Let's All Mourn the Summer Movie Blockbuster

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) – Summer movies haven't been this mind-numbingly mediocre in more than a decade, and it's taking a toll on the movie industry.

Since 2004, the biggest film of the summer typically has brought in $400 million or more in the U.S., peaking -- hitting a lull with Sony's Spider-Man 3 ($336.5 million) in 2007 and peaking with Disney's The Avengers ($623 million) in 2012. That bar isn't even close to being reached this summer. This season's third-biggest film, Fox's X-Men: Days Of Future Past was the first film to break $200 million and sat just above it at $230 million going into last weekend. Only four films -- Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Paramount's Transformers: Age Of Extinction and Disney's Maleficent and Warner Brothers' Godzilla -- have joined X-Men since. But all but Transformers needed months to do so after being released in May. By this time last summer, nine of the 10 top-grossing films of the season had already been released. From No. 7 World War Z ($202.3 million) to No. 1 Iron Man 3 ($409 million), all cleared that $200 million mark that this year's films are struggling to reach.

BoxOffice Mojo notes that this not only puts the movie industry behind last year's $10.6 billion pace, but nearly 13% off of last summer's pace. Disney's Guardians Of The Galaxy and Paramount's latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot are being asked to salvage the summer during an August release window that hasn't produced a true blockbuster since The Bourne Ultimatum made $227 million after opening in August 2007.

It's all adding up to a terrible season for the movie industry. The little more than $250 million produced by this summer's top film, Transformers 4 is the lowest total for a top summer blockbuster since Mission: Impossible II topped out at $215.4 million in 2000. That year, the average price of a movie ticket was $5.39 and more than 1.4 billion tickets were sold for this entire year. The average price of a ticket today is $8.16, and the industry hasn't sold 1.4 billion tickets since 2009.

As our Keris Alison Lahiff reported, this is already taking a toll on studios including Dreamworks Animation. A slow start for its How To Train Your Dragon 2 -- which made $166 million in the U.S. through July -- crushed DreamWorks during the second quarter as the film lagged behind both Warner Brothers' The LEGO Movie and Disney's Frozen at the box office in 2014.

So what's the fix? Well, there may not have to be one. One of the biggest reasons that this summer has been so lethargic is the absence of key franchises. Disney's Captain America 2 is still the highest-grossing film in the U.S. this year after making nearly $260 million at the box office, but it missed the summer window with an early April release. Disney didn't have a known Marvel commodity such as Iron Man or The Avengers to trot out this year, but next summer's The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is shaping up to be a worthy successor to 2012's $600 million original installment.

Disney also gets to pull Pixar off the sidelines when its new feature Inside Out debuts in June. With Universal resurrecting the Jurassic Park franchise with Jurassic World next summer and Fox and Disney doubling down on superheroes by releasing The Fantastic Four and Ant-Man, respectively, there's already a lot on the slate for Summer 2015.

But the fact that moviegoers are seeing reboots of Fantastic Four, Point Break and The Terminator amid sequels including Pitch Perfect 2, Ted 2, Fast and Furious 7 and Magic Mike provides just more evidence of the movie industry's reluctance to take risks with original material. Much as the industry is hoping that the latest installments of The Hobbit and Hunger Games franchises can save its 2014, it continues to prop itself up with sequels and retreads in Summer 2015.

It's aiming wide and low, and it shows. In the summer of 1994, there were only 80 films released. Last summer, studios dumped 232 movies into theaters seeking maximum revenue. That same year, only seven of the Top 20 movies of the year fell into the PG-13 category, with five more rated G or PG. Last year a dozen of the Top 20 movies were rated PG-13, with a half-dozen rated PG.

It's the only thing the industry can do with a completely destroyed revenue model. Blockbuster is gone, Best Buy started clearing out low-margin DVD and Blu-ray racks in favor of high-rolling Samsung and Apple mini stores and DVD and Blu-ray discs have been rendered impulse-item afterthoughts at big-box stores and supermarkets and tack-on items for free shipping at online retailers. Amazon, Apple's iTunes and Wal-Mart's Vudu all sell digital copies, sure, but they also have rentals at a quarter of the price of a new copy that users can watch at any time without taking up shelf space.

The industry no longer knows how to estimate how home video will factor into their total sales. With that number now in doubt, especially for products that aren't superhero blockbusters or computer-animated kids movies with earworm soundtracks, Hollywood can't take chances. Studios are now releasing all movies in digital formats only, which eliminates film and, perhaps, some low-priced alternatives including drive-ins and small independent and second-run theaters that can't afford digital upgrades.

Meanwhile, the number of theaters in the U.S. has already decreased from 7,744 in 1995 to 5,683 last year, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. At the same time, the number of movie screens across the country has increased from 27,843 to 39,662 as big theater companies including Regal Entertainment, Cinemark and Carmike build larger multiplexes attempt to bring remaining moviegoers under their roof.

Even if business picks up again next year, this slow summer will serve as an example of what can happen when the studios spread themselves too thin. The continued decline in ticket sales and studio creativity is getting tougher to hide with high-priced 3-D showings and big-tent franchises. Audiences have already realized they have better options than broad, rehashed movies, and eventually not even superheroes will be able to save the day for the studios.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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