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Sluggish Fourth of July box office no picnic for Hollywood

What used to be prime summer real estate has become a precarious weekend to release movies.

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Claudette Barius

Fourth of July weekend used to be all about fireworks, barbecues and movies — lots and lots of movies. Will Smith and his own Independence Day led the charge back in 1996, and Michael Bay’s equally explosive Transformers: Dark of the Moon dominated the frame in 2011 — though the box-office record for the holiday actually belongs to 2013, when Despicable Me 2 and The Lone Ranger (!) helped rake in an impressive $229 million.

How times have changed. Neither Channing Tatum’s glorious abs in Magic Mike XXL nor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s returning cyborg in Terminator Genisys could lure audiences away from their beers and burgers this past weekend. This year’s $136 million box-office tally is the second lowest since 2001; if you adjust for inflation, that sum is the second worst on record since 1990. To be fair, 2014’s totals were even more dismal — that holiday weekend, which saw the opening of the Melissa McCarthy comedy Tammy and Screen Gems’ horror flick Deliver Us From Evil, brought in only $132 million — the lowest numbers since 1985, if adjusted for inflation.

“[Fourth of July] is almost like the Super Bowl,” says Warner Bros. president of distribution Dan Fellman, the man behind the release of Magic Mike XXL. “Years ago you could release a counterprogramming film and do okay. Today the Super Bowl is a big party day for everybody and a lousy moviegoing day.”

In some ways, the calendar is to blame. While studios still eagerly seek to release movies over the Fourth of July, only twice in the past 20 years has the biggest movie of the summer opened during the holiday weekend (Independence Day and Transformers: Dark of the Moon). In both of those instances, the Fourth did not fall during the weekend — in 1996, it was on a Thursday; in 2011, a Monday — which gave audiences time to celebrate the patriotic holiday and also make it out to the multiplex. 

“When Fourth of July falls on a Saturday, it’s a very difficult day for the movie industry,” adds Fellman, noting that back in 2009, the last time the holiday landed on a Saturday, the box office generated $162 million. “The holiday itself isn’t more important than ever before. It’s just there’s more planning, more parties and more things people are involved with then there were back in 2009.”

Distributors this year knew that Saturday’s numbers would be down due to all the patriotic distractions, but were hopeful that strong attendance on Friday and Sunday would bolster the weekend’s overall take. Sunday did get a boost with top performer Inside Out earning 10 percent more than Saturday, Jurassic World gaining 5 percent, Terminator Genisys receiving a 7 percent uptick and Magic Mike rebounding a startling 64 percent. The gains still were insufficient to offset Saturday’s poor results.

Then there are the films themselves. Terminator Genisys was predicted to make between $50 and $60 million for the five-day frame but instead pulled in only $42 million. Although Schwarzenegger did a lot of heaving lifting when it came to promoting the film, audiences walked away from the theater unimpressed, giving the film a B- grade, according to surveyor Cinemascore. Critics were even less kind — the movie has only a 27 percent Fresh rating according to review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. 

Magic Mike XXL racked up decent reviews from critics and an A- grade from audiences, but earned only $27.9 million for the five-day period. Its strong rebound Sunday could mean the film’s primary audience, women over 25, might stick around for awhile. But not everyone agrees. “My take on this Fourth of July is the movies sucked — nobody cared,” says a rival distribution chief. “With Magic Mike XXL coming on the heels of Ted 2, it was more about audience rejection to Hollywood taking something that was high concept and original and saying, ‘Just because it did a lot of business we should do it again.’” 

What does all of this mean for next summer? In 2016, the Fourth of July holiday falls on a Monday, which would appear to be good news for Steven Spielberg’s Disney film, The BFG, and Warner Bros.’ adaptation of Tarzan starring Alexander Skarsgard, both of which are set to arrive July 1. Fox, though, isn’t taking any chances with the sequel to Smith’s 1996 hit, Independence Day Resurgence (director Roland Emmerich is returning, Smith isn’t.) The studio just scheduled the film to open the weekend before July 4. 

Seems a pending apocalypse is no match for cook-outs and fireworks. 

Devan Coggan contributed to this report.