After last year’s abysmal box office performance, executives from Hollywood’s movie studios are standing on pins and needles waiting to see what moviegoers will think of this summer’s cinematic offerings. Will the summer of 2006 soar like Superman (the hero and the movie), or will it sink like Poseidon (the ship and the film)?
Given the performance so far this year, there’s reason for Hollywood’s suit-wearers to be worried.
By all accounts, 2005 was a bad year at the box office. You can blame it on increasing DVD sales. (Which still line the pockets of the studios.) You can blame it on crummy films. (Which certainly don’t help matters.) You can even blame it on that damn hurricane. (Why not? Bush has.) But no matter where you lay culpability, the numbers speak for themselves: Last summer’s total ticket sales amounted to $3.6 billion--a big number, sure, but down more than 9 percent from the summer of 2004. Factoring in the increased price of movie tickets, overall attendance actually dropped a whopping 12 percent, according to box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.
When the new year rolled around, however, things looked like they were turning around. With the first four months of 2006 improving revenues by 5 percent over the same period last year, there was hope that Hollywood had shaken off its box office blues. But, with the summer blockbuster season already in high gear, there’s mounting evidence that 2006 will prove to be another washout year.
For starters, the improved box office performance can be attributed largely to the enormous increase in the volume of films being released. Movie money tracking site boxofficemojo.com recently noted that from January to April 2005 there were 46 nationwide releases. January to April 2006 saw a staggering 63 releases--the most ever on record. Overall, that contributed to 2006’s $2.72 billion tally through April, versus 2005’s $2.57 billion. But, when you break it down--37 percent increase in number of films, 5 percent increase in box office--it doesn’t sound all that impressive. In fact, the sole film to cross the magic $100 million mark this year to date is 20th Century Fox’s Ice Age: The Meltdown ($187 million as of May 14). In 2005, three pictures (Hitch, Robots and The Pacifier) had raked in more than $100 million each by the end of the first quarter.
So, this year, it all breaks down to quantity over quality. That has been more than evident in this last month. Normally, the summer movie season runs from Memorial Day weekend (May 26-28, this year) through Labor Day (September 1-3). But Tom Cruise and the bean counters over at Paramount decided to jump the gun, opening the first summer “tent pole” release, Mission: Impossible III, on May 5. That’s a good three weeks before most kids (the major force behind summer movie success) get out of school. In fact, each week in May features a major release: Poseidon on May 12, The Da Vinci Code on May 19 and X-Men: The Last Stand on May 26--all hitting theaters in advance of Memorial Day.
So how well did this early release policy pay off for Paramount? In a word--well, two--it didn’t. Mission: Impossible III opened with $47 million. Not bad; but for a film that according to some sources cost north of $150 million (not counting advertising), it’s not nearly enough. As of May 14, M:I-III has pulled in $84 million. That’s well short of the estimated $100 million paycheck Tom Cruise alone is expected to rake in for his work on the film. Given that the action sequel is performing well overseas, it will probably end up making its money back. Still, watching a Tom Cruise movie struggle to top $100 million domestically must be painful for desk-squatters over at Paramount.
And Warner Brothers’ Poseidon didn’t do much better its first week out of dry dock. The $160 million disaster flick opened in second place (behind week two of M:I-III) with an underwhelming $20 million. That soft box office for both Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon (not to mention total dogs like Lindsay Lohan’s Just My Luck and Goal!) resulted in a 6 percent decline from the same weekend last year. That was the first drop in eight weeks and the lowest total gross at the box office in six months. Can you say “slump”? If not, you’d better start practicing.
Of course, all is not bleak. There are plenty of major films lurking on the horizon. The Da Vinci Code, X-Men: The Last Stand, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Cars and Superman Returns are all guaranteed to break $100 million without working up a sweat. Sleeper hits like Nacho Libre, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Snakes on a Plane could surprise with their niche-audience appeal. Still, with Superman Returns posting a bank-busting budget of $261 million, it makes you wonder just how far $100 million in box office goes these days.