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September 16, 2014
Monday, September 1, 2014

Takeaways from a punch-less box office

Chris Pratt in a scene from Marvel’s hit Guardians Of The Galaxy.
By Jake Coyle
AP Film Writer (*)

The season failed to ignite big hits and sputters to an end 15 percent down from last year

NEW YORK — The movie of the season might have been Marvel’s irreverent hit Guardians of the Galaxy, the top domestic film at the box office. Or it could have been Michael Bay’s sequel-reboot hybrid Transformers: Age of Extinction, the lone movie to even approach US$1 billion globally.

But really, the movie of the season was Star Wars: Episode VII. Even though it’s not due in theatres for more than a year, no other film captured the popcorn-hunger of moviegoers quite like J.J. Abrams’ resurrection of George Lucas’ space opera. As the blockbuster-to-come went into production over the summer, every bit of casting news was eagerly consumed; every hint of its plot was carefully parsed. Nothing can stop it, not even the broken leg of an aged Hans Solo (Harrison Ford), at the mercy of a mechanical door on his trusty Millennium Falcon, no less.

The rabid interest for Star Wars is good news for Hollywood’s 2015. No so much for its 2014. When the season sputters to a close today, the box office — regardless of whatever is added to the coffers by weekend front-runner Guardians — will be about 15 percent down from last year, making it Hollywood’s worst summer in at least seven years.

Why did this season fail to ignite at the box office? Here are five take-aways:

THE MOVIES SIMPLY WEREN’T GOOD ENOUGH. “Maybe we had a lot of titles that looked good on paper,” says Dan Fellman, head of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., whose Adam Sandler comedy Blended and largely acclaimed Tom Cruise action flick Edge of Tomorrow found lukewarm receptions. “The audience didn’t go for it. We have to do better.” Many in Hollywood will often remind that the movies, after all, are ultimately a content-driven business. The self-mocking Guardians, starring Chris Pratt, and the operatic apocalyptic tale Dawn of the Planet of the Apes won the most cheers from moviegoers and critics alike. But many of the top releases, like the Melissa McCarthy road trip Tammy and the flopping neo-noir sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, simply weren’t up to snuff. One likely best picture-nominee did emerge over the summer, though: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a unique coming-of-age film made over 12 years.

SEQUELS DIDN’T POP. Make no mistake about it: sequels still rule. Of the top 10 films at the box office, how many do you think were original? Zero. The most popular original movie — not a sequel, reboot or adaptation of a well-known property — was the Seth Rogen comedy Neighbours, in 11th place. But many sequels also showed growing audience fatigue. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 performed worse than all four previous Spider-Man movies. DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2, also didn’t rally the box office like it was expected to, and Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables 3 signalled the end of an already elderly franchise. Sequels are expected to stomp through the season, but this year none surpassed US$250 million domestically.

THE CENTRE IS SHIFTING. “The studios are starting to realize: let’s take advantage of the soft spots in the calendar,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. Not only that, they’re also increasingly focusing overseas. Transformers was launched not in North America but in China, where it was also partially shot. And it was rewarded for it: the film made more money in China than in North America. Even the season’s cult hit, the futuristic allegory Snowpiercer, was a distinctly international production made in South Korea and largely seen not in theatres but on video-on-demand.

FEWER MOVIES. The season was missing a few of its expected tentpoles that by themselves could have moved the needle on the overall box office. Following Paul Walker’s death, Fast & Furious 7 was postponed until next year. Pixar didn’t have its usual entry. But overall, the studios are largely pulling back on their output, concentrating resources on fewer but bigger films. This has meant slightly less competition and more carefully guarded profit margins. The season may have been down at the movies, but the studios had fewer high-profile bombs than they did last year, a record-setting but volatile summer. (Remember Lone Ranger?) Instead, the studios downshifted for more dependable results. Budgets may look fine in Hollywood, but they don’t look as good for theatre owners.

GET ‘EM NEXT YEAR. “It’ll happen next year,” says Universal distribution head Nikki Rocco. “The business is cyclical.” The hope is that the constant ebb and flow of the movie business will next year tilt back toward buffo box office. The year boasts arguably the two most lucrative franchises in movies: Star Wars and Avengers. When Avengers: Age of Ultron kicks off on May 1, nothing less than record-breaking will be expected. The first Avengers film in 2012 was the highest grossing summer movie ever. It won’t be until December that Episode VII hits theatres, but nothing proves more than Star Wars — a series in which the last three films are almost universally derided — that franchise fervour springs eternal.

@jake_coyle
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