With the end of Labor Day, 2017’s summer movie box office came to an end. Like a roller coaster, it was a season of highs and lows with a hell of an exciting finish. And if you were paying attention, it said a lot about how Americans choose to consume their entertainment in today’s multimedia environment.
Purely by the numbers, this year’s summer films were the worst in a decade. Combined, Hollywood’s efforts—from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales on Memorial Day to It on Labor Day—pulled in $3.8 billion. That represents a 14.6 percent drop from last summer, and the lowest box office tally since 2006.
It would be easy for armchair critics (are there really any other kind?) to find fault with Hollywood this year. Surely, you can lay blame for the lame box office at the feet of movie studios pumping out uninspired sequels and overly familiar reboots. And in some sense, that’s true. But there are as many sequels and reboots in this year’s “win” column as in the “lose” column. So what made the difference?
Topping this summer’s money list is Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman, which—on the surface—is just another film in DC’s ongoing superhero movie franchise. And yet, at $410 million, it crushed its immediate predecessor, 2016’s widely mocked Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which pulled in $330.3 million domestically. Director Patty Jenkins’ pitch-perfect take on the iconic heroine garnered glowing reviews (93 percent positive aggregate score on rottentomatoes.com) and busted the myth that audiences won’t go see female action heroes. Dawn of Justice’s Rotten Tomatoes score? A pitiful 27 percent positive. Hmm.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a sequel to 2014’s comic book smash made $389.7 million—$56 million more than the original! So much for sequel and/or superhero fatigue. Sony’s series reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming aimed for a younger audience and came away with $327.6 million. Both superhero films were greeted with positive reviews and solid audience feedback.
The animated threequel Despicable Me 3 looked healthy with $259.9 million—proving that audiences were perfectly happy to dump more money in the coffers of franchises that hold up. In fact, if any film was going to suffer sequel fatigue, it was going to be The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film in the testoserone-
But blockbuster sequels weren’t the only story. As far as original products go, Christopher Nolan’s much-praised war movie Dunkirk came in highest on the charts with $183 million. Though they ended up lower on the overall list, films aimed at underserved audiences realized plenty of profit on microscopic budgets. The black, female cast of Girls Trip earned $113.3 million. The low-budget horror sequel Annabelle: Creation scared up $96 million off a meager $15 million budget. Faith-based drama The Shack sold $57 million worth of tickets. Spanish-language comedy How to Be a Latin Lover made $32 million north of the border. And the epic, Indian-language hit Baahubali 2: The Conclusion took home $20.1 million.
This summer’s most epic fail was British director Guy Ritchie’s much-hyped action fantasy King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. The would-be smash was intended to launch a six-film series. But with a $175 million production budget, it only managed to earn $39 million in the United States, effectively ending star Charlie Hunnam’s brief reign as King. French director Luc Besson similarly dumped $177 million into his overblown sci-fi flick Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The film’s take-home pay? A mere $40.3 million stateside.
Big-budget sequels Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ($172 million), Cars 3 ($152 million), Transformers: The Last Knight ($130.1 million) and Alien: Covenant ($74 million) and all failed to stand up to previous entries. Most of those franchises are in now in danger of dying off. But the negative story of the summer was surely Universal’s pathetic attempt to launch a “Dark Universe” franchise around its classic monsters. The studio gave the Tom Cruise-led The Mummy a $125 million budget and all the hype money could buy—but it earned scathing reviews and an embarrassing $80 million domestic tally. That would tend to prove that Cruise is no longer a box office draw and that poorly conceived money grabs disguised as franchises won’t work in the future. But The Mummy took in a sizable $327.6 million overseas—which is probably enough to keep franchise talk alive at least until The Bride of Frankenstein (starring Javier Bardem) and The Invisible Man (with Johnny Depp) stink up theaters. By the same token, that fifth Transformers bomb took in $474.7 million in foreign box office receipts. Unbalanced numbers like that could mean Hollywood is on the verge of growing uninterested in the American box office. Hope you like Chinese-centric movies, folks.
Weirdly, as summer 2017 limped to a close, it all boiled down to a battle of Stephen King vs. Stephen King. After decades of development, Sony finally released its adaptation of King’s oddball fantasy/