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9 lessons this summer taught us about movies in 2015

One big lesson: People love seeing dinosaurs eat other people, as we saw with Jurassic World.
One big lesson: People love seeing dinosaurs eat other people, as we saw with Jurassic World.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

With Labor Day on the horizon, the summer movie season will soon be over, giving way to a fall full of Oscar hopefuls and the looming behemoth that is a new Star Wars movie.

But in many ways, the summer was over in mid-August, when Straight Outta Compton proved to be the season's last big hit. Later releases like Hitman: Agent 47 or mega-flop We Are Your Friends couldn't generate even muted enthusiasm from audiences, and critics were already looking forward to a fall hopefully filled with better movies.

Still, the summer leaves behind, as it always does, a bunch of lessons for Hollywood to attempt to parse going forward. Here are the nine we've plucked out for them. (All box office data is courtesy of Box Office Mojo and current as of August 31.)

1) Counter-programming still works

Spy starring Melissa McCarthy

The Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy proved to be a counter-programming success story.

20th Century Fox

What do hugely successful movies like Pitch Perfect 2 ($184 million domestically), Straight Outta Compton ($134 million domestically and counting), and Spy ($110 million domestically) have in common? They all came out at times when their target audiences of women and black moviegoers were starved for something that wasn't yet another story of white guys outrunning explosions and/or dinosaurs.

Don't get me wrong: White guys outrunning explosions and/or dinosaurs still make for big box office. (The two biggest movies of the year are Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, after all.) But there's lots of money to be made with modestly budgeted movies that chase different audiences than the 20-something males Hollywood usually targets. With the rise of franchise filmmaking, it seems sometimes as if the industry has forgotten this. Hopefully, summer 2015 drove the point home.

And counter-programming can work down at smaller release levels. Take, for instance, the surprise success of War Room, a movie dropped in late August (traditionally a dead zone) and aimed at Christian moviegoers. Making more than $11 million in its opening weekend, the film snuck up on several other anticipated releases and almost booted Compton from the top spot.

2) People are maybe a little tired of superhero movies

Fantastic Four was so bad

Fantastic Four ended up being a huge bust.

20th Century Fox

Age of Ultron was a monster hit, making $458 million domestically and more than $1.4 billion worldwide. But the first film made $623 million domestically and more than $1.5 billion worldwide. The second film's lower numbers have to count as a mild disappointment.

Meanwhile, Ant-Man, Marvel's second release, pulled in $169 million domestically and $366 million worldwide. Are those bad numbers? Again, no. The film is currently in the general vicinity of the first Captain America movie, and it has yet to open in all-important China. But the numbers are still a little soft, after several years in which Marvel could seemingly do no wrong. (Remember: This studio turned the ultra-weird Guardians of the Galaxy into a megahit.) Certainly Marvel Studios isn't in incipient financial trouble, but it's definitely seen better years.

The same can't be said of Fox's sole superhero release for the year, Fantastic Four. Greeted by some of the worst reviews in years, the film was the biggest superhero flop since 2011's The Green Hornet — which still made almost $100 million domestically. Fantastic Four will be lucky to make it to $60 million. In the past, even bad superhero movies (like, say, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) made lots of money. That's no longer a guarantee.

3) Marvel felt behind the curve in other ways as well


Lots of viewers spent Ant-Man wondering why it wasn't Hope in the suit, when that might make more story sense.

Marvel Studios

One of the post-credits scenes in Ant-Man — spoiler alert! — deals with Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) being shown a superpowered suit her father had been working on for her long-disappeared mother. "It's about damn time," she says, when told she gets to wear it, and it's not hard to imagine this is Marvel addressing the legions of fans who've asked the studio for better representation of women and people of color, complaints that grew to a fever pitch in the wake of Ultron's release.

But for most of the rest of the film, Hope was there to complain about not getting to wear the suit, learn important backstory about her mother, and eventually kiss the hero. It almost felt as if her relative unimportance to the plot was weird meta-commentary on Marvel's part, but that post-credits scene suggested the studio hadn't really learned its lesson.

In a summer with so many vibrant women on screen (about which more in a moment), it wasn't hard to feel like this was too little, too late — especially because Marvel has yet to announce an Ant-Man sequel.

4) China is the reason we might get another Terminator movie

Terminator: Genisys

Do we need another Terminator movie? No. Are we going to get one? Maybe.


Remember Terminator: Genisys? Probably not. Very few people in the US went to see the latest attempt to reboot the venerable franchise (this time with the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger), and it topped out at $89 million domestically.

But here's the thing: Another Terminator movie seems incredibly likely, because the film has made $320 million overseas, bumping its worldwide total over $400 million. As Forbes's Scott Mendelson points out, that's the first time a film has ever made less than $100 million domestically and gone on to make more than $400 million worldwide. For comparison's sake, consider the widely beloved Mad Max: Fury Road, which pulled in $153 million domestically but stalled out at $374 million worldwide — largely because it never opened in China.

And indeed, Terminator: Genisys was massive in China. It pulled in $27 million in its opening day there, the fourth largest opening day in the nation's history. (Two of the others — Avengers: Age of Ultron and Furious 7 — were for other 2015 releases.) And it made over $80 million in China in its first eight days of release, nearly topping its US total. It's unclear whether we'll get new Terminator or Mad Max movies, but if the former is resurrected, we'll likely have China to thank.

