Almost three quarters through this summer's movie schedule, Hollywood ought to
be celebrating. Overall box office receipts are up about 10 percent in what
still could be another record season.
Yet in the midst of this a disturbing trend is developing now. For four weeks in a row, tentpole releases with nine-figure budgets -- "White House Down," "The Lone Ranger," "Pacific Rim," "R.I.P.D." and "Turbo" -- opened to domestic box office that ranged from disappointing to disastrous. The expensive-movie bloodbath was pretty much unprecedented in recent years, especially when you toss in such early-summer failures as "After Earth" and underperformers like "Epic" and "The Hangover Part III."
"What's slowing down the celebration, I think, is it's just due to the high-profile nature of the films and how much they cost," Paul Dergarabedian, president of the Box Office Division at Hollywood.com , said of the month-long panic that gripped the movie business -- and has only been slightly alleviated by this past weekend's debut of "The Wolverine," which made an unimpressive estimated $55 million in North America (the 2009 Wolverine movie opened to $30 million more) but did another, very good $86 million overseas.
The gross numbers look good. Between May 3 and July 21, total North American box office was at $3.3 billion, according to the tracking firm Rentrak Theatrical. That was more than 10 percent ahead of summer 2012's $3 billion at the same point in the season, and this year's more than $300 million increase is about three times larger than any in a five-year upward trend.
However, that 10 percent lead on 2012 had been more like 12 percent through most of May and June, thanks to the front-loading of the schedule with anticipated franchise entries and surprise hits such as "The Great Gatsby" and "Now You See Me."
In addition, if your studio spent around $250 million producing and at least half as much promoting "Lone Ranger," which has made under $100 million domestically and has little hope of recouping the difference overseas, the fact that people are buying tickets to other films is cold comfort.
"A lot of studios have made a point of shifting toward a tentpole schedule. They have openly said that they're producing fewer movies but that many of them have larger budgets," observed Sarah Barry James of the media and communications research and consulting firm SNL Kagan. "Sometimes it works out great. You sometimes have an 'Avengers' or an 'Iron Man 3,' and when you do, it earns a billion dollars and you've got this incredible global franchise that's going to make you money hand over fist. But other times, you've got 'The Lone Ranger' that doesn't hit with audiences and ends up costing you a lot of money."
Though it's not nearly as worrisome as the major bombs, this summer's top films aren't even, well, 2012's. "Iron Man 3" has grossed a mighty $407 million domestically and $1.2 billion worldwide. To no one's surprise, those numbers are well below last summer's Disney/Marvel monster "The Avengers," which has thus far made $623 million here and $1.5 billion everywhere.
Additionally, neither second-place "Despicable Me 2" nor third-ranked "Man of Steel" are likely to end their runs within $100 million of last year's No. 2 film, "The Dark Knight Rises," at $448 million.
Of course, those movies are still reaping millions in profits, as are such solid
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