2017 Was the Worst Summer at the Box Office in Over a Decade
This Labor Day weekend was a unique one in Hollywood history, and not in a good way. For the first time since 1992 (A full quarter of a century!), Hollywood didn’t have a major wide release for the holiday. In recent years, late August in movie theaters has begun to look more and more like Earth at the start of WALL-E, but 2017 really took the cake; a quiet month ended without a single big movie in theaters over Labor Day.
It was the final nail in the coffin of a disappointing summer, at least from a box office perspective. According to Bloomberg, the final total for summer 2017 domestic ticket sales was “$3.8 billion ... the first time the season’s tally has dipped below the $4 billion mark since 2006.” In addition, the weekend box office over Labor Day generated “about $99.5 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters from Friday through Monday, the least since 1998.” That means that every single movie in theaters combined made less than Wonder Woman did in its first three days of release, all by itself. (Yikes.)
All in all, domestic box office is down about 6 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. As for the reasons why ComScore’s Paul Dergarabedian told Bloomberg:
Some comedies didn’t perform as expected and there were some great movies that didn’t resonate here, although they did better internationally. All it takes are one or two movies to harm the bottom line in a profound way.
Everything he says is technically true, but we’ve already noted that 2017 was actually a pretty good year for summer movies, and certainly a vast improvement over 2016, which was one of the worst in recent memory. As a result, what I think you’re also seeing is a broader version of what often happens with sequels, whose box office fortunes are often less about their own quality than the quality of their predecessor. Look, for example, at how X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which is crummy, grossed about $45 million more than The Wolverine, which was a much better movie. But people went out for the first film, got burned by it, and stayed away for the second film, even though it was an improvement. (Logan’s word-of-mouth and reviews were good enough to bring people back.)
What I see in these box office numbers is an industry-wide version of that. A roster of unappealing sequels, like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (And Yet Here We Are) and Transformers: The Last Knight (Hopefully) certainly did theaters no favors. But a lot of people felt ripped off by the movies they saw in the summer of 2016 (or by the previous Transformers and Pirates). So with a few notable exceptions this year (like Wonder Woman), a lot of folks just decided to stay away. Trying to convince them to come back next summer is going to be the tough part.