What if they gave a July 4th party and nobody came? That's what Hollywood is wondering in the wake of an Independence Day weekend that had moviegoers expressing their Declaration of Indifference — by boycotting the multiplexes.
The three-day skein totaled a meager $131.9 million for all films, nearly $100 million below the $229.8 million for the same period last year, and the lowest figure for the any weekend of the summer movie season (which began May 2). The top film, the holdover Transformers: Age of Extinction, took in just $37 million — the lowest winning total for the first weekend in July since 2001. The biggest new entry, the Melissa McCarthy comedy Tammy, pulled in $21.6 million, more than $7 million less than last year's runner-up, The Lone Ranger. (Remember what a flop that was supposed to be?) Last year on Independence weekend, eight movies earned at least $10 million. This time, only Trans4mers and Tammy did.
It's been a slow summer at the movies, down more than 15% from last year, but the past weekend's disaster sent industry solons scurrying for reasons (and for cover). We have seven explanations for the Dearth of July. But first, three things that don't deserve the blame.
a. Don't blame the Friday holiday. "The primary culprit was the calendar," wrote Todd Cunningham of The Wrap. "Fridays are typically strong nights, but with the nation celebrating Independence Day this was a dud..." To rate this weekend against others, you must look back to recent years when July 4th fell on a Friday. And each time, new movies did just fine. In 2008, Will Smith's Hancock earned $62.6 million ($69.4 million in real dollars). In 2003, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines took in $44 million ($58 million today). In 1997, Smith reigned in Men in Black, which registered $50.1 million ($87 million today). And in those years, the second-ranked movies — all in their second weeks — sold considerably more tickets than Tammy did this time.
b. Don't blame the World Cup. The quadrennial competition of what everyone else calls "football," and most American call "boring," might have siphoned some viewers away from theater attendance — if the matches weren't all played in the afternoon on the East Coast and mid-morning in the West. And with the U.S. team sent home after last Tuesday's loss to Belgium, fans were free to attend the movies.
c. Don't blame Hurricane Arthur. The season's first hurricane barreled up the Atlantic coast, sparking the usual shots of TV weather reporters in high shore winds, but soon lost steam. People should have been out celebrating on July 4th — at some patriotic pyrotechnics and at a movie.
So when customers stay away in droves on a crucial summer weekend, someone or something must be at fault. On whom can we pin the rap?
1. Blame Pixar. The reigning CGI animation studio had slated Bob Peterson's prehistoric family fantasy The Good Dinosaur for a May 30, 2014 release, virtually guaranteeing the summer with a $200-million domestic hit and at least $500 million worldwide. But last August, Pixar canned Peterson (who joined the studio in 1994 and codirected the 2009 hit Up) and pushed the release date back to Nov. 25, 2015. For the first year since 2005, the studio would not have a new feature in theaters. (And except for DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon 2, which in its sixth week yet to reach $300-million worldwide, the summer has no big animated features. Too bad: Universal's Despicable Me 2 opened to a cunning $83.5 million this weekend last year, on its way to $368 million domestic and almost a billion dollars worldwide.)
2. Blame the other studios that didn't instantly take over July 4th. To fill the late-May slot, Pixar's parent Disney chose its live-action fantasy Maleficent, which opened to $69.4 million and has earned a magical $630 million globally. The Angelina Jolie movie's original release date: July 2. If The Good Dinosaur had opened as scheduled, the news now would be about Maleficent's magnificent box-office weekend. What's odd is that no studio with a big action film stepped into the July 4th vacuum. Warner Bros. had the Tom Cruise Edge of Tomorrow, which got depantsed a month ago by the cancer teens of The Fault in Our Stars. If Warners had shifted Cruise to this weekend, as the only new behemoth around, Edge might be on its way to nearly matching its robust total in foreign markets ($248.6 million). Instead, it's languishing at $90 million domestic.
