10 Things We Learned From 2019’s Summer Movie Season
A franchise that started in 2006.
A franchise that started in 2014.
A 1992 film, remade.
A franchise that started in 1954.
A franchise that started in 2016.
A franchise that started in 1997.
A franchise that started in 1995.
The third big-screen version of a franchise that started in 2002.
A 1994 film, remade.
A franchise that started in 2001.
A franchise that started in 2013.
If you felt déjà vu at the multiplex recently, you’re not imagining things: Above is a description of almost every single movie that landed at No. 1 on the weekend box office charts this summer. (There was one outlier: the prepubescent comedy Good Boys.) It’s not surprising — we’ve resided in a land of sequels and remakes for a while. But this most recent blockbuster movie season underlined just how much we’re living in the past when we go to the movies, even though we’re very much paying 2019 ticket prices for the privilege. (In 2000, audiences spent approximately $5.39 for a ticket. By 2018, it was $9.11. And don’t even ask residents of New York or Los Angeles how much they pay — it’ll horrify you.)
Hollywood’s perpetual time-warp doesn’t seem like it’ll abate anytime soon, but we did learn a bunch of new lessons from a summer filled with superhero spectacle, the occasional indie success story and some outright flops we’d all love to forget. (Fare thee well, Dark Phoenix.) We promise all 10 of these box-office takeaways are original concepts — but we’re open to producing a live-action reimagining of any of them in, say, 15 years, if the price is right.
1. While you weren’t paying attention, Yesterday just kept chugging along.
With so many event films front-loaded these days, the concept of a movie with “legs” has largely gone by the wayside — if you don’t have a gargantuan first weekend, then you’re probably destined for commercial failure. But every once in a while, a smaller film can keep humming along, capitalizing on good word-of-mouth and an untapped audience niche to become a modest hit.
Such was the case with Yesterday, the Danny Boyle romantic comedy that imagined a world in which the Beatles never existed. Without major stars, the movie relied on a clever premise and the planet’s inexhaustible love of the Fab Four to draw viewers. It opened in June against some heavy hitters — Annabelle Comes Home and Toy Story 4‘s second weekend — and landed at No. 3 with an encouraging-but-by-no-means-astronomic $17 million. But slow-but-steady was Universal’s game plan all along, considering that the studio’s tracking indicated the movie appealed to older female viewers who, frankly, didn’t have a lot of options this summer. “We know our audience is older,” a Universal exec said at the time. “That group doesn’t necessarily run out opening weekend.”
Patience paid off: The rom-com stubbornly hung around the Top 6 for more than a month. That’s rare for mid-level releases — Yesterday‘s budget was only $26 million — and it led to the film accumulating $72 million in the U.S. alone. (Overseas, it’s added another $57 million.) Compared with the gaudy numbers for an Avengers: Endgame, that may seem like nothing, but the movie’s modest success indicates that we’re not yet at a point where every studio release has to be a sequel, prequel or remake. In an industry consumed with home runs, this shrewd piece of counterprogramming was a welcome double into the gap.
2. Reboots and sequels are no longer a sure thing.
Not that every franchise was greeted with open arms by audiences. The critically savaged Men in Black: International (starring Thor: Ragnarok power duo Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson) brought in only $253 million worldwide, easily the lowest-grossing installment in a series that began 22 years ago with two other, far more beloved costars. The latest Shaft amassed all of $21 million domestically. And the new Child’s Play, with Aubrey Plaza and Mark Hamill as the voice of Chucky, collected $29 million in the U.S. — it fared even worse overseas, although its $10-million budget guaranteed there wouldn’t be too much red ink.
But for these movies, that’s a depressingly low bar by which to be measured. They were each hoping to hit the “refresh” button on moribund franchises, enticing new generations with old intellectual property. And you can tell because each of these three underperformers have endings that open the door to possible sequels which, at least for the foreseeable future, will only exist in their creators’ heads.
3. R-rated comedies had a tough time … until Good Boys came around.
Recent summers have been a launching pad for outrageous R-rated raunchfests — think The Hangover, Bridesmaids, 22 Jump Street and Sausage Party. But Summer 2019 proved to be a wasteland for adult comedies.
Long Shot, a.k.a. the opportunity to see Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen fall in love, stalled at $30 million. One of the year’s best-reviewed indies, the feel-good female teen comedy Booksmart, struggled to $23 million, failing to become the crossover smash some anticipated. And the intriguing odd-couple pairing of Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista didn’t power Stuber to success: This retro-Eighties action-comedy collected only $22 million, perhaps proving that Uber drivers maybe aren’t as funny as Hollywood might think.