5) Women make for good box office

Rebecca Ferguson stars in Mission Impossible.

Rebecca Ferguson proved to be one of the best things about Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.


This is a corollary to the counter-programming rule, but it's worth noting how many of this summer's biggest hits have lead roles for women. Mad Max's Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) — greeted as a refreshing anomaly when the film was released in May — turned out to be something of a harbinger for what was to come.

Whether it's Bryce Dallas Howard's much criticized character in Jurassic World or Rebecca Ferguson's much celebrated one in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, the summer was filled with big parts for women — if not always great parts for women. Heck, the summer's third biggest film domestically was Inside Out, which was entirely about the emotional life of an 11-year-old girl and featured great voice performances by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith.

In comedies, especially, women ruled. Pitch Perfect 2, Spy, and Trainwreck all topped the $100 million mark domestically, while more guy-centric comedies like Ted 2 struggled to match their previous highs. That's a good sign for 2016's upcoming women-led Ghostbusters film.

6) Hollywood is truly overdosing on spy films

Man from uncle

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a fun time — but audiences stayed away.

Warner Bros.

There are plenty of reasons The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — a wholly enjoyable late-summer caper — fizzled at the box office. It was based on a TV show that doesn't have a massive pop culture footprint anymore, and it starred a couple of actors who have never proved able to open a movie on their own.

But there's another reason the movie might have felt like old news. For as much as critics grouse about how many superhero movies Hollywood makes (and Hollywood probably makes too many superhero movies), it's the spy movie genre that the industry has really overindulged in recently. Yes, that sometimes leads to the fun of a movie like Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation or Spy, both hits, but it just as often leads to a movie nobody notices, like U.N.C.L.E.

2015 has already seen four spy movie releases (including February's Kingsman), with an upcoming "true life" take on the genre (Bridge of Spies) and another James Bond sequel (Spectre). Yes, a lot of these films have been hits, but if there's a genre Hollywood overrelies on, it's this one.

7) Old people love independent film

Blythe Danner in I'll See You in My Dreams.

Blythe Danner stars in the surprise indie hit I'll See You in My Dreams.

Bleecker Street

Many of the summer's stories about indie films centered on movies aimed at young people, particularly Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Dope. Both films fizzled, with Earl failing to crack $7 million and Dope never making it to $17 million, despite seeing a wide release in more than 2,000 theaters.

But if you wanted to find successful independent films, they were out there. They just were often aimed at older moviegoers, an audience box office reporters rarely pay much attention to but one that buys lots of tickets. In particular, the Blythe Danner romantic comedy I'll See You in My Dreams ($7.4 million) and the "Ian McKellen is old man Sherlock Holmes" mystery Mr. Holmes ($16.1 million) saw considerable success — without ever opening on more than 1,000 screens. (Dreams never even got to 500.)

Dreams and Holmes also came from tiny distributors. Indeed, Dreams was only the second release ever by its distributor, Bleecker Street. Neither film may have broken out to a much larger, mainstream audience, but both will turn handsome profits in a summer where indie film felt a little bit under the radar.

8) The Rock is a movie star

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Carla Gugino in San Andreas.

For a little while there, Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino were the stars of the number one movie in America, and it was good.

Warner Bros.

This might seem like a lesson from ages ago, but 2015 cemented Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's status as a star. In the past, the former wrestler had struggled to open films on his own, but joining the Fast & Furious franchise after its fifth film has agreed with him, as he's slowly been creeping up in box office totals over the years.

That saw its new pinnacle in May, when he opened the earthquake disaster film San Andreas to more than $50 million, on the way to a $154 million domestic total and $469 worldwide haul. Obviously, much of the marketing approach stemmed from the footage of earthquakes destroying California, but a lot of it still hinged on Johnson's face as he took in the sight of the state crumbling into the sea. Couple San Andreas's success with the megahit Furious 7 (in which Johnson has a small but pivotal role), and it's been a good year for the guy.

It's all further proof that he should host the Oscars.

9) Slapstick travels well — especially if it's animated

So many Minions, so little time.

Minions crushed the worldwide box office, while struggling a tiny bit at home.


Despite opening to almost $116 million domestically, the Despicable Me spinoff Minions has sagged slightly at the US box office, currently stuck around $325 million. Meanwhile, Pixar's Inside Out opened to "just" $90 million, but had a run with longer legs, making its way to over $344 million. It seems unlikely Minions — or any other upcoming animated films this year — will overtake the Pixar release in the US.

However, worldwide, it's a very different story. There, Inside Out has made a little over $700 million, while Minions has crossed the $1 billion mark. The Minions, as you likely know, don't speak English — or any known language — and primarily engage in slapstick shenanigans.

That puts them in line with the Ice Age franchise's Scrat (the little squirrel-like creature who's a mainstay of the films) as nearly wordless characters who rely on big, goofy gags for their appeal. And the Ice Age films went from international box office accounting for just 54 percent of the first film's total to 81 percent of the latest film's total. As the US loses interest, the films only grow more popular overseas.

Comedy is one of the hardest things to export, simply because so much of it relies on certain shared cultural understandings. However, slapstick and animation tend to travel well. And indeed, in addition to Minions, Spy and Pixels, two comedies featuring big physical gags, made more overseas than they did in the US.

If nothing else, Hollywood should learn this: Laughing at people getting hit in the head — especially if they're cartoons — is universal.