It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After Avengers: Endgame opened to what was once an inconceivable worldwide opening weekend on April 26 (yes, spring is now the start of the summer movie season), it looked like summer 2019 would be one for the ages. It has been, but not in the way Hollywood wanted or anticipated. The season has proceeded not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Even accounting for Endgame, this summer is down from 2018 by a depressing 6%. Worldwide grosses, including China (once the saving grace for so-so franchises), are down too. Going into this year, there were some movies that were obviously going to flop, but the bloodbath at the box office has caught much of the industry by surprise. True, no studio makes a movie expecting it to tank, but weekend after weekend has seen one franchise picture after another underperform at best, and flat out fail at worst. What gives?
In an industry that bases revenue on butts in seats, this is no casual matter. Audiences deciding to stay at home and not to go to the movies during one of the industry’s busiest seasons is a major cause for concern. The question is: why? There are many reasons. While these reasons don’t apply to every movie that has flopped this summer (there are always caveats), there are some overarching trends we see repeated across the board. Here’s why so many summer 2019 “blockbusters” are flopping at the box office.
Avengers Assemble all the money
Avengers: Endgame’s opening weekend take was once unfathomable. Even the rosiest of expectations could not have anticipated $350 million in North America and $1.2 billion worldwide. Avengers: Endgame made more money in one day (heck, one hour) than some summer 2019 movies have made in several weeks. But despite the theory that a rising tide lifts all ships, that has clearly not been the case with Avengers: Endgame, which wiped out both the films that came before it (namely Shazam), and many of the ones that came after it.
The irony is, while Avengers: Endgame’s box office results are mind-boggling, it’s also, from certain viewpoints, making less than it probably should have (at least based on its opening weekend). No, we didn’t take our crazy pills. Consider this: Avengers: Endgame will not catch up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ #1 all-time domestic box office take despite making $110 million more its opening weekend, and it had to be re-released with new footage to have a shot at topping Avatar’s worldwide total (and it’s not looking like it will succeed). If it had legs like Black Panther, it would have topped a billion dollars domestically. Instead it’s playing closer to Captain America: Civil War (the MCU’s most front-loaded film).
Nevertheless, Avengers: Endgame did suck up all the oxygen (and money) in May. Perhaps many moviegoers simply decided they were only going to see one movie in May and naturally they chose the grand “finale” to the Marvel Cinematic Universe… they just didn’t go see it more than once.
In the game of audience attention spans, you win or you die
We said Avengers: Endgame was one the few movies that people went to go see in May, but it most certainly was not the only pop culture milestone people watched. Arguably just as big a “finale” as Avengers: Endgame was the series finale of Game of Thrones. Don’t let the fan backlash dissuade you: Game of Thrones’ finale was one of the biggest events in all of pop culture, with viewership figures that won’t be repeated anytime soon. Sure, critics were underwhelmed and fans were disappointed (though we doubt HBO will reshoot S8 over a fan petition), the fact that millions of people were complaining about Game of Thrones meant that millions of people were watching it. Yes, hate-watching is still watching.
In fact, the finale episode of the show, “The Iron Throne,” got 19.3 million viewers, which doesn’t even include all of the people who watched the finale in Super Bowl-party style groups or hacked other accounts. Not bad for a show that was based on a niche novel series for sci-fi and fantasy fans. It’s no surprise, then, if many people weren’t going to the movies because they were too busy watching Game of Thrones. There are only so many free hours in the week, and sometimes it’s better to spend them watching a show you love (or did once) than spending $10+ to see a new movie you’re unsure about.
Movie marketing has been… meh
Trailers can be works of art, but their purpose is commercial: get audiences interested in a movie. Summer 2019’s movie trailers didn’t. There were good ones from a creative standpoint, like Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, John Wick Chapter 3, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Not coincidentally, these movies were also among those that performed the best (“best” being a relative term). Let’s dig a little deeper: Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ marketing promised a massive monster mash with the King’s most famous co-stars: Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. Pretty cool… if you’re familiar with these classic monsters. If you’re not, there was nothing else to draw you in. Conversely, Godzilla (2014) wisely focused on the horror and human drama, not the monsters, generating an unexpectedly impressive $93 million opening weekend (compared to King of the Monsters’ lackluster $47 million).
Meanwhile Men In Black: International’s marketing made that movie look… pretty bland actually. Like more of the same thing we’ve seen before, but not as funny and missing familiar characters. Same with Dark Phoenix, which had the added burden of being Disney’s redheaded stepchild (sorry, Jean) after the Fox acquisition. Disney already had one superhero franchise finale to promote, and Dark Phoenix wasn’t it. Compare these to John Wick Chapter 3, which promised to continue a story audiences wanted to see, but this time packed with even more insane action sequences. Moral of the story? The marketing should tell a story, focus on the human element, and promise audiences something they haven’t seen a bazillion times before.
This summer’s star power lacked wattage
While famous faces don’t matter as much in special-effects extravaganzas, star power definitely can make a difference in certain films. Tom Cruise wasn’t a draw in the cataclysmic turkey The Mummy, but he is a draw in Mission: Impossible. Will Smith has had a lackluster run lately, but he was a draw in Aladdin (one of the season’s lone bright spots), and his absence was felt in MIB: International. Chris Hemsworth is a draw as Thor; not so much on his own. Dark Phoenix starred popular actors James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence, but lacked the face of the franchise, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. And while Keanu Reeves went years without a hit after The Matrix, he’s struck gold as John Wick.
In short, franchise success is less about star power (“I’m going to see X-Men because of Hugh Jackman”), and more about stars playing their signature characters (“I’m going to see X-Men because of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine”). Removing beloved characters from a pre-existing franchise and shoving new performers in, no matter how talented they are (MIB: International; Dark Phoenix) can be a hard sell. True, there are exceptions. Jurassic World re-launched the franchise with none of the original characters (though having mega-star Chris Pratt helped). But there are way more examples like Ghostbusters (2016), which featured none of the original characters and failed, which is why Sony is going back to the well once more with the original cast in Ghostbusters (2020).
Too much downtime between sequels
Some franchises are so popular they can return after a long gap. In fact, it can even be a good thing, because it gives the audience a chance to feel nostalgic for the characters and story. You can really tell how beloved a franchise is based on how well a new installment performs after a long absence. Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars (twice) all had long gaps between films and did gangbusters. Meanwhile, Independence Day: Resurgence came out long after people stopped caring, and it showed.
Many of the under-performers this year fall into the latter category. Godzilla came out in 2014; Godzilla: King of the Monsters came out five years later. MIB III came out in 2012; MIB: International seven years later. Shaft came out in 2000; Shaft followed nearly 20 years later! See a trend? These are sequels to movies that came out so long ago, audiences may have forgotten the originals and/or thought the new films weren’t sequels, but reboots. The apathy of “wait, they’re making another one?” is a real thing.
If your previous movie was forgettable, then a distance between sequels risks confusing your audience and killing your film out of the gate. And even having beloved characters is no guarantee against the sequel gap. While Toy Story 4 had the franchise’s biggest opening weekend, it still opened well below Disney’s expectations. When even a Disney movie suffers from the sequel gap, you know it’s a problem.