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Summer box office woes: Hollywood’s optimistic, but movie seats are still empty

Evan Agostini

Hollywood’s having a rough year. After a slower-than-usual spring, the film industry kicked off its summer blockbuster season by posting the lowest box office numbers for a Memorial Day Weekend in more than two decades (excluding 2020, when many movie theaters were closed).

There are lots of excuses – delays from six months of writers’ and actors’ strikes, lackluster star-vehicles, superhero fatigue – but as folks in the business sometimes say, “if people really don’t want to come, nothing can stop them.”

People pretty clearly didn’t want to come to the Mad Max prequel Furiosa last weekend, which grossed a less-than-expected $32 million at the domestic box office. Nor to the family film IF the previous week. Audiences haven’t been flocking to much of anything since Dune: Part Two and Godzilla x Kong back in March.

As Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony Vinciquerra said on a call with investors this week, “People got out of the habit of going to the theaters.”

And once the habit is broken, every week that doesn’t have a smash hit, makes it a little harder to jump-start attendance again.

Because of the strikes last year, the first four months of 2024 were always expected to be slow — fewer films in the pipeline, producers waiting for kids to be out of school. Film industry projections were that by year’s end, ticket sales would be down by $1 billion from last year.

That sounded bad enough, but this year’s numbers are already down by $800 million compared to this date in 2023, and we haven’t even reached July, the month when last year’s ticket sales got supercharged by the two-film cultural phenomenon known as Barbenheimer.

Even without the supercharging from the hot-pink comedy Barbie, and the atom-bomb-creator biopic Oppenheimer, last summer would’ve been tough to keep pace with. It had new installments of Mission Impossible, Transformers, Spider-Verse, and Indiana Jones.

On Sony’s investor call this week, Vinciquerra was hopeful that this summer’s slate would bring audiences back, perhaps not quite to pre-pandemic levels, but substantially. So what’s in store? Well, Despicable Me movies regularly reach the $1 billion dollar mark worldwide, and there’s no reason to think this summer’s installment will be an exception.

Pixar has a decent track record when it brings back audience favorites, so Inside Out 2 should do well. And with not one, but two super-heroes, Marvel’s Deadpool & Wolverine should be fine despite an “R” rating that bars teens under 17 without a parent.

There’s also a tornado-chasing Twisters, and a silence-challenged A Quiet Place: Day One.

But you’ll note that every one of those movies is a sequel — fan service, not something new or original that’s likely to re-ignite the habit of moviegoing. So what’s available this summer to light fresh box office fires?

Anyone want to bet on the motorcycle-gang drama Bikeriders? The Scarlett Johansson/Channing Tatum rom-com Fly Me to the Moon? How about the family film Harold and the Purple Crayon? No?

So summer’s likely to slide further behind. Possibly a lot further. Which is why some in the industry talk about extending the season a week past Labor Day, so they can include Tim Burton’s twice-titled sequel Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, which has a shot at a $100 million opening.

The extension won’t wash, of course. Summer in the record books will still officially end on Labor Day.

Meanwhile, the mantra that theater owners have been repeating when they get together in 2024?: “Survive to ‘25.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.