3. Blame toy-bot overload. Michael Bay's first three Transformers movies saturated the Independence Week theaters in 2007, 2009 and 2011, raking in the loot as if Optimus Prime had been magnetized to attract all available cash. Transformers: Age of Extinction, with actual movie icon Mark Wahlberg replacing former faux-star Shia LaBeouf, opened well in late June, earning $100 million, give or take, in its first three days. But this past weekend, despite zero competition in the action-fantasy genre, the movie fell 63% to $37 million. If you wanted to see Trans4mers, chances are you've already seen it and aren't going back.
After 10 days, the movie's domestic total is $174.7 million, which sounds like a lot until you check it against the 10-day totals of its predecessors: $228 million for T3, $269 million for T2 and $187 million for the first Transformers, back when ticket prices were far lower and no 3-D or IMAX surcharges inflated the revenue. For prime optimism, Paramount must look abroad, where Trans4mers has already earned $400 million, including $212.8 million in China. Yep, the take from the People's Republic is nearly $50 million more than in North America. That's both financially encouraging and, for a country that is used to being No. 1, at least in movie grosses, kind of depressing. America is mighty, but it's no China.
4. Blame Melissa McCarthy. After an Oscar-nominated splash as a Bridesmaids potty-pooper, and costarring roles with Justin Bateman in Identity Thief and Sandra Bullock in The Heat, the soubrette had her chance to prove her marquee allure in a solo comedy. But Tammy — which McCarthy cowrote with her husband, director Paul Falcone — was the wrong project. Forget that it's an awful movie, or try to. This story of a frowsy, rejected wife who goes on a road trip with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon) is failing because it has no heroine for the audience to root for and no huge stake for her to risk. The McCarthy persona in her earlier hits is an abrasive creature who brings chaos to the lives of sympathetic figures. In Tammy, the creature is front and center, and viewers are expected to embrace a character they would flee from in real life.
5. Blame genre exhaustion. Last year, the home-invasion thriller The Purge won an early-June weekend with $34.1 million, and six weeks later the possessed-woman drama The Conjuring earned $41.9 million, on its way to an amazing $137.4-million domestic haul. The message seemed clear: fright films needn't be released only in cold weather. But horror hasn't clicked in 2014. In February, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a spinoff of the once-dynamite series, struggled to an $18.3-million first weekend and a $32.5-million total, and no other scare movie has come near those modest totals. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer's supernatural drama Deliver Us from Evil had a budget of $30 million (high for this sort of film) and, over the weekend, earned just $9.7 million. This genre needs more than an exorcism; it needs a time-out, until the fan base revives itself.
6. Blame moms. They didn't take their kids to see the first wide-release family film in weeks: Earth to Echo, an E.T. derivative (three boys find a lonely alien) employing the tired found-footage technique. Disney produced the picture, then dropped it. For parents, the Disney brand might have been a Seal of Approval, and a marketing brand. Instead, Relativity released Echo, and flailed to a $8.4-million weekend. The LEGO Movie and Maleficent are the only family-angled movies this year to earn at least $150 million.
7. Blame Obama. Why not? The President gets the finger (sometimes just the middle one) pointed at him for all the country's woes. Dinesh D'Souza detected a virulent anticolonialism in the Commander-in-Chief in the 2012 documentary 2016 Obama's America, which marshaled right-wing viewers in that election year to the tune of $33.4 million — the second highest gross for any political docs (though way behind the $119.2 million cadged by Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004). For this Independence Day, D'Souza and co-director John Sullivan released America, which argues that the nation is a force for good and that, whatever leftie professors say about slavery and the Trail of Tears, we should be proud patriots.
Playing in 1,105 theaters, the movie took in $2.7 million, less than half the $6.5 million earned by 2016 in fewer houses. Somebody said that D'Souza should have worked the President's name into the title, to ensure good business with true believers — because they don't love America as much as they hate Obama. That's just one more way moviemakers failed their audiences on what should have been one of the year's biggest weekends.