No lines wrapped around consession stands. Nobody camped outside the theater in tents. Hollywood has a penchant for happy endings, but this was the ugly conclusion for The Wolverine, the latest X-Men movie with Hugh Jackman, a nine-digit budget and sky-high expectations at the box office.
Despite a strong performance overseas, The Wolverine brought in a modest $55 million in its first week, becoming the lowest-opening X-Men movie since the original film 13 years ago. That mark was still good for a spot atop the box office this weekend.
The Wolverine's flop is the latest in a series of silver screen struggles this summer. Comparatively, Jackman and company's $55 million isn't even that bad, at least not next to the Ryan Reynolds-assisted R.I.P.D. or the Johnny Depp-lead The Lone Ranger, which have plummeted to earn just a fraction of their colossal production costs. Other star-studded, major-budget movies like Pacific Rim, White House Down and After Earth have disappointed as well.
Why has it been such a harsh summer for expensive non-sequels? Despicable Me 2 netted $143.1 million during an extended July Fourth weekend, while low-budget The Conjuring posted a $41.5 million opening, setting a record for original R-rated horror movies.
Part of the struggle comes from an over-saturation of the summer movie market. Though it's still July, we've already seen (or haven't seen) about a dozen high-profile releases. This summer's featured twice the amount of blockbusters as years past, and in the age of 140-character attention spans, audiences simply don't have the time or interest to keep up with each weekend's crammed slate of releases. This is "summer blockbuster fatigue" at its finest.
But it's not just about how many movies have come out this summer. It's about the kind of movies that are coming out too. The exaggerated, over-the-top effects of Pacific Rim, World War Z and After Earth simply don't have the shock or entertainment value as they used to, while White House Down and The Lone Ranger bear too much semblance to other Hollywood smashes. There's a starling lack of originality in this summer's movies, and perhaps filmmakers are forgetting that moviegoers aren't obligated to see whatever comes out during the season.
It doesn't help that movie tickets are becoming increasingly pricey. The cost of admission accelerates toward the end of the year, and while families will shell out whatever it takes to see the minions of Despicable Me again, millennials struggling to save money will be hesitant to see something that isn't original and critically-acclaimed. Television's been phenomenal this year, and a free season of Breaking Bad, Mad Men or Parks and Rec is an easier sell than another strange two hours of Johnny Depp in makeup.
What does the industry need to do to rebound? It starts with producing something new, something that we can't draw obvious comparisons to or claim we've already seen. Did anyone think another Independence Day knockoff was going to do well? The fall will help, when hundred-million-dollar movies aren't released every other weekend. But most importantly, Hollywood needs a few risk-takers. While summer movies are traditionally dumbed down for broad appeal, the brazen comedy This Is the End exploited star-power satirically. The result? As of last weekend, a $100 million grossing.
But what's done is done, and a full slate of August movies can't be changed despite this summer's abysmal trends. Hollywood can't sweat too much this summer though: for every screw-up, there will only be a half-filled audience to watch.