Labor Day weekend 2016 was bad.
If you discount last summer’s holiday weekend that saw War Room take the weekend crown, you have to go all the way back to 2005 to find a Labor Day weekend that did worse than this year’s abysmal $123 million cumulative total. The three-day total, which doesn’t take the actual Monday off into account, was just $96.4 million, the second lowest grossing three-day of the year only to Feb. 5 weekend’s $95.5 million, and isn’t likely to be undercut by even Halloween weekend, which usually brings up the caboose. The forecasts were so weak, Disney saw it as an opportunity to re-release Finding Dory, because that movie needed more padding on its totals.
This comes on the heels of what was generally a rebound from 2015, which was itself called a rebound from 2014, even though it really wasn’t. But 2016 was actually decent for movies. Instead of being propped up by one movie’s improbable success, comparing it weekend-to-weekend to 2015, it was almost always an improvement.
The problem is, the most talked-about movies of this summer cost way, way too much, and there wasn’t enough room for them all. There wasn’t a lot of variance in the box office actuals this year — most major releases opened at $40-60 million, then they dropped off a cliff because the next big thing was just a week away, waiting to cannibalize that audience. And since more than a third of the movies on this list cost more than $100 million to make, that makes for some pretty major gaps. So many movies this summer, you didn’t need to look at the Rotten Tomatoes score, you didn’t need to look at Metacritic, you didn’t need to look at IMDB or Fandango traffic, you could just take one look at the budget and know immediately that it wasn’t going to work out.
The movies that weren’t talked about, on the flipside, generally cost so little that they made insane profits. Smaller movies opened anywhere from $10-30 million and held fairly steady, as they were generally niche pieces that didn’t have direct competition breathing down their necks, and, again generally speaking, the budgets were small enough that those numbers were OK.
To make matters worse, you can watch a lot of these same movies and not really know where all that money went. When you pay top dollar for a movie, generally what you’re paying for is high-quality visuals, but a lot of these movies have absolutely awful special effects. X-Men: Apocalypse, Warcraft and Ghostbusters, each of which lean heavily on laughably cheap CGI, stand out as the biggest offenders, but then you have Legend of Tarzan and Star Trek Beyond, which didn’t necessarily have bad visuals, but also didn’t have nearly the set pieces to justify their expense. The cheapest of those five is Ghostbusters at a whopping $144 million.
Then you have something like Lights Out, which came out a week later and looks fantastic for just $4.9 million. The prettiest movie on this list, Nerve, cost just $20 million. The year as a whole has featured several sparkling visual movies, highlights being The Witch, The Lobster and The Neon Demon, which cost $3 million, $4.5 million and $7 million respectively. So, not only are these massively budgeted blockbusters not economically viable, you also aren’t getting any bang for those bucks artistically. Spending that money, you’d at least hope you could say you’re bringing something spectacular to the screen that wouldn’t be possible without such extravagant expense, but that’s the exact opposite of the truth.
Hollywood is scrambling for answers, but I’ve got it all figured out — cut costs. Despite the seemingly endless bevy of flops, that’s all that was necessary to succeed this summer. Most movies didn’t do it.
All numbers are current as of Sept. 6 and from boxofficemojo.com, except for some budget numbers they just couldn’t be bothered for and had to be pulled from Wikipedia. They will be presented in this format — budget/domestic gross/worldwide gross. The numbers should get dramatically bigger moving left to right, but, as we’ll see, most of the time they do not. Let’s get started.
Memorial Day, May 27
X-Men: Apocalypse — $178 million budget/$155.4 million domestic/$542.9 million worldwide
Summer kicked off with the leader of a parade of movies that just cost way, way too much. Unlike some of the others on this list, though, Apocalypse was saved by the foreign box office, where it made 71 percent of its money, and it was actually within reason to think it would hit its break-even point of $445 million — it’s the fourth of nine X-men movies to hit that number, Deadpool included. However, only two of seven — The Last Stand and Days of Future Past — had hit it when production started, so it’s still pretty out there. It was a major disappointment critically and stateside. All that money was clearly not on the screen.
Alice Through the Looking Glass — $170 million budget/$77 million domestic/$295.1 million worldwide
And already, we’ve got our first real mistake. Alice in Wonderland was a worldwide phenomenon, just the eighth movie ever to break $1 billion worldwide, and it’s spawned an impressive progeny — Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficent and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast remake all owe their green lights to Alice’s runaway success. But that was five years ago. The excitement was gone — despite its success, it wasn’t a well-liked movie in the first place. Tim Burton accepted a fat check so they could call him a producer before crawling back inside his Harry Potter knockoff. Johnny Depp clearly didn’t want to be there. And while other remakes benefited from sweeping marketing campaigns, Through the Looking Glass was oddly quiet. The end result was a movie that opened at no. 5 with no faint hope of recouping its budget. While not as bad as X-Men, this one also didn’t look as expensive as it was.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows — $135 million/$82 million/$244.4 million
The hits keep coming. This movie was in a similar position as Alice — budgeted based on a financially successful but mostly forgotten predecessor. To make things worse, it and Apocalypse cannibalized each other, a fate that would become common as the summer moved along. It was poorly reviewed and didn’t hold well.
