The U.S. movie studios reported ticket sales of $74.7 million last weekend. This may sound impressive, but it actually reflects a sharp 25 percent drop in comparison to the same weekend last year.
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Unsurprisingly, the three most popular films in North America this summer were superhero movies made by the big studios: Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman” topped the chart with a domestic gross of $409 million; Disney’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” was next with $390 million; while Sony’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was a distant third with $324 million.
These figures were published Tuesday in a New York Times article that dealt with declining U.S. revenues in recent years. Among other things, it reported a 16 percent drop in total box office revenue over the summer months (which Hollywood counts as starting on the last Friday in May and ending after the Labor Day weekend).
Overall, box office revenues for the summer were the lowest since 1995. According to the NYT, the big studios are hoping to recover some ground with fall releases like the adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It,” the eagerly anticipated sequel “Blade Runner 2049,” with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, as well as two movies in Hollywood’s favorite genre, the superhero pic – “Justice League,” which sees this summer’s surprise package, Gal Gadot, make a speedy return to movie screens as Wonder Woman, and the third movie in the “Thor” franchise, “Ragnarok.”
It seems that American viewers tended to steer clear of movies that were savaged by critics or scored low on aggregation websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. As a result, star-studded movies with scarily high budgets like “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” “The Mummy,” with Tom Cruise, and “Baywatch,” as well as sequels/prequels to “Alien,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Transformers,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Cars” fared poorly at the box office.
While it may be easy to focus on the flops, it’s more interesting to look at the movies that were surprisingly successful. Take “Dunkirk,” for example. Here was a dark and unconventional World War II drama, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, which took in $178.8 million in the United States – the best box office return for a war movie since Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” in 2001.
“Dunkirk” doesn’t feature traditional narrative storytelling, lacks scenes of bravery or redemption, and features protagonists who remain mysterious and quiet figures due to Nolan’s insistence on avoiding flashbacks. Is the success of such a film testimony to Nolan becoming a sufficiently known and respected director who is capable of attracting viewers to movie theaters?
If Nolan managed to draw viewers to his dark, melancholic movie, how come the much-discussed historical drama “Detroit,” by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, flopped? (Her previous movies, “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” garnered awards but weren’t box office hits, either.)
It may be that “Detroit,” with a budget of $55 million but box office revenues of less than $20 million, highlights the fact that most ticket buyers still identify the summer season as a time of escapism. Even though it deals with World War II, “Dunkirk” still fits the escapist bill due to its impressive production values, large-scale battle scenes and classic Hollywood score by Hans Zimmer.
There’s an irony in the fact that, at a time when the U.S. president declares war on immigrants and calls to make America the greatest country again, the star who did the most to save Hollywood’s profit margins is an Israeli. Thanks to Gadot and her Wonder Woman character, Warner Bros. raked in over $800 million worldwide from the superhero pic. The film is still showing in many countries and may yet overtake last year’s top-grossing film, “Star Wars: Rogue One,” which took over $1 billion worldwide.
Gadot deserves her Hollywood success and it’s hard not to take delight when an Israeli actor becomes an international success. However, “Wonder Woman” illustrates the deep creative crisis Hollywood is experiencing. This is a confused comic book film, lengthy to the point of being boring, with a generally ridiculous and incredulous plot. It is also a terribly sexist and chauvinistic film in the guise of female empowerment, even though it was directed by a female in Patty Jenkins. More than anything, and through no fault of Gadot’s, it is a lazy film in terms of its script, doing little to evoke emotion, surprise or interest.
The fact that this was the cherry on the cake at the box office suggests that future summers will be no less arid, focusing yet again on sequels, remakes and endless attempts to squeeze dry old lemons such as Disney classics or Marvel and DC comic book franchises.
At a time when viewers prefer to consume high-quality TV series or wait until movies become available for streaming or downloading, Hollywood insists on sticking to brand names, reluctant to invest in movies that aren’t based on best sellers (such as King’s “It”), comics or stories based on true stories.
Along with the constant rise in ticket prices (increasing from $13 to $16 in New York over the last five years, hitting as much as $20 for 3-D or IMAX movies), the constant improvement in the quality of home screening technology and the unprecedented number of high-quality TV series, it seems this summer will not be the last one in which Hollywood reports declining revenues. And after a few years like that, even a beautiful Amazon princess will find it difficult to save the studios.