Was there anything that connected these films’ failure beyond their rating? They were based on original screenplays, a rarity in a franchise-driven industry. (And while Amazon’s R-rated Late Night wasn’t a ribald riot like those other films, it too struggled, grossing a little more than $15 million.) Only Good Boys, which hit theaters in mid-August, outperformed expectations to land at No. 1 on its opening weekend and gross $21.4 million. That was the first time an R-rated comedy had topped the box office since 2016’s The Boss — which, like Good Boys, was released by Universal — as well as being the biggest opening for an original comedy in 2019. Maybe it would have made more sense if Long Shot had come out in August like those other hits.
4. Female-directed indies struggled… except for The Farewell.
Looking at the summer release schedule, very few female-helmed movies were featured on the calendar. Unfortunately, even fewer of them were breakout successes. That’s especially disappointing because, going into Summer 2019, there was room for optimism. At this year’s Sundance, Late Night was an audience favorite, picked up by Amazon for a record $13 million. But the crowd-pleasing female-driven comedy, directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by and starring Mindy Kaling, made little impact at the box office, inspiring whispers that the company could lose as much as $40 million on the movie during its theatrical run.
Likewise, Annapurna’s Booksmart enjoyed a boisterous reception at its South by Southwest premiere, only to inspire industry second-guessing after the movie underperformed over Memorial Day weekend. It prompted director Olivia Wilde to tweet at her followers on opening weekend, “Anyone out there saving @Booksmart for another day, consider making that day TODAY. We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support. Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women.”
It wasn’t just smaller distributors backing female directors. Just ask Warner Brothers. Ry Russo-Young’s adaptation of The Sun Is Also a Star fizzled in May. In August, The Kitchen (written and directed by Andrea Berloff) and the Sundance acquisition Blinded by the Light (directed by Bend It Like Beckham‘s Gurinder Chadha) both bombed, despite big stars in the former and positive reviews — plus the music of Bruce Springsteen — in the latter.
It hasn’t been across-the-board bad news: Lulu Wang’s The Farewell built momentum over several weekends, expanding from a successful platform release to cracking the Top 10 and becoming a genuine crossover hit for A24. And even if Booksmart wasn’t a commercial barnburner, Wilde has already landed her next directing gig, with Universal paying six figures for a pitch from her and the movie’s cowriter Katie Silberman. That’s progress… even if it’s only, regrettably, baby steps.
5. Long live John Wick!
Franchises aren’t supposed to work this way. The original John Wick (2014) was a low-budget, hardcore genre offering that gave Keanu Reeves his most interesting star vehicle in years and made a decent amount of money ($89 million worldwide). John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) amped up the visual flair and spectacular kills, grossing twice as much as the first film. This past May’s John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum nearly doubled its predecessor’s grosses. Despite Godzilla: King of the Monsters opening a mere two weeks later, Parabellum pulled in $321 million worldwide, actually out-grossing the monster flick in the U.S.
The success of this series can’t help but feel like a rejoinder to the way Hollywood usually does business. Rather than overblown CGI, a gigantic budget and wall-to-wall spectacle, these films sport relatively small-scale fight sequences with brilliant choreography. And instead of glomming onto existing material, the John Wick franchise built its own world from scratch, expanding it in subsequent installments, all under the watchful eye of screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski. As for Reeves, he’s latched onto his most iconic role since he had to bring down the Matrix. Nobody saw this coming. But then again, like William Goldman said about the movie industry, “Nobody knows anything.”
6. Animation had a hard time… unless, of course, you were Pixar.
Animated movies are usually a warm-weather goldmine, right? Except [sigh] in 2019, where cartoons largely struggled.
There were some outright disasters like STX’s Uglydolls, which brought in less than $28 million worldwide on a reported $45 million budget. And there were some shocking underperformers like The Secret Life of Pets 2 — yes, the movie made about $400 million globally, but that’s a steep drop-off from the 2016 original ($876 million worldwide), not to mention one of the least successful offerings from the animation house Illumination. The Angry Birds Movie may have been a modest surprise ($352 million worldwide) in 2016, but Part Two is off to a slow start as summer fades and our nation’s children return begrudgingly to classes and homework.
Pixar, however, continued to soar. Toy Story 4 became the studio’s fourth film to gross over a billion dollars globally — and its third in the last four summers. The latest adventure from Woody and Buzz brought in $1 billion, with $425 million from the U.S. Factoring in inflation, Toy Story 4 actually performed slightly less well than Toy Story 3 (the 2010 movie collected $1.1 billion worldwide, $415 million of that coming from the United States). But consider what its competition faced this summer, and you’re reminded that Pixar is one of the few places where making “just” a billion dollars a sign of eroding audience interest.
