero movies, but the disastrous results of movies like Fantastic Four show that even the most loyal comic book superhero fans will stay at home if the product is not good enough.

Even trashy horror movies seem to have a built-in audience (with new entries in the Insidious and Sinister sagas pulling in predictable results in the $22 million openers - a great profit for studios who make these movies on a dime), and arguably women-driven films like Spy and Trainwreck have loyal audiences as well, which seem to guarantee something around a low $30s bow. But I think one will be talking about the bleeding of the loyalty of the comic book hero fans, if the studios don’t do something about it.

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