This week, the movie industry took a look in the mirror and wondered: What's wrong? Am I not pretty?
Business over the Fourth of July weekend stumbled nearly 50 percent downward from last year's holiday. Many factors contributed to this. July 4 fell on a Friday, and in Chicago and elsewhere, lovely, beach-friendly weather discouraged potential patrons from taking in a movie when they could go outside instead.
World Cup fever didn't help. The year 2014 will likely be remembered decades from now as the year America finally got into soccer en masse. Throw in the ever-present competition from other mediums — short- and long-form television, gaming, video-on-demand streaming at home, where nobody gives you a look if you text during a dull scene — and you've got a lot of industry pundits alarmed about audiences taking their hundreds of millions of dollars elsewhere.
There's another factor, I suspect, and we underestimate it at our collective peril. I speak of the movies on the screen.
No other studio wanted to compete against "Transformers: Age of Extinction" last weekend, in the days before (and just after) July 4. The film is likely to make two-thirds of its money overseas, as is the case with most of the year's biggest players. But the U.S. market remains important. "Transformers" scared off all potential competitors. If you weren't in a "Transformers" mood, and you were looking for a different sort of mindless diversion, fireball division, it wasn't really there. Except for "Edge of Tomorrow." Which is a good movie. But it's already on the wane.
"I look at it this way," box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian told me. He's the senior media analyst for Rentrak Corp., which specializes in viewership analysis. "One or two movies can make all the difference in a summer. Last year we had 'Iron Man 3,' 'World War Z,' 'Fast and Furious 6' in the mix." Next year, he predicts, "we'll all be talking about how business is up 15, 20 percent over last year, with 'Ted 2' and 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' and 'Fast and Furious 7.'"
But as Grantland's John Lopez noted this week, the studios' "greatest fear is that we're all collectively exhausted by event movies. What if we were all collectively more excited by the 'Game of Thrones' finale than anything this summer has to offer?"
In an industry ruled by the law of Same Old, Same Old even an unusually good sequel, such as "How to Train Your Dragon 2," has a tough time establishing a must-see foothold. The market is simultaneously crowded and distracted. We'll see how "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" fares this week and next. It deserves to be big. It's a franchise item with some assurance and personality.
The movies, says Dergarabedian, have to be "more compelling simply to compete with all the competing technology."
The recent success of "The Fault in Our Stars" and "Maleficent" asserted the chronically underserved and underestimated appetite for female-centered stories. Neither was a sequel. On the other hand, early July offerings "Tammy" (which will end up being a solid earner, given its modest budget), "Deliver Us From Evil," "Earth to Echo," "Begin Again," aren't franchise items or sequels either. Some will perform better than others. None will be a big summer hit.
"We've seen downturns like this in the past," assures Dergarabedian. "And we've always come back." There's no monstrous folly such as last summer's "The Lone Ranger" to talk about this summer. Familiarity breeds loyalty. This explains why millions turn out for "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" just as they showed up for the much larger success, "Iron Man 3," last year, though few would describe either as special.
But familiarity also breeds contempt. Contempt breeds indifference. And when audiences feel like they've seen something, or someone, once too often, they start consulting their iPhones to check the weather and put off the movies for another week.
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