With bigger and more big-name blockbusters on deck, this year’s summer box office prospects are so strong that experts say it is on track to set records.
To the presumed relief of studio executives and multiplex owners, the predictions are light years better than what happened last year — when only a precious few tentpole movies, namely Disney’s “Finding Dory” and “Captain America: Civil War,” were able to keep bringing in strong returns after their opening weekend. The majority of others — particularly “Suicide Squad” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” — saw huge second-frame drop-offs, blamed largely on weak word of mouth.
As a result, instead of seeing another increase over a blockbuster-heavy 2015 season (during which “Jurassic World” did record business), the summer of 2016 failed to beat its predecessor, making $4.42 billion domestically compared to $4.48 billion in 2015.
But analysts expect 2017 to get the summer season back on track — and could even break the $5 billion mark for the first time ever, with four films coming from franchises that have yielded billion-dollar hits — Marvel, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “Transformers” — along with entries from other big moneymakers like “Cars” and the DC Extended Universe.
“This looks like a big one,” ERC analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. “All these titles that are coming out have a much better chance of being a hit than last year’s group. The only one that might not do so well domestically is ‘Cars 3,’ and even then that’s just because Disney has set the bar so high with the rest of their property.”
Like last year, the summer season will launch with a heavily anticipated Marvel film. This year, it’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” which should easily blow by the $773 million worldwide total made by its 2014 predecessor and is aiming to reach the $408 million domestic and $1.15 billion worldwide totals made by “Captain America: Civil War,” which opened last May.
Originally set for a late July release (before the release of the first “Guardians”), the sequel was pushed up to compete in May after the success of the first film launched the likes of Groot and Drax into mainstream pop culture.
After “Guardians,” a slew of franchise heavyweights and festival darlings won’t stop until mid-July. Disney is bookending May with “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which has been praised by early viewers at CinemaCon as a return to form for the Johnny Depp swashbuckler series. Between those two films and Pixar’s “Cars 3” releasing mid-June, Disney could likely increase its number of billion-dollar hits in 2017 to four by the time kids go back to school.
On the far less kid-friendly side of the summer calendar are films like “Alien: Covenant,” (out May 19) and “Baby Driver” (June 28), two offerings that left jaws on the floor at SXSW. “Covenant” is the biggest of the adult-aimed trio, of course, with fans hoping Ridley Scott can return the sci-fi horror franchise to prominence after some polarizing installments like “Alien Resurrection.”
Strong marketing should give “Covenant” a strong opening, but the film will need stellar word-of-mouth to hold up against the likes of “Pirates” in the following weeks. “Baby Driver” will also need favorable buzz to get a boost, as it will go against “Despicable Me 3” at the end of June without the help of franchise name recognition and a young star, Ansel Elgort, who’s unproven in the action genre.
But word of mouth will be even more vital for Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman,” which is trying to avoid the steep drop-offs that its DC Films predecessor “Suicide Squad” suffered after poor reviews from critics and comic book fans. “Squad” suffered a whopping 67 percent drop in its second frame and even saw a Friday to Saturday drop during its opening weekend.
Two films that have much brighter prospects in July are “Spider-Man Homecoming” and “Transformers: The Last Knight.” “Homecoming,” which will see Columbia Pictures dip its toe into the Marvel Cinematic Universe after reaching a partnership with Disney to allow Spidey to be included in “Captain America: Civil War,” should be a far bigger success than the disappointing “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
That Marvel entry made just $544 million worldwide against a $178 million production budget, which didn’t include marketing costs — the pricey tentpole even trailed the Fox period drama “Hidden Figures” at the domestic box office.
“Transformers,” meanwhile, is expected to once again to prove that it is critic-proof. Though domestic totals have declined since the series-high $402 million of 2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen,” overseas returns have picked up the slack, comprising of 78 percent of the $1.1 billion global haul of the 2014 film “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
As the last major franchise release of the summer, “The Last Knight” should enjoy a similar boost from outside the U.S., especially China, which turned out to see “Age of Extinction” to the tune of $320 million.
But after “The Last Knight,” there are few tentpole releases scheduled for the final five weeks of the season. The major releases include the SXSW hit “Atomic Blonde” with Charlize Theron, Sony’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” and Lionsgate’s Ryan Reynolds/Samuel L. Jackson action film “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”
July also features two pricey movies that could be risky summer bets: STX’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” a sci-fi film based on a cult European comic, and “Dunkirk,” a PG-13 WWII film from director Christopher Nolan.
In contrast to these original titles and untested IP, titles like “Blade Runner 2049” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” two sequels to films with a strong cult following, are getting fall releases instead of summer ones, and will soon be followed by the powerhouse holiday trio of “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Justice League,” and the biggest of all, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Though May-August has held strong with a 38 percent share of annual total revenue over the past three years, the slate distribution and the success of this year’s March releases show the trend towards a 52-week release calendar.
Although it’s been three years since the original “Guardians” became the last August-launched blockbuster, the month has launched surprised hits and awards contenders such as “Straight Outta Compton” in 2015 and “Hell or High Water” last year.
“I like to call August the ‘punk rock’ month on the release calendar,” comScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “It’s been this spot where a studio can take a risk on something new and have it go way bigger than expected at the box office once those earlier, bigger titles have had their run.”
EDIT: A previous version of this story labeled Sony/Columbia’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” as a Fox release. This has been corrected.