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Five charts that explain why we didn't go to the movies this summer

Elizabeth Olsen in Godzilla
Elizabeth Olsen in Godzilla
Godzilla

In any given year, movies tend to follow a rhythm. You have the peaks — the best movies, the Oscar contenders — in October, November, and December, and the downturns — the worst movies of the year — in January, February, and March. And the summer, usually, is jammed with superheroes, robots, explosions, and films that studios have poured millions of dollars into. Those movies, of course, are expected to bring in the most money.

That didn't happen this year.

What bad looks like

Summer — from the first weekend in May to Labor Day — is the season where the movie industry is supposed to make the most money. People want to be inside, in air conditioning, drinking giant beverages, watching things blow up. Though international box office is more important to the industry than ever, this piece only reflects domestic numbers, as an attempt to examine why Americans seemed less interested in Hollywood's main fare this summer.

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You'll notice that the big spike happens in May. Part of the spike is due to January, February, and March being the so-called "dump months", where companies put their stale movies out to pasture. The other part of the equation is that studios want to capitalize on this ennui, so they send their big budget blockbusters down the pipeline in May. Godzilla, Maleficent, and X-Men: Days of Future Past were all released in May this year, but you'll notice that they were beaten out by movies released in June (Transformers Age of Extinction) and August (Guardians of the Galaxy):

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In 2013, the biggest opening weekend in summer was Iron Man 3 at $174 million. That movie opened in May. Fast and Furious 6, another May movie, opened at $97 million. Both of those movies opened with a bigger first weekend than the biggest May movie in 2014. In Iron Man's case, its opening weekend was bigger than Godzilla and Maleficent combined, and almost as big as Godzilla and X-Men combined:

Boxoffice2013

What you'll also notice is that 2013 was exponentially more top heavy than 2014, with more movies above the $95 million opening weekend mark.

How 2014 compares to the past couple of years

Tally up the 11 biggest opening weekends of 2014, 2013, 2012 and you'll find that 2014 is lagging around $40 million from a year prior and around $25 million from 2014:

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"It's a noticeable difference," Phil Contrino, the chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, told me. "We really needed more films that ended up in the $80 million-$150 million range domestically. That would have helped compensate for the tentpoles that ended up underperforming slightly."

One of those tentpoles was Amazing Spider-Man 2 which ended up opening at $91 million. That number isn't shabby, but it's not as big as Iron Man 3 was nor was it as big as the original Spider-Man, which opened to a $114 million weekend all the way back in 2002. Shortly after Amazing Spider-Man 2's opening weekend, Sony announced it was delaying the franchise until 2018.

Despite the underperformance of AS2, there were two movies this summer whose success was particularly surprising. The first was Maleficentwhich my colleague Kelsey McKinney examined. The other has been Guardians of the Galaxy which provided a big boost to summer movie season. Guardians opened in August, and has since overtaken Transformers: Age of Extinction (which opened in June) in total domestic gross. But even with that achievement,  Guardians is still lagging behind the blockbusters of 2012 and 2013 like The Avengers, Iron Man, and Man of Steel:

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"Guardians of the Galaxy has definitely turned into a must-see, and that means it won't fade as quickly as other titles," Contrino said. "It also helps that late August/early September won't bring any new blockbusters to the market."

The bright side

So we know that movie studios didn't make as much money as in previous years. And we know that people didn't go see as many movies with as much enthusiasm as they did last year and the year before. But those facts ignore one simple question: were the movies this year comparable to the one's before? Or more simply, did studios know this would be a down year and punted?

"The movie industry is cyclical, and we're definitely in a down year, but that has a lot to do with the fact that 2015's slate is so impressive," Contrino explained. "Many of the strongest franchises are lined up for 2015, and 2014 has suffered as a result."

The 2015 summer movie season is as follows:

  • The Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1, 2015)
  • Jurassic World (June 12, 2015)
  • Inside Out, Pixar's first film since last year (June 19, 2015)
  • Fantastic Four (June 19, 2015)
  • Terminator: Genisys (July 1, 2015)
  • Ant-Man (July 17, 2015)
  • Assassin's Creed (August 7, 2015)
And that's not even counting a sleeper hit, or the big blockbusters, like Mockingjay Part II, Star Wars: Episode VII and James Bond 24, all currently slated to hit theaters at the end of 2015.  Instead of obliterating a weak field in 2014, a movie studio might think it a better strategy to wait until 2015 and hope some of the momentum of those huge movies rub off.