What we can learn from the summer box office

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 6:17pm

Last May, I made an attempt at projecting how this year’s summer movies will do. And, well ... let’s just say there’s always kinks the first time. There were a few movies which came close to my projection for them, but so many others were off. So, let’s take apart the numbers and see what trends come up from this summer’s box office grosses.

Let’s start out with the top grossing movie of the summer. I thought it would be “Captain America: Civil War” with “Finding Dory” finishing a close second. However, “Dory” went on to make a gigantic $484 million in the United States. Not only did this surpass “Finding Nemo” ’s $380 million, but it also is the highest grossing Pixar movie of all time. While both “Cap” and “Dory” were massive successes for Disney, the latter’s success is one of the stories of the summer.

There were also some other successes in the sequel space. “Suicide Squad” was able to overcome disastrous reviews to open to $133 million on its way to $320 million total. Despite all the negative buzz surrounding the DC Cinematic Universe, they're still making buckets of money for Warner Bros. “The Conjuring 2” wasn't quite able to make as much money as the original, but it's $102 domestic gross means another nice profit for Warner Bros.

Still, where I went wrong the most was in predicting high numbers for a group of sequels. A long list of big-budget blockbusters dropped significantly from their predecessor’s grosses. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” made less than half of 2014’s first entry in the franchise. “Star Trek Beyond” also dropped by 30 percent and will have a hard time turning a profit on its massive $185 million budget. There’s also “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” which turned in a horrid $70 million domestic, less than a quarter of what the first movie did in 2010. It turns out, the public wasn’t interested in waiting six years for a sequel. “X-Men: Apocalypse” also underperformed, making about two-thirds of what “Days of Future Past” brought in two years ago.

In terms of original movies, there were a few that broke out above the rest. “The Secret Life of Pets” was an unqualified success for Universal and Illumination Studios. The studio has been marketing the movie for a year, putting a trailer in front of “Minions,” which was the highest grossing animated movie ever at the time of its release. “Pets” ended up bringing in a huge $364 million in the US, or the third-highest-grossing movie of the summer. “Bad Moms” broke out in a big way for new distributer STX Entertainment, drawing a female audience who helped it bring in $110 million. “Central Intelligence” was another comedy hit for Kevin Hart, making $127 million. Warner Bros. also had the horror hit “Lights Out,” which will turn a profit after making $67 million on a $4.9 million budget.

Not all of the summer originals did well. One of the biggest flops of the summer was Andy Samberg’s (“Saturday Night Live”) “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.” The music mockumentary clearly didn’t even gain a low level of awareness, as it only made $9 million on a $20 million budget. Whether it was a failure of the marketing to engage interest or just a miscalculation of how mainstream a film like that could be is unknown, but I predicted it would do better than it did. “The BFG” also barely registered, making only $55 million in the United States, failing to bring in the family audience Disney and I were expecting when they gave it a Fourth of July release.

Still, one of the stories that dominated the box office was the success, or in this case the lack thereof, for “Ghostbusters.” The film made $127 million in the US and an additional $99 million around the world. At the surface, that number doesn’t seem awful. But, when you consider the film’s $160 million budget before marketing costs, meaning its breakeven cost is about $400 million. The Hollywood Reporter has its losses for Sony totaling about $70 million. I’m in agreement with Myles McNutt here: “Both creatively and financially, the scale of Ghostbusters stretched beyond what film could reasonably be expected to achieve.” Simply put: they over budgeted the movie, and that’s why it’s losing money. I thought they’d be able to leverage that cast for substantially more money than they got. Clearly, so did Sony.

When looking at the overall trends for summer movies, it’s hard to come up with a clear trend. Animated movies did well, but other family titles like “The BFG” bombed. Superhero movies like “Captain America” and “Suicide Squad” brought audiences in droves, but “Apocalypse” substantially underperformed. With sequels, “Dory” and “Captain America” made substantial amounts of money, but “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Alice” did not do nearly as well as their first entries.

Ultimately though, this column is about how I did in predicting the summer box office, and the results are decidedly mixed. I was very close on movies like “Captain America,” “Lights Out” and the new “Purge” installment, but on others I completely missed the mark on “Alice,” “Pets” and “Popstar.” The interactive above has all the predictions next to what the movies actually made, so take a look.