How Warner Bros. Defied the August Box Office Slump and Found Hits Without DC

WB didn’t need Wonder Woman to come to the rescue this summer when they had “Crazy Rich Asians” and a massive shark

Warner Bros Summer

So far this year, Warner Bros. has not sent in any of their heavyweight franchises to theaters, and won’t do so until “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” and “Aquaman” come out during the holiday season. But it turns out that they didn’t need those to have a great summer.

On Wednesday, WB hit $1 billion in annual domestic gross for the 18th consecutive year, even though it has yet to release a film this year with a domestic total of over $150 million. Instead, the studio has released three films — “Ocean’s 8,” “The Meg,” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” which have all grossed well over $100 million despite posting opening weekends of less than $50 million. By comparison, more than a third of Universal’s current domestic total of $1.08 billion came from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.”

Even more impressive, “The Meg” and “Crazy Rich Asians” have made their fortunes in August, a month where only a precious few non-franchise films like “Straight Outta Compton” have been able to make big bucks in recent years. Greg Foster, CEO of IMAX Entertainment, credits WB for not being afraid to take some risks and for engineering marketing campaigns that put the film in front of moviegoers that would be most intrigued.

“When you put a film out, there’s three things you have to check off,” said Foster. “Quality — does the movie work? — marketability, and the release pattern. WB has been 3-for-3 on all of its major releases this summer. They have such a great understanding of what each of these movies need to work.”

Through their distribution deals with New Line and Village Roadshow, WB has a large list of releases that combined cast a wide net over the many facets of the moviegoing populace. They’ve particularly found success with New Line’s horror films, which include the “Conjuring” franchise and last year’s smash hit remake of “It,” but that general approach to marketing was also used for this year’s summer offerings, reaching out to “Sharknado” lovers who might be interested in “The Meg” or Asian moviegoers anxious to finally see themselves represented in a film like “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“The way WB has promoted the diversity of these films has been really commendable,” said Foster. “Having an all-female or all-Asian cast was a big part of the hype surrounding ‘Ocean’s 8’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ and WB played into that, but not so much that it didn’t let the sheer quality of those two films speak for itself.”

And though “The Meg” and “Asians” are wildly different films, WB found that releasing them a week apart in the final month of summer offered a great opportunity to get separation from the tentpole competition that came in previous months.

WB’s distribution heads Jeff Goldstein and Tom Molter noted that in the U.S., studios keep major releases away from August because kids are starting to head back to school and parents are more busy, but believed that their films had enough of a built-in audience that could drive both a strong opening and the word of mouth needed to give them legs.

“If you can get those legs built, then you have two or three weekends, including Labor Day, where that success from opening weekend can be sustained,” Goldstein said.

“Credit to Blair Rich and her marketing team for coming up with a great publicity campaign for both films, especially with ‘Asians’ when it comes to promoting the film to a wider audience,” he added.

Foster notes that while Warner Bros. didn’t have a “Wonder Woman”-sized presence on this year’s summer charts, they still had an important role to play in the $4.8 billion cumulative total earned this season.

“The movie ecosystem can’t live on just the billion-dollar hit. We also need those films that post singles and doubles but also appeal to other interests,” he said. “Those films gave a long-lasting boost to movie theaters this summer, even though none of them had an opening weekend of over $50 million.”

“Warner Bros. especially contributed with those sorts of films, setting them up for release when there was peak interest in each of those titles, and that provided movie theaters with a steady stream of revenue rather than just waiting for the next big tentpole to kick business up again.”

What’s most impressive, perhaps, is the drop (or lack thereof) that both “The Meg” and “Crazy Rich Asians” saw from weekend to weekend. “The Meg,” for example, saw a 53.4 percent drop from weekend one to weekend two, but rebounded with only a 39.4 percent drop from the second to third weekend. Then, it had only a 17 percent drop but actually saw a 7.8 percent increase, bringing its total to $468 million worldwide.

Similarly, “Crazy Rich Asians” only witnessed a 6.4 percent drop from weekend one to weekend two, and the second drop also was strikingly low at 11.5 percent. However, from weekend three to four, “Crazy Rich” went up in weekend gross by 15.2 percent.

Warner Bros.’ success will continue with this weekend’s “The Nun,” which is expected to open in the high $40 million range, with the most optimistic projections reaching $52 million.  With that,  it is in position to set a franchise opening record for the “Conjuring” films, held by the first “Conjuring” with $41.8 million in 2013.

Of course, WB struck gold last year on the same release weekend with the remake of Stephen King’s “It,” which set a September box office opening weekend record with $123 million and became the highest grossing horror film of all-time with $700 million worldwide. And WB intends to keep releasing tentpole horror films on the same first weekend of September.

“Our secret sauce is taking risks,” Goldstein said. “We’re going to sew it up over the next few years. We’ve seen great success, which has been really encouraging to us.”