7. Disney ruled everything… and that’s becoming a big problem.
Currently, the studio that gave the world Mickey Mouse boasts five of the year’s six highest-grossing domestic releases, as well as five of the six highest worldwide. If you count Avengers: Endgame as the unofficial start of summer movie season, four of those five releases are from summer, including The Lion King, Toy Story 4 and Aladdin. For nine weeks, a Disney movie was at No. 1 at the U.S. box office — all the other studios combined topped the other 11. Endgame became the highest-grossing worldwide release ever. (It’s No. 2 in the U.S., behind another Disney film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.) All four summer releases — as well as March’s Captain Marvel — made over a billion dollars worldwide. It’s a staggering string of achievements.
But it’s also distressing. Writing in The Guardian, film critic Guy Lodge sounded an alarm about Disney’s status as a beast that is similarly feasting on its competition. “Giving the people what they want amounts to giving them characters and stories they already know,” Lodge wrote, later adding, “As long as Disney maintains its box-office stranglehold — and you have to go back to 2014 for a year in which it didn’t top the annual chart — it will be regarded as the principal architect of an ever more uniform and homogeneous popular cinema.” (Rolling Stone‘s own David Fear was equally dismayed, lamenting Disney’s string of hollow live-action re-imaginings: “Do we want an incredibly faithful recreation of the animated movie, down to last warbling sidekick song and fiery showdown, just with new celebrity voices? Or do we just want two hours in the cocoon of our own nostalgia, trying to recapture that giddy rush we had the first time we heard ‘Be Our Guest’ or ‘Be Prepared’?”)
For Hollywood to truly shine, rival studios have to challenge one another, trying different things in order to attract audiences. Disney’s commercially magnificent summer wasn’t a comparably stunning one creatively — the studio largely sold us what we’ve had before. And with so many original films stumbling this summer, it may be harder to convince rival studios that taking risks is worth it.
8. Fox’s summer was a nightmare.
In comparison to Disney’s series of triumphs, Fox had a summer it would like to forget, and not just at the box office. The studio, newly acquired by Disney, released three films this season — and each were different degrees of commercial catastrophes.
Most notoriously, Dark Phoenix brought the once-vibrant X-Men series to a grinding halt. A worldwide gross of $252 million was nearly as embarrassing as the almost-unanimously-poor reviews. The movie’s dim fate seemed inevitable weeks before its unveiling — the film’s release had been delayed, and stories of expensive reshoots only further poisoned expectations. Once the would-be blockbuster hit multiplexes, superhero fans seemed content to skip this woebegone sequel and wait it out until Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige integrates these mutants into the MCU.
If Fox execs were feeling suitably demoralized, the bad news only continued with Stuber and The Art of Racing in the Rain, which were both released by Disney and sank without a trace. By all accounts, the Disney brass just wanted those films off their books, with Bob Iger, the studio’s chief executive, appointing his own in-house team to “redefin[e] 20th Century Fox’s film strategy for the future, applying the same discipline and creative standards behind the success of Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm.” In other words, Fox is now viewed as the redheaded stepchild of the Disney empire. This is a sad state of affairs for one of Hollywood’s most enduring studios.
9. There’s still room for a challenging, low-budget wide release… but that terrain is shrinking.
A24 continues to be one of Hollywood’s gutsiest companies. The studio behind crossover hits like Moonlight and challenging art-house fare like High Life rolled the dice over the Fourth of July holiday by unveiling the new horror film Midsommar. Writer-director Ari Aster’s follow-up to 2018’s Hereditary focused on a depressed college student (Florence Pugh) who accompanies her boyfriend and their buddies on a trip to a remote Swedish community. Things get weird. Very weird.
Midsommar hasn’t been the indie smash Hereditary was — $35 million worldwide compared to $79 million for Aster’s debut — but it was heartening to see a studio show such faith in its counterprogramming, throwing the movie up against the holiday’s other big release, Spider-Man: Far From Home. Plenty of other films were bigger this summer, but this art-horror movie felt like that rare event: a smart, complex summer movie full of ideas and risks.
10. Quentin Tarantino may be the last real movie-star director — and certain names above the marquee still matter.
Hollywood is driven by intellectual property, not stars. But occasionally, name value still matters. A reimagining of Los Angeles in 1969, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was one of the season’s few hits based on an original screenplay and his third film in his last four to break $100 million at the U.S. box office. It’s also further proof that the man remains a filmmaker who has a sizable audience that will sample whatever he cooks up.
Of course, it helps if you have one of the most reliable movie stars in the world in your film. Which brings us to Leonardo DiCaprio. With Once Upon a Time, he now has seven films (out of eight) made this decade to gross at least $100 million domestic. The movie isn’t an unqualified hit, yet, of course: The Hollywood Reporter noted that, because of pricey talent deals and marketing costs, Once Upon a Time may need to gross $400 million worldwide to be profitable. But the film has just started opening overseas, and it looks like that figure may be very attainable. Let’s hope so. We may live in a superhero/Pixar/Disney universe, but this raucous, vibrant Hollywood adventure proves that, on occasion, we still love a little originality — and the kinds of stars who make us curious for whatever they do next.