In addition to its truly patriotic purpose, Independence Day weekend is typically a celebration of Hollywood bombast and spectacle, with huge CG blockbusters playing non-stop in air-conditioned multiplexes around the country. It’s often the halfway point in the year where studio executives can look at the grosses and their bottom lines, exhale, uncork a nice bottle, and think, “We’re going to be alright this year.”
Not this year.
In fact, the financial data for July 4-6 was downright terrifying. Not only were grosses down 45 percent from last year’s holiday, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, but it was Hollywood’s worst July 4 weekend since 1999. (And that’s not taking into account inflation. In fact, this was the worst July-holiday weekend for ticket sales since the summer of Dragnet in 1987.) The Melissa McCarthy comedy Tammy scored $32.9 million in its first five days—not shabby for a movie that cost only $20 million to make, but hardly a summer savior and nothing close to her last two hits, Identity Thief and The Heat.
It actually takes a special kind of failure to open in more than 3,000 theaters and gross less than $10 million. No feature had accomplished that dubious distinction yet in 2014—until Deliver Us From Evil and Earth to Echo both nailed it on a holiday weekend. Neither film was expected to be a huge moneymaker, but their underperformance left the field open for Transformers: Age of Extinction to dominate again, even though it, too, now seemed to be moving at half speed (in the U.S., at least). The fourth film in Michael Bay’s franchise, now starring Mark Wahlberg, took home $36.4 million, raising its domestic 10-day total to $174.7 million. To be sure, that’s a lot of dough, and it might end up being this summer’s biggest hit. But it’s trailing the last Transformers film at the same stage of release by nearly 24 percent. (Fortunately for Paramount, Age of Extinction is a bigger hit abroad than its predecessors, especially in China, where it’s on course to become that country’s biggest smash of all time.)
The bloody July 4 weekend now has the 2014 box-office down nearly 4 percent from last year—despite a splendid first four months— and the summer season alone is off by 20 percent compared to 2013, when sequels like Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2 reigned. The summer is being undermined not by colossal bombs—though A Million Ways to Die in the West, Jersey Boys, and Blended didn’t help—but by “singles” and “doubles” instead of “home runs.” No film has emerged as that must-see, repeat-view hit that lifts the entire box-office. Neighbors and 22 Jump Street connected and surpassed expectations, but will not likely reach $200 million. Godzilla was a hit, but not an earth-shaking one. The superhero movies—installments of the Captain America, X-Men, and Spider-Man franchises—all were solid, but nowhere near the scale of last year’s Iron Man sequel. Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow will ultimately be chalked up in the plus column, but just barely; and everyone seemed to love The Fault in Our Stars, making it a modest blockbuster. Any reasonable executive would take a dozen more Maleficents, which cleverly re-shaped Disney mythology as the perfect Angelina Jolie starring vehicle, but if it’s the summer’s biggest hit, you know something’s wrong with the competition.
Audiences and critics frequently complain about the overabundance of sequels and reboots, but the fact remains that they drive the industry. Many of the biggest franchises are set for 2015—The Avengers, Fast & Furious, Jurassic Park, Star Wars—leaving this year a little bare.
What’s most baffling, then, is the box-office reception to How to Train Your Dragon 2, the promising sequel to the animated hit that grossed nearly half a billion dollars around the world in 2010. Despite critical acclaim and positive word of mouth, Dragon 2 is significantly trailing its predecessor at the box office and will likely struggle to reach $200 million. The reception is particularly puzzling since Despicable Me 2 went in the opposite direction last year, opening with $83.5 million and going on to make 46 percent more than its franchise starter.
The summer is not over, and there’s technically plenty of time for fortunes to be reversed and for a surprise smash to rescue the season. After all, as Hollywood sage William Goldman famously said about the industry, “Nobody knows anything.”
But these would’ve been the most terrifying words, if Hollywood had heard them in early May: “Thank goodness we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy coming, because we need it. Boy, do we need it,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, recently told Variety.
The summer of 2014 is now counting on a stealth hit to blossom into a supersized blockbuster, and a ginormous comic-book gamble with a talking tree and wise-cracking raccoon to save its bacon. It could be a chilly winter in Hollywood.