Hollywood’s Banner Year at the Box Office Masks a Procession of Flops

Hollywood’s Banner Year at the Box Office Masks a Procession of Flops

Megahits, such as ‘Star Wars,’ pushed total ticket sales to a record in 2015, but many films struggled to find an audience.

Hollywood had its biggest year at the box office in 2015, thanks to a handful of blockbusters that left a whole lot of duds in the dust.

But the runaway success of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Jurassic World” raises questions about the overall health of the movie business. The problem: More films that don’t have the muscle to be megahits are struggling to attract any audience at all.

Last year’s ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada totaled $11.1 billion, up 7% from the previous year and surpassing the record of $10.92 billion set in 2013, according to Rentrak. All of the growth, however, occurred at the top of the heap.

The five most successful movies of 2015 grossed $2.47 billion, accounting for 22% of the year’s total box office. The previous high for the top five was $2.05 billion, or 19% of the overall take, in 2012.

For the other 129 films released nationally last year, the results were anything but impressive. They brought in a collective $8.65 billion, the lowest total for non-top-five movies since 2008, when ticket prices were 14% lower.


Audiences have become “very binary” in their moviegoing choices, said Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion picture business. “Either a film is relevant to them and penetrates the pop-cultural zeitgeist, in which case the upside is enormous, or it doesn’t rise to that level and they’re out altogether.”

A startling number of big-budget movies bombed in 2015, proving that no amount of marketing can pull audiences into theaters at a time when Netflix queues are long and social media spreads word about a stinker in a heartbeat. The year’s costly disappointments included “Pan” and “Jupiter Ascending” from Time Warner Inc. ’s Warner Bros., “Fantastic Four” from 21st Century Fox ’s Twentieth Century Fox studio, Walt Disney Co. ’s “Tomorrowland,” and “Pixels” from Sony. Until mid-2013, Fox was part of Wall Street Journal parent News Corp.

Last year also saw eight movies that failed to gross even $10 million despite full-fledged advertising campaigns, a record in recent years. In the past, spending $20 million or more to promote a film almost always guaranteed a respectable performance, said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for Fox. But “there is no bottom anymore,” he said

Casting a big-name actor didn’t seem to help. The year’s sub-$10 million club included Fox’s “Victor Frankenstein,” featuring “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe; Warner’s “Our Brand is Crisis,” with Sandra Bullock; and Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. ’s “Mortdecai,” starring Johnny Depp.

Most worrisome to some in Hollywood is the disappearance of second-tier movies—those that aren’t blockbusters but are solidly profitable. Last year, 22 movies grossed between $100 million and $350 million domestically, down from 31 in 2014 and the fewest since 2006.


From left, Ann Dowd, Sandra Bullock and Anthony Mackie in a scene from ‘Our Brand is Crisis.’ Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

“Gigantic hits are actually becoming more common and the midsize hits are becoming rarer,” said Adam Goodman, a producer and former film group president of Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures.

The movie industry’s troubles may stem from its heavy reliance on television advertising, as more people fast forward through commercials or abandon cable subscriptions. Some insiders also point to the growing quality of at-home entertainment options, be they on cable, streaming services or videogame consoles. But few doubt moviegoers’ habits have changed.

“Many younger people no longer feel compelled to go to the movies as an activity in general,” said Sony’s Mr. Rothman. “Instead, they go to see a particular movie.”

Overseas ticket sales, which rose an estimated 5% last year to $27.5 billion according to Rentrak, can help make up for losses at home. “Terminator: Genisys,” for instance, grossed $351 million internationally, compared with $90 million in the U.S. and Canada. But foreign box office more often exacerbates domestic trends. The top five domestic movies were all among the eight highest grossing internationally.

As they have for a number of years, sequels and reboots continued to rule the box office last year. The only exceptions that made the top 10 were animated features, such as Pixar Animation Studios’ “Inside Out,” and Fox’s surprise hit adaptation of best-selling book “The Martian.”

The trend toward sequels, reboots, computer-animated films and adaptations of comic books, toys or videogames is likely to accelerate in coming years as the major studios, increasingly focused on big-budget “event” movies they hope will become blockbuster hits, rely on formulas that have worked for them before.

There were about 27 such films last year, and nearly 40 are scheduled for release this year and in 2017. Some of them are new installments of successful movie series like “X-Men” and “Fast and Furious” while others, such as “Wonder Woman” and “Ghostbusters” are attempts to create or refresh big-screen franchises.

But there still are likely to be many times more bombs than blockbusters, unless movie attendance picks up. “You can get blinded by the success of certain sequels and forget about the years of development and fan growth it takes to grow a franchise,” said Mr. Goodman.

What’s more, the fact that the Amy Schumer comedy “Trainwreck” outgrossed a sequel to 2012’s smash hit “Ted” domestically shows that well-known titles are no guarantee of success.


Hollywood’s Banner Year at the Box Office Masks a Procession of Flops

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