Thursday, November 27, 2014
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5 takeaways from a punch-less summer box office

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2," starring Andrew Garfield, performed worse than all four previous films in the series.
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2," starring Andrew Garfield, performed worse than all four previous films in the series.
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2," starring Andrew Garfield, performed worse than all four previous films in the series. Gallery: 5 takeaways from a punch-less summer box office

NEW YORK - The movie of the summer might have been Marvel's irreverent hit Guardians of the Galaxy, the top domestic box office draw. Or Michael Bay's sequel-reboot hybrid Transformers: Age of Extinction, the lone movie to even approach $1 billion globally.

But really, the movie of the summer was Star Wars: Episode VII. Though it's not due in theaters 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 carefully parsed.

The rabid interest for Star Wars is good news for Hollywood's 2015. No so much for its 2014. When the season sputtered to a close on Labor Day it was down about 15 percent from last year, making it Hollywood's worst summer in at least seven years. Why? Here are five takeaways:

The Movies Just 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 actioner Edge of Tomorrow met lukewarm response. "The audience didn't go for it. We have to do better."

Many in Hollywood will remind that movies are ultimately content driven. 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 summer's top releases, like the Melissa McCarthy road trip Tammy and the flopping neo-noir sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, just weren't up to snuff. One likely best picture-nominee did emerge, though: Richard Linklater's Boyhood, made over 12 years.

Sequels Didn't Pop. Make no mistake about it: Sequels still rule summer. Of the top 10 grossers, how many were original? Zero. The most popular original - not a sequel, reboot, or adaptation - was Seth Rogen's Neighbors, in 11th place. But many sequels also inspired audience fatigue. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 performed worse than all four previous films in the series. DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon 2, also didn't sell as it was expected to, and Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables 3 signaled the end of an elderly franchise. Sequels should stomp through the summer, but this year none surpassed $250 million domestically.

The Center Is Shifting. Two of the top movies of the year (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The LEGO Movie) came out in spring. And Guardians, the summer's biggest hit, wasn't released until August. "The studios are starting to realize: Let's take advantage of the soft spots in the calendar," says Paul Dergarabedian of box-office tracker Rentrak. Not only that, they're also focusing more overseas. Transformers did not launch in North America but in China, where it was also partially shot. And it was rewarded, making more money there than in North America. Even the summer's cult hit, the futuristic allegory Snowpiercer, was a distinctly international production made in South Korea and largely seen on video-on-demand.

Fewer Movies. Summer was missing some factors that could have moved the needle on overall box office. Following Paul Walker's death, Fast & Furious 7 was postponed until 2015. Pixar didn't have its usual summer entry. Overall, studios are pulling back on output, concentrating on fewer, bigger films. This has meant slightly less summer competition and more carefully guarded profit margins. While box office may have been down, there were fewer high-profile bombs than in 2013, a record-setting but volatile summer. (Remember Lone Ranger?) Instead, they downshifted for more dependable results. Budgets may look fine in Hollywood, but they're not as good for theater 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 ebb and flow will tilt back toward buffo box office. The year boasts two of movies' arguably most lucrative franchises: Avengers and Star Wars. When Avengers: Age of Ultron kicks off on May 1, expect records to crumble. The first Avengers film in 2012 was the highest grossing summer movie ever. Episode VII won't be arrive until December, but nothing proves more than Star Wars that franchise fervor springs eternal.

Jake Coyle Associated Press
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