Me Before You — $20 million/$56.2 million/$197.3 million
The first major success of the summer, and it couldn’t have happened to a less deserving movie. This was a putrid, by-the-numbers Nicholas Sparks knockoff which genuinely advocates suicide, a controversy that may actually have helped it. With a clear target audience, good marketing and great placement as counter-programming, it would have found an audience anyway.
The Conjuring 2 — $40 million/$102.5 million/$319.5 million
Hey, look! A sequel that didn’t spend its predecessor’s entire earnings on dogshit CGI just because they were there! Well, it did exactly double the first movie’s budget, but you get the point. Conjuring 2 had a significant marketing campaign, took few risks following up a well-liked movie and didn’t call for a mortgage on the entire studio. This kind of non-ridiculous decision making is what should be the norm, but here we are.
Now You See Me 2 — $90 million/$65.1 million/$324 million
Another sequel, another eye-popping budget, another critical and domestic failure. This movie was one of a couple, however, that took the Transformers 4 route of being made primarily for Chinese viewers. It was set primarily in China and boasted director John M. Chu, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from China. The movie made an astonishing 80 percent of its money abroad.
Warcraft — $160 million/$47.2 million/$433.5 million
The real Chinese and international winner of the week, though, was Warcraft. The putrid film made almost 90 percent of its money overseas. The Chinese were particularly fascinated with it — the country is responsible for more than half of its gross and gave it several records. This is probably due at least in part to the country’s unique love affair with the online game — it’s popular everywhere, but China is a special case.
Finding Dory — $200 million/$482.5 million/$944 million
The contradiction. The summer’s most expensive movie was also by far its most successful, but as an animated talking animals movie it was also one of the only ones making a truly safe bet. While it may be expensive, Pixar has a history of making good on essentially blank checks, and they put a whole hell of a lot of effort into that octopus. Following up a beloved classic and the only real kids fair until July, Finding Dory would hold at no. 1 for three weeks, including over Independence Day weekend.
Central Intelligence — $50 million/$127.4 million/$214.2 million
Despite opening against Dory, Central Intelligence’s decent reception, massively popular twin stars and pull with black audiences meant it held well and had a satisfactory run.
Independence Day: Resurgence — $165 million/$103 million/$383.2 million
And another sequel to a movie people weren’t excited about anymore. That’s oversimplifying. Independence Day is still mostly well-remembered, though it’s become the butt of frequent jokes as Hollywood has coalesced around it. The real problem with this new movie was it released behind Finding Dory and the critical reception was frigid. The movie probably would have done fine in a less crowded environment.
The Shallows — $17 million/$54.8 million/$99 million
After a major embarrassment last summer in Pixels and another one on the way with Ghostbusters, this was one of Sony’s small-budget saving graces. The movie was well-reviewed and cost little enough that its modest earnings constitute a big success.
The Legend of Tarzan — $180 million/$126 million/$354.7 million
The poster-child for how the summer went for most movies. It opened at a respectable $46.6 million behind the titanic Pixar hit over Independence day weekend, a number that should have been plenty for any movie. But this one, somehow, cost $180 million. What were they thinking? That this property, which has been adapted for the big screen dozens of times and been successful exactly once, would miraculously become the hit of the summer? This movie would have to pull in $450 million, $1.8 million more than the ’99 version and a mark that just four movies hit this summer, just to break even. It never stood a chance.
The BFG — $140 million/$54.8 million/$160.8 million
This one was also a failure the second it came out of the boardroom, but it did significantly worse than Tarzan. Backed up by a desolate marketing campaign and opening under Dory, a far superior movie eating up the same audience, The BFG could have cost half as much as it did and still not been competitive.
The Purge: Election Year — $10 million/$79 million/$109.1 million
The very same weekend, though, we get the poster-child for this year’s profitable underbelly. The Purge’s bizarre legend just continues to grow. The series’ third movie and third monster low-budget success in four years, this movie actually opened ahead of The BFG and was expected to open ahead of Tarzan. People love these movies. They’ve taken American culture by storm in a way that completely defies not only the movies budgets, but also their profits — the first Purge movie came in at no. 55 on the domestic chart in 2013 behind such classics as The Croods and We’re the Millers and adjacent to the Total Recall remake and the sequel to the Cars spinoff that took the no. 55 slots from 2012 and 2014, respectively. It really doesn’t add up for these movies to be as popular as they are. Whatever the answer to that particular mystery is, The Purge is the only kind of safe investment this year that isn’t wrapped up in talking animals — a low-budget genre piece. We’ll see a lot more of this as the summer progresses.
The Secret Life of Pets — $75 million/$359.6 million/$762.6 million
The summer’s lesser talking animals movie was its second biggest hit, and it held fantastically — almost two months later, it’s still making money. A boring, low-quality affair, it goes mostly to show exactly how safe a bet these movies are — as long as they’re spread out, of course.
