Why does Hollywood's heat of the summer box office feel so ice cold?
When a Lakers game was well into the fourth quarter, with Magic Johnson and Co. trouncing some hapless opponent, the legendary basketball announcer Chick Hearn would say, "This game's in the refrigerator!" If Chick was around today, he'd probably be saying the same thing about this summer's movie box office, which is so cold right now that you half expect to see people wearing fur coats and hoodies into the theaters.
As my colleague Ben Fritz noted in his Monday box-office story, this past weekend had the smallest total grosses of any May, June or July weekend in more than two years. That follows an awful Memorial Day weekend that earned the dubious distinction (once you adjust for ticket price inflation) of having the lowest total number of tickets sold in 17 years. Total movie attendance for the year is only down nearly 3% over last year's banner season, but if you took "Avatar's" 2010 numbers out of the mix, attendance would be off nearly 13% from 2009.
This weekend saw four new movies open, none of which came close to dislodging "Shrek Forever After" from the No. 1 slot. Universal had hoped its raunchy comedy "Get Him to the Greek" would be another "Hangover," but after seeing its humdrum opening weekend numbers, the studio is now hoping it might emulate "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," a far, far more modest comedy hit from 2008. "Killers," which was the most expensive release in Lionsgate's history, opened at No. 3 with $16.1 million, which by Lionsgate's own benchmarks makes it a potential money loser, especially after receiving a giant splatter of bad reviews.
Fox's family film "Marmaduke," which opened to a weak $11.3 million, actually got worse reviews than "Killers," earning an 11 Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and isn't expected to find any bigger audiences in the coming weeks. Warners' horror film, "Splice," only made $7.5 million, a number that will plunge further downward, since most horror films drop off considerably from their opening weekend performance.
To give you an idea of how bad things were this past weekend, if you put the weekend's numbers up against the same weekend in either 2009 or 2008, "Shrek Forever After" would've finished a distant third. Against similar competition from 2007, it would've finished fourth.
So why the cold shoulder from audiences? This is the time of year when all we hear about are the remakes and sequels and rebooted franchises coming off the studio assembly lines. But the real problem with this summer's box office is that it hasn't spawned a really good original movie, since it's the original movies -- like last year's "The Hangover," "Up" and "The Proposal" -- that bring a broader swath of eager new moviegoers into the theaters. In fact, the movies from the first week of June in 2009 and 2008 that would've finished ahead of "Shrek" were all original films -- "Up" and "The Hangover" from 2009, "Kung Fu Panda" and "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" from 2008.
Ask any box-office expert: If all you had were sequels and remakes, you could pretty easily chart the flow of moviegoers into the theaters. Even though some films would over-perform and some would fail to meet expectations, the end results would be pretty predictable. It's the original films that are the wild cards. Year after year, from "Star Wars" to "The Blair Witch Project," from "The Sixth Sense" to "The Passion of the Christ," from "The Matrix" to "Twilight," they are the surprise hits that really drive the business.
Original movies create a palpable sense of verve and excitement that not only propel themselves to box office glory, but expand the audience for films that follow in their wake. A strikingly original film -- and there is no better example than "Avatar," which almost singlehandedly launched the 3-D revolution earlier this year -- works its magic by injecting good vibes into our moviegoing collective subconscious. Whether its a groundbreaker like "Avatar" or simply a feel-good surprise like "The Blind Side," the buzz generated by an original film can essentially persuade reluctant moviegoers to make an extra trip to the multiplex instead of staying home and watching TV.
Right now, that sense of excitement and high expectation is missing in action. The best way to gauge moviegoer dissatisfaction is by looking at how the current crop of summer movies have performed with CinemaScore, the firm whose poll of opening-night moviegoers around the country has become a leading industry barometer to assess a film's word of mouth. If a movie gets an A, it will likely have a long and prosperous stay in the theaters. But if it gets a B or worse, its prospects are limited, since a B from opening-night audiences is a lot like a C from regular fans. As CinemaScore founder Ed Mintz told me when I interviewed him last year, he often feels as if he's grading on a curve. If a film gets a B from its most hard-core fans (the people who show up to see a film on opening night), then it probably would only earn lukewarm support from less loyal fans who would take more of a wait-and-see approach about making a trip to the theaters to see it.
So it hardly comes as a surprise to discover that the summer's two major hits, "Iron Man 2" and "Shrek Forever After," were the only films to earn an A from CinemaScore. The films that have been box-office disappointments, including "Robin Hood," "Prince of Persia" and "Killers," all got Bs. "Splice," the horror film that opened this past weekend, earned a lowly D, which tells you all you need to know about what kind of grosses it will have next weekend.
Despite the grim news so far this summer, I'm not predicting a box-office recession. It's way too early for that. But if the box office rebounds, it will be for the same reason that it is now slumping. It won't be the sequels that will save the summer, it will be the original movies. In fact, most of the films that have the best buzz right now are original movies, led by Christopher Nolan's "Inception," which is pretty much everybody's pick for the breakout movie of the summer, followed by the Tom Cruise-starring thriller "Knight & Day," the Adam Sandler comedy "Grown Ups" and the Steve Carell comedy "Dinner For Schmucks."
No one's saying that a sequel like "Toy Story 3" or remakes like "The Karate Kid" and "The A-Team" won't be big hits too. But the difference-makers -- the films that will help decide whether this is a miserable summer or just a modestly disappointing one -- are going to be the original movies. There are still a host of other factors impacting the business these days, not the least of which being the steep rise in ticket prices, especially for 3-D movies, which could be keeping marginal moviegoers away from all but the most obvious most-see releases.
(If I was a betting man, I'd be very worried about a 3-D film like "The Last Airbender," which judging from audience reaction to its trailers looks like exactly the kind of film most likely to be hurt by lack of moviegoer willingness to pay top dollar to see it in 3-D.)
But what really counts here isn't so much sticker shock as the shock of the new. Even in the summer, when we're accustomed to expect a never-ending deluge of reworked ideas and retro-fitted story lines, it turns out that it's the movie that delivers something startlingly new that reminds audiences why they started going to the movies in the first place.
Photo: Jonah Hill (left) and Russell Brand (right) run from Sean Combs in the new comedy "Get Him to the Greek." Credit: Glenn Wilson / Universal Pictures