It’s only June but wow has it been a bleak Summer at the box office so far. This weekend, Men in Black: International opened with predictions of a $40m domestic debut, which would have been respectable but not particularly encouraging. In reality, it made around $28.5 million, which is genuinely cringe-inducing. Any hopes that Sony Pictures may have had for this film to relaunch the franchise probably fell apart once those numbers came in. Of course, they’re not alone in this strange struggle for box office supremacy this Summer season. X-Men: Dark Phoenix couldn’t meet even the most modest expectations and opened to a mere $33 million opening weekend. It came second to The Secret Life of Pets 2, which took in over $46 million but that was still less than half of what the first film made in the same period of time. Godzilla: King of the Monsters opened quietly too. There have been exceptions, such as John Wick 3 and the juggernaut that is Disney, but overall, the numbers haven’t been great.
The season started off strong, with Avengers: Endgame seemingly breaking every box office record going, although it looks at though it could fall a tad short of the title of highest grossing film ever that Avatar has held onto for a decade. Of course, the other major problem is that ‘the Summer box office season’ now kicks off in the middle of Spring. Typically, we think of the Summer movie season as June to August, when kids are off school and the captive audiences available for these blockbusters is at its highest. That’s changed a lot over the past several years, and most of that is because of Disney and Marvel. They have an average of three movies a year to release and their schedule is impeccably timed to give each of them the optimal chance of success. The end result of this is that Summer is now half of the year in terms of cinematic releases, and the financial clout of the Christmas season has only increased as many studios move hot properties to the Winter months to avoid Disney conflicts. Sometimes it pays off marvellously, as Aquaman made Warner Bros. a billion dollars, but sometimes you get Mortal Engines.
A lot of franchises have taken hard hits over the past couple of Summers. Both the Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises hit a wall in 2017 when their respective fifth installments failed to ignite the box office, even in supposedly safer territories like China.
Marvel’s making bank, and Disney’s Aladdin overcame much scepticism to gross, as of the writing of this piece, over $626 million worldwide. The remake of The Lion King is expected to do extremely well, as is Toy Story 4. Otherwise, the major blockbusters of the season haven’t been anywhere near on that level of profit. Are audiences simply bored of prequels, sequels, franchises, remakes, and whatever else the market is throwing at them? It certainly seems that way for most of the major studios, but Disney are relatively immune to this. There are exceptions - Dumbo, while not a Summer release, dramatically under-performed - but the House of Mouse seems on much more solid ground than their contemporaries.
So what’s going on? Are Disney the only game in town now who can guarantee those gargantuan box office hits? Well, not exactly, but it’s not hard to see why so many are coming to that disheartening conclusion. The industry has spent so much time and effort building up the shaky consensus that the only way to compete with the big guns is to spend more and expand upon franchise ready intellectual properties, but it’s not exactly been embraced by wider audiences. Spending upwards of $200 million on one film - something that used to be exceptionally rare but is now a common occurrence - won’t make people want to see that film, and making more sequels to a franchise where numbers have gone down with each instalment won’t inspire a sudden spark of interest.
Franchise and sequel fatigue has been mentioned a lot this year to explain expensive slumps like Dark Phoenix and Godzilla: King of the Monsters but it’s not a rule that is applied evenly across the board. The one time people talked about the MCU possibly experiencing audience fatigue was with last year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp because it ‘only’ made $622 million. That’s how committed audiences are to that franchise, but essentially all attempts to replicate that success have failed. The formula simply isn’t in their favour, and Hollywood treats the precise cocktail that Disney and Marvel created as the rule, not the exception.
Essentially, Disney can do things that other studios can’t because they’ve spent close to nine decades building up a brand and business strategy that supports what they do. No other studio can churn out remakes of their biggest intellectual properties to such fervour because they didn’t create an entire ecosystem built on moulding themselves as ‘your childhood’. When nostalgia is king, you can’t compete with the company that crafted its entire brand around being a crucial part of everyone’s growing up and has been savvy enough to acquire all the content they didn’t previously own that inspires such devotion. Of course, it’s also hard to keep up with Disney when they’re now the owners of such a massive share of the market. Dark Phoenix was probably never going to be a smash hit, but it’s curious to imagine how it would have done if Disney, who bought the X-Men franchise from Fox in a $71 billion deal, had given it anywhere near the marketing campaign they gave Avengers: Endgame.
And then, of course, there is Netflix. I cannot tell you the number of times I have recommended a smaller, non-blockbuster film to someone, only to have them tell me, ‘I’ll just wait for that one to come out on streaming services.’ This came up a lot during the great Booksmart debates of Film Twitter, after that film was widely described as under-performing at the box office, but in reality, those numbers are about what we should have expected for such a film at such a time. I don’t blame people for not wanting to pay stupid amounts of money - all while wages are stagnating and the cost of living is rising - to see a smaller film that they have a hard time feeling requires ‘the cinematic experience’. In a staggeringly short amount of time, audiences have become used to the idea that some films are just not designed to be seen in theatres. How can you argue with Netflix and Chill when the options are increasing and so well suited to a night on the couch? General audiences don’t go to the cinema once a week. They probably don’t even go once a month. The times they do go are for Events, and Disney have cornered the market on that in a fascinating and concerning way, a few exceptions aside.
It looks set to continue in a big way for Disney too. The Lion King, Toy Story 4, and Spider-Man: Far From Home are all expected to do very well at both the domestic and international box office this Summer. Can anyone else keep up? Sure, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Header Image Source: Disney // Fox