The summer movie season has been traditionally the time for studios to release their biggest and brightest films. These are the movies packed full of star power, cutting edge movie-making technology, and entertaining plots. It is a time for the release of big-budget sequels, prequels, and remakes. These are the movies created for mass appeal, as well as mass consumption. In other words, the summer movie season is a very important time of year because so much is at stake. Big-budget flops can easily ruin promising careers, while popular blockbusters can make them possible in the first place. While they may not always be the most critically appreciated, smartest, or provocative, summer movies ultimately drive the movie business.
Summer movies are also a great representation of trends in cinema. In the 2000’s we saw the advancement of the blockbuster to become CGI-fueled. Sequels became big business, and marvel’s MCU began, which set up the formula for the modern tentpole franchise which others have since tried to emulate. Ten years later, we have almost come full circle. While the MCU is still going strong, it has almost completed the story arc that began with the original Iron Man. Likewise, audience’s excitement towards sequels/prequels/reboots isn’t as certain as it used to be (Example: Alien: Covenant, Pirates 5, Solo). Most importantly, there has been a huge swing in international audience attendance. Today, almost every major film makes more money overseas than they do domestically. This is an important trend because it means studios have began changing the way they make their films to better take advantage.
Four years ago, I used an algorithm that compared different performance metrics of films during every summer movie season in order to determine which summer movie seasons were in fact better than the rest. You can find that 2-piece article here and here, including a description of the technique used to compare summer film seasons. Two years ago, I used the same technique to compare the 2016 and 2015 movie seasons. 2015 was a great year for summer movies, but 2016 was determined to be the worst summer movie season of all time. We can use this same method again here to compare 2017 and 2018. Did Hollywood redeem itself after the disaster of Summer 2016? Or should we be concerned regarding the ability of Hollywood to maintain its momentum moving forward? Let’s crunch some numbers.
Note – Starting in 2015, I began using total worldwide gross to define movie earnings, rather than just domestic box office gross. This is because most movies now make more money overseas than they do domestically. Likewise, the signifier for a “Stud” has been increased to $250 million to compensate.
First, here’s how the Summer 2017 season looks:
Wonder Woman – May 2017 – $821m (92%)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – May 2017 – $790m (30%)
Despicable Me 3 – June 2017 – $1,034m (59%)
Transformers: The Last Knight – June 2017 – $603m (16%)
Cars 3 – June 2017 – $383m (68%)
The Mummy – June 2017 – $409m ($195m) (15%)
War For the Planet of the Apes -July 2017 – $489m (93%)
Dunkirk – July 2017 – $499m (94%)
Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 2017 – $880m (92%)
It – August 2017 – $697m (85%)
Annabelle: Creation – August 2017 – $305m (70%)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – May 2017 – $140m ($175m) (30%)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – July 2017 – $215m ($180m) (48%)
The Dark Tower – August 2017 – $113m ($60m) (16%)
Alien: Covenant (66%), Wind River (87%), The Big Sick (98%), Baby Driver (93%), Girls Trip (90%), Atomic Blonde (77%), Detroit (83%), The Hitman’s Bodyguard (39%), Logan Lucky (93%), American Made (86%)
Things that catch the eye? The studs were very diverse in terms of the types of films as well as critical appraisal. Some of them are bad, some of them are good. This means that audiences went to see some of these films despite poor critical reviews or lackluster word of mouth. It isn’t shown here, but many of these poorly reviewed films had poor performance at the domestic box office. It really shows the impact of the international box office and how, at least currently, it is mostly impervious to poor reviews. In other words, big name films will continue to make money, even if they are poorly received. You’ll also notice that all of the studs this year except Dunkirk are either part of a franchise or based on some previous well-known movie property. Contrast this with the notables where all of them except Alien: Covenant are completely original films. As you might guess, these “Notable” films didn’t have much traction outside of the domestic market. Still, despite the lack of creativity, this year’s summer movie outing is a marked improvement over the dumpster fire that was 2016.
Now let’s compare to 2018:
Deadpool 2 – May 2018 – $733m (82%)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – June 2018 – $1,302m (49%)
Incredibles 2 – June 2018 – $1,194m (94%)
Ocean’s 8 – June 2018 – $296m (68%)
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation – July 2018 – $509m (59%)
Ant Man and the Wasp – July 2018 – $617m (88%)
Skyscraper – July 2018 – $301m (46%)
Mama Mia, Here We Go Again! – July 2018 – $388m (80%)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout – July 2018 – $777m (97%)
The Meg – August 2018 – $517m (46%)
Solo: A Star Wars Story – May 2018 – $385m ($250m) (70%)
Action Point – June 2018 – $5.1m ($19m) (14%)
Mile 22 – August 2018 – $57m ($50m) (23%)
Happytime Murders – August 2018 – $25.1m ($40m) (22%)
Hereditary (89%), Upgrade (87%), Tag (55%), Sicario: Day of the Soldado (63%), The First Purge (54%), Equalizer 2 (51%), Christopher Robin (70%), Crazy Rich Asians (93%)
Things that catch an eye about 2018? The “Studs” had much better Rotten Tomato scores as a whole compared to 2017. It’s also a small improvement in the originality department with two films instead of only one not being a sequel or remake, even if those two “original” films weren’t really all that original. The notables are again mostly original films, but aren’t nearly as numerous as in years past. Summer 2018 was actually a somewhat slow year for films compared to more recent years. Of course, the big story regarding summer 2018 is the Star Wars prequel spinoff, Solo. Solo was well-enough received by critics, yet audiences did not show up in the numbers they have been for other recent Star Wars films. What’s most surprising with this one is that the international box office didn’t really help it out. The reason for poor attendance is a number of things; backlash due to controversy from the last Star Wars film, a no-name star, troubled production, released too close to The Last Jedi, etc. Regardless of why it failed, it is still a huge blow to Disney’s plans for the Star Wars franchise as a whole. It’ll definitely be interesting to see if this changes the approach to future films in the franchise, and what impact it will have on other big-name franchises that have also struggled as of late.
So how does it all shake out?
As I mentioned above, 2017 was a big improvement over a putrid 2016. Better films, better selection, fewer flops, and better selection made for a much improved summer movie experience. However, despite the improvement in entertainment, 2017 was full of sequels/prequels/remakes. Arguably one of the reasons 2016 failed so spectacularly is because it had a relatively large number of original films, and those original films did not have the same international box office draw as the big, recognizable franchises will. Unfortunately, this probably means that Hollywood is going to be investing in big-budget sequels/prequels/remakes moving forward. 2018 didn’t offer any evidence in the contrary. It is comprised even more than 2017 of sequels/prequels/remakes. In fact, the most profitable original films of 2018 were basically both big brash rip-offs of films audiences love dearly.
From a numbers perspective, 2017 actually adds up surprisingly well. Plugging the data into the algorithm reveals 2017 to be the FOURTH BEST summer movie season since 1980. What really helps it rank so highly is the quality of its films. Half of the major films released during May-August 2017 had Rotten Tomatoes scores above 80%. It also helps that there were a lot of “studs” in 2017, the second most since 1980, tied at 11 with 1999 and 1989. By the numbers, 2018 isn’t so bad either. It ranks 14th overall since 1980, firmly middle-of-the-pack. Factors that hurt 2018 compared to 2017 are fewer notable films, and a reduction in quality (only 8 of 22 films had Rotten Tomatoes scores higher than 80%).
So there you have it. Math has confirmed 2017 to be one of the best summer movie seasons of all time. Do you agree? Will the well-received films of summer 2017 become beloved classics? What do you think is in store for 2019?
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