The strange, inconclusive summer of 2017

Despicable Me 3. Image courtesy Universal Pictures.

Yeah, I know Labor Day was two weeks ago, fuck off

It’s been a summer of transition at the movies. Transition to what? Who knows. There are several narratives to spin based on the number of movies that were released this year that you wouldn’t expect in a summer lineup, but the numbers don’t really bear any of them out.

The dominant stories of the summer were the triumphant return of the mid-budget movie and the diametrically opposed story of this being the worst summer box office since 2006. Both stories are true, but neither is complete.

For what’s felt like ages, the major studios have only been willing to give a movie either all the money in the world, or next to nothing. This model of investing everything into just a handful of movies led to some huge problems. First off, it didn’t work — the goal for all of the blockbuster season movies was to make money, but with so many major blockbusters coming out back to back and all of them budgeted so generously that they’d need several weeks to meet their goals, they ended up cannibalizing each other. Second, the variety of film that could get a green light was narrowing, and it was getting to the point that major filmmakers would just quit. Major, $100 million-plus budgets came with all sorts of stipulations, and if you wanted to have just $20-50 million to make a movie for art’s sake, you couldn’t have it.

This process was referred to as the death of the mid-budget film, which is the thing that’s supposed to have come back with major filmmakers Edgar Wright and Steven Soderbergh getting their way with summer releases Baby Driver (budgeted at $34 million) and Logan Lucky ($29 million).

But budget alone is nowhere near enough to go by — of the 25 movies that hit more than 2,500 theaters between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 10 of them cost between $20 million and $50 million to make — 11 if we include the $19 million budgeted Girls Trip — and that includes plenty of animated sequels, niche market movies and flops. The freaking Emoji Movie falls into this range. And if you’re trying to say that director-driven projects made a comeback, it’s down to just those two and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

As for the idea that this summer represents a big crash, obviously it does, but the low totals are exaggerated by two of the worst weekends on record over Labor Day and the weekend before, both of which are pretty large outliers. The only wide release over the weekends of Aug. 25 and Sept. 1 was Leap!, a low-quality animated movie that barely anyone had heard of releasing on back-to-school weekend, probably the dumbest weekend of the entire year to release a children’s movie. Combine the lack of new releases with competition from the heavily anticipated Mayweather vs. McGregor boxing match and the fact that the country’s eighth largest media market was underwater, and it’s not surprising at all to see record lows.

Wonder Woman. Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

So what did we learn this summer? Not much. The big winners were the same as they always are — superheroes and the big animated kids’ franchise. There were some notable successes and some tailing off from franchises that have gotten old, but despite the small-scale surprises, the big picture looks more or less as you’d expect.

Individual movies are listed below in the following format — budget/domestic gross/international gross. The numbers should get bigger as we move to the right, but that’s not always the case. All numbers are via boxofficemojo.com, except in the instances when they couldn’t be bothered to post a budget, so we went to Wikipedia. All numbers are current as of Sept. 20, but bear in mind that releases as far back as July are still in theaters making money. Let’s get started-

May 24

Baywatch- $69 million budget/$58.1 million domestic/$177.9 million worldwide. The film moved ahead to a Wednesday release to try and increase its take, but to no real avail. Remaking things that were popular in the ’90s with a target audience that wasn’t alive in the ’90s is apparently not such a great idea.

May 26

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales- $230 million budget/$172.5 million domestic/$794.1 million worldwide. The Pirates franchise is fading in America, but put up quite a fight overseas, where it made 78.3 percent of its money.

June 2

Wonder Woman- $149 million/$411.5 million/$819 million One of the summer’s heavy hitters. This is the DCEU’s first critical success, but its fourth commercial one on four tries — Warner Bros. has been making bad movies, but great spectacles. Still, you’d like to see a little more than $800 million from this, given its groundbreaking nature and critical acclaim.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie- $38 million/$73.8 million/$104.7 million Smashing underground success for a delightful film, but one that, again, could have been much bigger.

June 9

The Mummy- $125 million/$80.1 million/$407.8 million One of the year’s big flops, and potentially a franchise-killer. Proximity to the much better-received Wonder Woman didn’t help.

It Comes at Night- $2.4 million/$14 million/$19.3 million This is an interesting case. You’d expect this kind of microbudget auteur film to get a much smaller release, but A24 made a more aggressive call. The movie was met by adoring critics and scornful audiences. It’s tough to say how much more it actually made than it would have from a 100-500 theater release.

