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4 losers and 3 winners from a lousy summer at the box office

The 2016 summer movie season very nearly broke records for how poorly its movies performed.

Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War opened the summer movie season with a bang. Then things went bust.
Marvel Studios
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.

By almost any standard, it’s been a rough summer at the box office.

With just $3.54 billion in ticket sales — the second-worst total since 2001, even when adjusted for inflation — 2016 has seen big studios filled with white-knuckle terror at how the usual tricks just don’t work anymore. Hugely hyped movie after hugely hyped movie has launched, enjoyed one good weekend in the sun, and then quickly sunk without a trace.

Everything from Ghostbusters to Star Trek Beyond to X-Men: Apocalypse opened decently, then got buried under the onslaught of new titles. Some observers have blamed franchise fatigue, the idea that moviegoers are tired of an endless stream of sequels and remakes and reboots. But when you consider that the summer’s two biggest films — Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War — were both sequels, that argument doesn’t hold as much water.

A more likely culprit, as Forbes’s Scott Mendelson suggests, is saturation; he argues that too many big movies come out too close together, making it impossible for any of them to become a major event. Captain America was the first big movie of the summer, and it still sank fairly rapidly at the box office. The summer’s top hit in the US, Finding Dory, was the first big family release in several weeks, and that also goes for the season’s third-biggest movie, The Secret Life of Pets.

So the overall picture of the 2016 summer box office is one of feast creating famine. But let’s drill down to identify four losers and three winners from the surprisingly terrible season.

Loser: Big blockbusters

Not everybody was into Warcraft, for some reason.

Before we begin, let’s talk about what makes a movie successful.

The best rule of thumb is that a movie only approaches profitability once it makes twice its production budget at the global box office. Due to marketing budgets and the fact that movie theaters and movie studios split each ticket sold (on a percentage basis that varies based on a few different factors), a film can’t just make back its production budget to be successful.

However, there’s still a lot of variation from movie to movie. Bigger-budget projects that seem like easy wins might still cost more in terms of advertising and marketing, because the studios want to ensure their big investments don’t flop. The result can be that a film needs to make three or even four times its budget worldwide, a predictably difficult task.

You should also keep in mind that reported budgets are often far smaller than actual budgets. And no matter how much a given film rakes in, it usually needs to be wildly profitable to actually register on a studio’s ledger sheet — although some films enjoy a boost from DVD sales or merchandising or [insert possible moneymaking scheme here].

But for the most part, the "budget times two" rule works well enough for us to use it as a rough comparison point.

So with all that in mind, consider the following five films:

  • Warcraft: $160 million reported budget, which doubles to $320 million. The film made $433.5 million worldwide.
  • Independence Day: Resurgence: $165 million reported budget, which doubles to $330 million. The film made $383 million worldwide.
  • The Legend of Tarzan: $180 million reported budget, which doubles to $360 million. The film made $354.7 million worldwide.
  • Star Trek Beyond: $185 million reported budget, which doubles to $370 million. The film made $244.5 million worldwide.
  • Ghostbusters: $144 million reported budget, which doubles to $288 million. The film made $217.8 million worldwide.

At first blush, all of these films made a fair amount of money. And a couple of them even topped our little "budget times two" baseline. But none of them were runaway hits, and they all settled into roughly the same range for worldwide box office — between $200 million and $500 million.

I could list even more "surefire" hits that fizzled, from X-Men: Apocalypse to The BFG to the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles outing (which I’ll bet you forgot even existed).

These were all would-be massive hits, complete with recognizable actors or at least recognizable brand names. And they just didn’t have the stuff.

The picture grows even bleaker if you only look at the US and Canadian box office (usually referred to as "domestic" box office). Warcraft made only $47.2 million here, and Independence Day barely crossed the $100 million mark with $102.9 million.

It’s increasingly common for worldwide ticket sales to make up the difference between a film’s domestic box office and its profitability threshold. But the unnerving thing about summer 2016 was how much of that gap had to be made up. Domestic moviegoers weren’t buying what Hollywood was selling.