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates — $33 million/$45.8 million/$70.8 million
I don’t know how much was just to convince Anna Kendrick to show her face and how much was on cocaine, but this movie cost way, way more than it should have. It should be another example of micro-budget genre pieces finding success, but that budget isn’t micro, and it prevents this movie from being a success.
Ghostbusters — $144 million/$126.6 million/$219.3 million
The Jane to the summer’s Tarzan. Forget the fetid, still-oozing wound in American culture this movie became — more on that later — this is another one that was absolutely never going to turn out well. The controversy-ridden movie would have had to beat the classic it was based on, a classic that was never popular outside the U.S., by more than $60 million just to break even. Sexism and feminism be damned, this thing was dead well before arrival.
Ice Age: Collision Course — $105 million/$62.9 million/$389.5 million
This movie is kind of a parenthetical, but it’s a big one. It made 84 percent of its money abroad, and that’s probably what producers had in mind — it’s the third Ice Age movie to make at least 70 percent of its money overseas.
Star Trek Beyond — $185 million/$155.1 million/$285.6 million
Another mild disaster. Again, setting aside the train wreck that this movie was, it just cost way too much. Based on Star Trek Into Darkness’ earnings it might have made a bit of sense, but based on Star Trek Into Darkness’ lukewarm reception and controversy and the general apathy toward Star Trek in the wake of new and ever-renewing Star Wars, no, it didn’t make a lot of sense. Even with all that cash, they couldn’t afford a lighting crew.
Lights Out — $4.9 million/$66.4 million/$137.3 million
This movie was dirt cheap, looked great, was excellent, got excellent word-of-mouth and is going to show up well in the black on everyone’s ledger.
Nerve — $20 million/$37.8 million/$54.1 million
It really burns me that this movie didn’t do better. It’s everything we’ve been asking for from Hollywood, with bold colors, original ideas and a primarily female creative team. Things have mostly trended the direction they deserve to go this summer, but this movie not being the smash hit it should have been bodes poorly for cinema to really advance.
Jason Bourne — $120 million/$156.2 million/$380.2 million
Jason Bourne continues a set of four weekends with real blue-blooded blockbusters releasing, and they all cannibalized each other. Bourne was the smallest investment — they saved a ton on camera stands — and it did the best internationally of the first three, as one would expect.
Bad Moms — $20 million/$103.6 million/$141.6 million
This movie is doing really, really well, and the only conceivable reasons are good word of mouth and lack of direct competition. It certainly isn’t the runaway popularity of Mila Kunis. The movie has dropped more than 30 percent weekend to weekend just twice, and continues to go strong into September.
Suicide Squad — $175 million/$300.1 million/$678.2 million
The post-production story of this movie is one of the most convoluted and asinine in cinematic history. The reshoots were the big news after Batman v. Superman was panned in March, but the re-edits have been the story ever since. A trailer company getting final cut, versions with and without the Joker’s abuse of Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie’s short shorts actually being added in post — this movie went from a solid pitch from writer/director David Ayer to a catastrophic mess. But, though the tone of the marketing was inconsistent, it kept selling one aesthetic, and as many things as the movie didn’t really deliver on, it delivered on that aesthetic. It made its money back, but is still an ill omen for Warner Bros.
Sausage Party — $19 million/$89.6 million/$103.6 million
Another gem for Sony. An R-rated animated movie is a serious risk at any budget, but this movie was well-received and Seth Rogen’s good-sized built-in audience came out for it.
Pete’s Dragon — $65 million/$66.3 million/$95.2 million
This is where the August doldrums really started to show up. Pete’s Dragon was actually fourth over Labor Day weekend and hasn’t dropped lower than sixth since its release, but summer kind of came to a halt after Suicide Squad came out. Pete’s Dragon could have been a hit as a kid’s movie, but it didn’t look like a kid’s movie, and the 1977 original doesn’t have a ton of nostalgia going for it.
War Dogs — $40 million/$36.6 million/$59.2 million
As the summer draws to a close, we see the entire story play out on a micro level. All three of these movies opened within $3 million of each other, but it meant wildly different things for each one based on their budgets. They all wound up as failures anyway, because there just wasn’t enough cash to go around at this point.
Kubo and the Two Strings — $60 million/$36.6 million/$42.3 million
Laika’s first flop. The movie received critical adulation, but back-to-school apathy had already set in. Much like Pete’s Dragon, this movie is still at no. 3 and never fell below no. 4, where it opened, but those were during the worst overall weeks of the year. This also didn’t look like the standard kid’s movie that’s proved itself such a safe bet this summer.
Ben-Hur — $100 million/$24.5 million/$54.9 million
This is the one that grabbed all the headlines. More people can probably tell you how bad it’s doing than saw the movie. Look at those numbers! Initially scheduled for a late July release, they bumped this back to mid-August planning to take advantage of the Olympics with a strong advertising push, which is a sound idea and probably would have worked out better if the movie didn’t look so awful. Word of mouth was also a huge problem once it did come out.
Don’t Breathe — $9.9 million/$55.1 million/$63.7 million
Sony’s third knockout success. This one looks even better when you remember that these totals are after just two weeks and it’s held at no. 1 for both of them, meaning it still has a lot more money to make.