June 16

Cars 3- $175 million/$152.3 million/$357.3 million Probably the year’s most distressing flop. Pixar is usually money in the bank, but Cars 3 didn’t make its budget back stateside. The first two movies are regarded as some of  the studio’s worst and initial fans are 10 years older now than they were when they first saw it, so maybe the enthusiasm for this series just isn’t there anymore. This movie was also clearly hurt by proximity to the kid-friendly Wonder Woman and Transformers movies.

Rough Night- $20 million/$22.1 million/$47.3 million The much smaller of two surprising woman-focused hits. Wonder Woman kind of highlights how weird it is that women are treated as a minority audience.

June 21

Transformers: The Last Knight- $217 million/$130.2 million/$605.4 million Massive underperformance from a franchise coming off back-to-back billion dollar successes, making $100 million less worldwide than the original did 10 years ago. Viewers have clearly gotten sick of this series.

June 28

Baby Driver- $34 million/$107.1 million/$220.5 million One of the summer’s darlings. This is the movie that everyone thought heralded the return of the mid-budget movie, just because it did so well.

Image courtesy Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

June 30

Despicable Me 3- $80 million/$261.1 million/$1 billion This summer’s only $1 billion blockbuster — and a right cheap one at just $80 million.

The House- $40 million/$25.6 million/$34.1 million Despite starring Will Farrell and Amy Poehler, this comedy was poorly received, sparsely advertised and overlooked by audiences indulging in more interesting things like Baby Driver or waiting with baited breath for Spider-Man.

July 7

Spider-Man: Homecoming- $175 million/$330.4 million/$861.7 million The spectacularly received reboot of a still-beloved character was the summer’s third major hit. Again, you’d hope for a little more here.

July 14

War for the Planet of the Apes- $150 million/$145.9 million/$432 million I’d expected this movie to be eaten up by Spider-Man, but it wasn’t. Bolstered by critical acclaim and two similarly acclaimed predecessors.

July 21

Dunkirk- $100 million/$185.3 million/$508.9 million The experimental war film was actually lost a bit behind the other blockbusters coming out around it — but the idea that $500 million is disappointing is only a testament to how much we’ve come to expect from movies with Nolan’s name attached. Held remarkably well — it didn’t drop out of the top five for five weeks, and was still no. 8 just last weekend.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets- $177.2 million/$40.5 million/$219.6 million The titanic flop of the summer, one that could have taken an entire studio with it. It’s sad to see such an ambitious movie fail, but its advertising failed to stand out to general audiences and its sexism was inexplicable and inexcusable.

Girls Trip- $19 million/$114.4 million/$132.9 million The summer’s surprise hit, opening at no. 2 and staying in the top five for three weeks despite a modest budget. Pandered to an underserved audience and was dramatically rewarded.

July 28

The Emoji Movie- $50 million/$84 million/$179.5 million What a world we live in when films like Valerian and Logan Lucky flop, but this attack on film as an institution makes its money back.

Atomic Blonde- $30 million/$51.4 million/$95.3 million One of the year’s best movies sadly hasn’t broken $100 million worldwide.

Aug. 4

The Dark Tower- $60 million/$50 million/$110 million A critical and commercial catastrophe that somehow didn’t kill the franchise.

Aug. 11

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature- $40 million/$28.1 million/$40 million What a debacle. This sequel you’ve never heard of to a movie you barely remember cost more and released in more theaters than Annabelle: Creation, which it opened against, and hasn’t even made its budget back.

Annabelle: Creation. Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Annabelle: Creation- $15 million/$100 million/$291 million August’s big hit. The Conjuring series remains incredibly popular, somehow.

Aug. 18

The Hitman’s Bodyguard- $30 million/$70.7 million/$142.1 million The last movie to hold the no. 1 spot until It came out three full weeks later. Benefited immensely from a dearth of competition.

Logan Lucky- $29 million/$26.9 million/$39.6 million This was the movie that was going to save the mid-budget film — through its interesting budgeting practices, not through its success. Delightful and woefully underappreciated.

Aug. 25

Leap!- $30 million/$21.7 million/$102.8 million A mostly ignored U.S. release that did spectacularly well overseas.

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