Winner: Smaller movies

Lights Out
Lights Out made for an effectively creepy — and effectively inexpensive — horror movie.
Warner Bros.

That is, moviegoers weren’t buying what Hollywood was selling unless it was a smaller movie, with heavy genre trappings in either horror or romance or comedy.

Take a look at the following five films. Not a one of them can compete with the five above in terms of sheer amount of money made, but check out how profitable they were.

  • The Conjuring 2: $40 million reported budget, which doubles to $80 million. The film made $319.5 million worldwide.
  • Central Intelligence: $50 million reported budget, which doubles to $100 million. The film made $212.6 worldwide.
  • Me Before You: $20 million reported budget, which doubles to $40 million. The film made $197.3 million worldwide.
  • Lights Out: $4.9 million reported budget, which doubles to $9.8 million. The film made $126.1 million worldwide.
  • Bad Moms: $20 million reported budget, which doubles to $40 million. The film made $126 million worldwide.

Again, I could list lots and lots of other titles in this category, movies with budgets of $50 million or less (or even $10 million or less) that nonetheless proved big enough sleeper hits to make a whole lot of money.

Smaller films are how Hollywood used to make its money. Studios would occasionally launch huge blockbusters, yes, but they would be part of a slate of movies produced at various budgetary levels, and the smaller films would help compensate for any trouble with the blockbusters. Now, in an industry that’s increasingly all blockbusters all the time, there’s less room for that strategy to work.

Indeed, of those five movies I mentioned above, four are from Warner Bros., the only studio that’s still making a bunch of movies at a bunch of different budget levels. (Bad Moms is from newcomer STX Entertainment.) Warner Bros. might have gotten a lot of guff for its massively budgeted, massively disappointing superhero films Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad (both of which will only barely turn a profit, if that), but so long as it continues to clean up with smaller films, the money will keep rolling in.

A major theme of the 2016 summer box office concerns the press paying attention to the big-ticket items and ignoring the films that raked in more cash than you might have expected for tightly budgeted counterprogramming.

Loser: Runaway budgets

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne
Jason Bourne should turn a small profit, thanks to smart budgeting.

Of course, the takeaway here is that, hey, maybe movies don’t need to cost as much as they do. If Ghostbusters had cost just $120 million to make instead of $144 million, it would have had a better shot at being profitable (especially with merchandise sales). Was there any reason for Star Trek Beyond to cost $185 million, especially for a franchise that’s always been more popular domestically than abroad? Of course not.

You don’t even have to look very far to find a strong case for reducing production budgets from the get-go. Jason Bourne, for instance, has made $348.4 million worldwide so far. That’s a solid number, but not a knockout by any means — until you consider that its reported budget was "just" $120 million. That sort of performance won’t set the world on fire, but it also won’t lead to embarrassing losses.

Hollywood has largely ceded the "midbudget" film — a movie that costs more than $20 million but less than $100 million (give or take on both ends) — to television, perhaps because it believes the adult audience is mostly watching TV these days. But tighter budgets could have turned many of 2016’s flops into modest hits, even without suddenly resurrecting the "midbudget" film.

Winners: Talking animals and superheroes

Finding Dory
Finding Dory ruled the domestic box office this summer.

If you look at the top 10 films for the year at the worldwide box office, only one of them — the enjoyable Chinese comedy The Mermaid (which came and went without making much noise in the US and deserved better) — isn’t about talking animals or superheroes.

The other nine? Captain America: Civil War, Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, The Secret Life of Pets, Suicide Squad, and X-Men: Apocalypse.

The first four movies on that list — the top four movies of the year — were all made by Disney, which has superheroes and talking animals on lock. (Warner Bros., Universal, and Fox account for the other five, while Sony released The Mermaid in the US.)

The list should diversify as the year continues. There’s a new Star Wars film and a Harry Potter spinoff coming later this year, to say nothing of Disney’s latest animated princess film, Moana. And the only superhero movie that has yet to arrive is Marvel’s Doctor Strange, which seems like a tough sell.

