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The 2016 summer movie season was really good — if you knew where to look

Blockbusters went bust. But smaller films — particularly kids’ movies and horror — had a great year.

Bad Moms
Bad Moms has proved one of the summer’s surprise hits.
STX Entertainment
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.

Buried in the middle of this widely cited Deadline article about the terrible 2016 summer movie box office was a statement that might make readers blink and adjust their eyeglasses, like an old person in a cartoon:

But don’t blame studios and the creative community for misreading audience tastes. This summer had the highest number of films that scored 60 or higher on Rotten Tomatoes.

I will freely admit when I first read this, I thought, "What?" and "How?" and "Huh?" This was the summer of Independence Day: Resurgence (32 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and X-Men: Apocalypse (48 percent) and Suicide Squad (26 percent) and The Legend of Tarzan (36 percent) and Warcraft (28 percent)!

Even if you liked a few of those movies — and I am virtually alone in kinda enjoying Warcraft — they had tremendously bad Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores. The critical consensus, such as it is, was against them. And not just against them — dramatically so.

And as you’ll recall from my earlier article on the summer’s box office struggles, most of those movies barely caught sight of profitability, if at all. (Only Suicide Squad has really managed to break out as a hit.)

But then, over Labor Day weekend, two other films hit much more interesting milestones: The raunchy comedy Bad Moms made $100 million in the US and Canada alone, while the romantic drama Me Before You crossed the $200 million mark worldwide. Additionally, this summer saw the breakout success of low-budget thrillers Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, and The Shallows. And The Conjuring 2 and Central Intelligence both rode smaller budgets to more than $300 million and $200 million worldwide, respectively.

And do you know what every single one of those movies listed above, save Me Before You, has in common? A 60 percent or higher score on Rotten Tomatoes. (Me Before You is sitting at 58 percent, which is pretty close.) The bad summer movie season didn’t have anything to do with the quality of the movies overall. It had to do with the quality of the blockbusters.

Compared with the year’s blockbusters, smaller films with wide releases are doing very well

Don't Breathe
Don’t Breathe has done incredibly well at the box office for a tiny little horror film.
Sony Pictures

First of all, let’s just state that Rotten Tomatoes — which turns everything into a "good or bad" binary — is hardly the be-all, end-all of whether a film is good. That’s a personal, subjective decision. So you might think any of the above Rotten Tomatoes scores are ridiculous. But the site does suggest critical consensus, and the critical consensus this summer was that the movies made for less than $100 million were generally much better than those made for more than $100 million.

In other words, the smaller hits were generally better movies than the blockbusters, if critical consensus is to be believed. (Though there were good blockbusters, too, especially Captain America: Civil War and Star Trek Beyond.) Maybe when it comes to quality, this wasn’t a bad summer at all. Maybe it was a pretty good one, as a matter of fact!

Normally, when movie critics say this, they’re talking about the sorts of independent and art-house films that rarely play outside of large cities. And this was a good summer for those, too, from the films that crossed over to a wider audience (Love & Friendship and The Lobster, in particular) to those that never found another gear (the lovely The Fits, which you must check out on home video).

But you didn’t have to live in a major metropolitan area to see the self-contained chills of Don’t Breathe, or to enjoy the incredibly expansive animated adventures of Kubo and the Two Strings. Both of those films were released throughout the country, in theaters both big and small.

It was an especially good summer for wide-release family films — Finding Dory, Kubo, Pete’s Dragon, and The BFG were all worth that audience’s time — and for horror, thanks to the aforementioned Don’t Breathe, Lights Out, The Shallows, and The Conjuring 2.

At present, we’re going through a spate of think pieces asking if the movies "still matter," because the summer’s pop culture conversations have been dominated by Netflix’s Stranger Things, HBO’s The Night Of, and Pokémon Go. But these results, for a wide variety of stories, in a wide variety of genres, at a wide variety of budgetary levels, suggest American cinema is still doing vibrant work.

It’s just not always where we’re looking for it.

But blockbusters draw outsize attention

We spend so much time talking about blockbusters and not enough talking about other films.
Sony Pictures

When push comes to shove, Ghostbusters (at $126.5 million domestic gross so far) is probably going to make more than Bad Moms (at $103.6 million so far). But it’s also entirely likely that the latter film — which cost a fraction of what the action-comedy cost to make — will get within $15 million of the summer’s other big comedy driven by women.

But which movie have you read more about this summer? Ghostbusters was one of the summer’s biggest stories, but not because of the money it made or the reviews it received. Rather, most of the attention directed at Paul Feig’s film focused on its gender-flipped reimagining of an ’80s movie and the endless stream of vile invective it inspired in various corners of the internet.

The same is true of most blockbusters. From superhero movies to delayed follow-ups to decades-old films, the entertainment media (especially online) is driven by a hype cycle that draws most of its fuel from presold properties, i.e., things that you’re already aware of because they’re based on other things you’ve heard of. It’s a lot easier to get readers to click on, say, "Watch the new Ghostbusters trailer" than "Watch the new Bad Moms trailer."

(That, incidentally, is also why Hollywood keeps making variations on the same basic stories. In a cluttered media landscape, the easiest way to stand out is to have a big name doing some of the lifting — and when there are as few big movie stars left as there are today, it’s just easier to have the big name be some property you’ve heard of before.)

This is not to say that Bad Moms is better than Ghostbusters. (Indeed, I prefer the latter, though both are flawed films.) Rather, it’s to underline the fact that we shouldn’t confuse the conversation around movies — which will always focus on blockbusters to the detriment of everything else — for the movies themselves.

Everybody goes to the movies, not just certain audiences

The smaller movies I’ve talked about here made back their budgets thanks to smart economic decisions made by their studios and targeted marketing. But they also made back their budgets because they targeted audiences outside of the "teen and 20-something white guy" demographic that favors blockbusters.

And the important thing to note is that there are tons of underserved demographics who might enjoy movies aimed at them. Whether that’s moms looking for a break from their kids or horror heads (who, yes, are younger on average but also much more even in their gender split) or the over-50 crowd that keeps many art houses afloat in the summer, Hollywood is (hopefully) slowly learning that not every movie has to be aimed at geek-friendly corners of Reddit.

Nobody wants superhero movies to go away entirely, or for decades-delayed sequels to be completely vanquished. After all, The Avengers and Mad Max: Fury Road are among the decade’s most purely enjoyable moviegoing experiences. But when the movie conversation is dominated by these sorts of films, a lot of other interesting work gets crowded out — and we forget that everybody goes to the movies, not just certain audiences.

There’s still a healthy conversation going on around the movies. It’s just often not where we’re expecting to look for it. We shouldn’t confuse the audience rejecting overhyped trash for better-made films (whether schlock or art — or both) for the entire cinematic medium falling into peril.

Watch: Why fewer computer graphics make for better movies

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