Gloomy summer for Hollywood?

LOS ANGELES • Even Wonder Woman may not be able to save the summer for Hollywood.

The acclaimed superhero movie is only the second big hit (after Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2) in an otherwise dismal season for the film industry, which typically counts on May to early September for about 40 per cent of the year's revenue.

A rash of box-office disappointments, starting with King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, has continued with Baywatch and The Mummy.

Even if the rest of this season's films perform in line with estimates, this summer is likely to just edge out 2014's - the worst summer for blockbuster films since 1976, according to Mr Doug Creutz, a Cowen & Co analyst.

The question for the industry is whether this is just a streak of bad luck, with some less-than-stellar films, or a more troubling omen.

"What is amazing is that everyone thought, including chief executives, that 2017 was going to be this great year," said Mr Matthew Harrigan, an analyst at Wunderlich Securities.

Now, it looks like the first quarter, when box-office sales rose 11 per cent from a year earlier, with hits such as Beauty And The Beast and The Fate Of The Furious, might have been the peak for the year, he added.

Cinema stocks are suffering because of the dismal box-office results. AMC Entertainment Holdings, the biggest cinema chain in the world, is down 18 per cent over the past month.

Imax, which depends on blockbuster, special effects-driven films, has dropped 21 per cent.

The movie industry has been able to grow over the past few years, even with stagnant attendance, by charging higher ticket prices and focusing on big "event" films that draw viewers out of their homes and away from their phone screens.

Now, executives have begun to acknowledge that the strategy may not be sustainable. Studios and cinemas have been discussing ways to release films on home video sooner, after their theatrical debuts.

In the meantime, some studios may manage to mitigate the dismal ticket sales at home.

Some films that have been duds in North America, such as the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean edition (Dead Men Tell No Tales), made up for their ugly showings by bringing in audiences overseas.

And there are movies later this summer, such as Spider-Man: Homecoming and Despicable Me 3, that may resonate with audiences.

But the studios have dug a pretty deep hole. The first 28 days of the summer season - before the release of Wonder Woman - were the worst in nine years, according to ComScore. While Wonder Woman was critically acclaimed, other films received mostly negative reviews, Mr Creutz said. The first eight wide-release movies of the season will fall US$300 million (S$415 million) short of projections for the North American market, he added.

As some blockbuster films fall short, the market for smaller movies is also getting squeezed, he said.

Baywatch, Snatched and Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul underperformed his estimates by more than 50 per cent.

Concentration at the box office, with fewer movies sharing a majority of the spoils, has intensified.

The top 10 grossing films last year accounted for 33.9 per cent of the total American box office earned by all 2016 releases, slightly below the record of 36.6 per cent set in 2015.

In contrast, the average contribution for the top 10 from 2011 to 2014 was 27.8 per cent.

The best solution for the industry is probably just to make better movies, said Mr Harrigan.

Two underperforming studios, Paramount and Sony, have brought in new leadership this year, which may improve their fortunes, he said.

"The movie business is not a zero-sum game," he said. "If you get good movies, the box office will improve."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2017, with the headline 'Gloomy summer for Hollywood?'. Print Edition | Subscribe