But the fact still remains that the surest way to box office success — even as budgets continue to balloon — is to make a superhero movie or an animated film about talking animals. Hollywood has been trending in this direction for a while, but 2016 really drove the message home.

Loser: '80s and '90s nostalgia

The '80s nostalgia of Ghostbusters didn’t bring people out to the theater in large enough numbers.
Sony Pictures

Just last year, when Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens were setting the box office on fire, nostalgia appeared to be the new can’t-miss trend. Indeed, I wrote last year that if Independence Day: Resurgence took off, Hollywood would soon be looking to pounce on any '80s or '90s property it hadn’t yet remade.

Well, that didn’t really happen. The films leaning heavily on '80s and '90s nostalgia this summer — especially Ghostbusters and ID:R — mostly flailed. The top films of the year so far are mostly entries in currently running superhero franchises, or sequels to movies that are less than 20 years old.

What’s a bit curious about this is that the big story on TV this summer — Netflix’s Stranger Things — is all '80s movie nostalgia. It’s further proof of the idea that adults in their 30s and beyond are mostly watching TV nowadays, while the movies are for teens and 20-somethings, whose nostalgia pangs understandably skew more recent.

Loser: Steven Spielberg

The BFG was a lovely movie — that nobody went to see.

In one way, Spielberg is a winner. His early '80s work was everywhere this summer, from the visuals of Disney’s charming Pete’s Dragon remake to the entire story structure of Stranger Things. And critics did mostly enjoy his latest family film, The BFG, about a young girl who befriends a big friendly giant.

But, alas, The BFG proved the biggest bomb of the summer. Making just $160.4 million worldwide, off a $140 million budget, it proved costly for both Spielberg’s Dreamworks and Disney, the studio that released it.

Everything will probably work out just fine for Spielberg. He has several movies lined up, including the huge nostalgia-fest Ready Player One (about a futuristic video game peppered with '80s pop culture references). Plus, his 2015 drama Bridge of Spies made a solid amount of money for its budgetary level and won an Oscar for supporting player Mark Rylance. Still, it’s rare to see the most successful director in history make a film that does as poorly as The BFG.

Winner: Independent films that appeal to older adults

Love & Friendship
Love & Friendship scored big numbers for a tiny little Jane Austen adaptation.
Roadside Attractions

There’s a steady moviegoing audience that Hollywood often doesn’t know what to do with: adults who are retired or nearing retirement. Without kids at home and with more expendable income, they’re often among the biggest moviegoing cohorts. But it goes without saying that they’re not always the best targets for, say, the latest superhero film.

They’re the kind of viewers the so-called "midbudget" film would still be targeting —and for the most part, the arthouse seems to be where they can find those midbudget films. If you look at the top 20 indie films of the year so far, it’s dominated by movies that appeal to this demographic (a few of which, admittedly, were released back in spring): There’s the political thriller (and Helen Mirren vehicle) Eye in the Sky, and the quirky old person tale Hello, My Name Is Doris, and the (delightful) Jane Austen adaptation Love and Friendship, and the modern Western Hell or High Water. And, hey, this audience also seems to be keeping Woody Allen employed. His Café Society is right there, too.

Compare those films’ success with that of, say, Swiss Army Man, which was heavily marketed to younger viewers as an alternative to blockbusters and is pretty far down the top 20 list.

Obviously, viewers of all ages can enjoy any of these films, and quite a few of them are among 2016’s best. But year after year, the spring and summer indie box office is dominated by films with older protagonists and/or classic literature adaptations, and the older adult audience drives a lot of that.

It’s another nod toward the claim that blockbusters are increasingly choking everything else out, because Hollywood seems to exclusively target young men with its releases, but there’s lots of evidence to suggest that’s not true. Other audiences will pay to see other sorts of movies; the key is to budget them properly so that they might entice viewers and make a bunch of money.

Watch: Why fewer computer graphics make for better movies