Summer box-office analysis: Hollywood is losing America, taking over the world

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Image Credit: David James

For this summer’s box office, the hits keep on coming—and not the good kind, the ones with $100 million opening weekends. No, the summer of 2014 has been one body-blow after another at the U.S. box office, as the collective slate of big Hollywood films has failed to keep up with last summer’s record pace. The most recent weekend, which witnessed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes repeat as the top movie, was trailing the same weekend last year by almost 25 percent. July is down more than 30 percent year-to-year, and the summer as a whole is down almost 19 percent from last year.

To be fair, the summer of 2013 was monstrous, with Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2 leading a parade of blockbusters that included 19 films that topped $100 million. This year, there have been only 10 films to hit that mark, though the season isn’t over yet, obviously. But as previously detailed, this summer might yield the worst box office in decades, with ticket sales down to disturbing levels. But why?

A simple and frequently cited explanation is that the current crop of movies stink. Give theatergoers something great, the conventional wisdom goes, and they’ll show up again and again. But what if the movies don’t stink? Or, more precisely, what if they stink the same amount as last year’s films? Then what?

EW looked at the average CinemaScore and Metacritic ratings for every summer movie that played on 2,000 screens between Memorial Day and July 20 during the last two summers, and the results suggest that not only are this year’s films just as good as last year’s hits, they might even be better.

For those who don’t know, CinemaScore is a service that surveys theatergoers immediately following opening-night viewings. Its letter-grade ratings are especially useful because it reflects the approval of an already enthusiastic audience. “A” ratings are very common, and anything lower than a “B” can be a real red flag. Metacritic is an online website that assigns a numerical value (1-100) to every critical review so that each film ultimately gets an average score. Anything over 60 typically means the critics approve.

Comparing 24 major releases from 2013—ranging from The Great Gatsby to R.I.P.D.—to 23 of this year’s films, opening-night audiences preferred last year’s slate… but just barely. Crunching the letter grades into a collegiate GPA, last year’s films scored a 3.45; this year’s movies graded out at 3.44. Critics, on the other hand, came down on the side of 2014, which scored an average Metacritic rating of 53.8, more than two points higher than last year’s crop of blockbusters.

So, moviegoers like the product just as much when they go, and critics actually like the new product even better. Yet here we are on July 21, with the summer down double-digits and Guardians of the Galaxy the industry’s last great hope to salvage the season. Frustrated studio execs must see the dismal financial data and think:
These people complain and complain that all we do is sequels and reboots, and then I give them a great Tom Cruise action movie and no one bothers to show up! I give them a solid sequel to How to Train Your Dragon, and the same kids who were falling all over the Minions’ “fart blaster” last summer turn up their noses? I build you a Godzilla movie that critics actually like (!) and less people show up than those who lined up for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 debacle?! The critics like us better this year, yet we’re down double-digits this season? It’s not us—it’s them!

Many industry experts have pointed out that 2014 is suffering because it’s an “off” year for many of the biggest franchises, with The Avengers, Fast & Furious, and Jurassic World poised to return in 2015 and create another record-breaking season. But it’s hard to ignore the dissonance between the fairly constant quality of product and the steep nose dive at the box office.

Once upon a time, the summer movie season was the dead zone, the dumping ground for B-movies and genre schlock. Then Jaws came around in 1975 and changed everything. But maybe now, in 2014, we’re at another crucial moment. With approximately 70 percent of the industry’s revenue coming from the international box-office, Hollywood isn’t necessarily making movies for Americans anymore. Our biggest movies and most popular characters, whether they be superheroes or alien-robot-vampires, must be crafted so they appeal to audiences in Chicago, Beijing, and Moscow. The growth markets are abroad, not in the U.S.

This isn’t a new development, but perhaps American audiences have finally grown weary of the one-size-must-fit-all product—and suddenly realized that there’s two seasons of Orange Is the New Black on Netflix, or it’s the perfect time to catch up on True Detective. Reams have been written about the second golden age of American television, but perhaps the most important part of that phrasing isn’t “golden age,” but “American.” The best shows on American TV aren’t for everyone, they don’t try to be, and the audience appreciates that. Actors appreciate that, too, judging by the Hollywood A-listers flocking to recent TV projects.

Next year, I’d wager the U.S. box-office rebounds strongly. The Avengers sequel will be huge. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if grosses fail to surpass 2013’s summer record, and that many big-budget films slightly underperform. People’s entertainment consumption habits are changing, making it the wrong time to neglect your core customer base.

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