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Lessons From The US Summer Box Office: What Worked And What Didn't

Hollywood and the film exhibition industry made up for pandemic-lost time this summer with a skein of high-grossing titles that dominated the newly-reopened theaters from Memorial Day through Labor Day. However, not every movie was a box office champ and multiple lessons were obvious in reviewing the highs and lows of the post-pandemic summer film season.

What Worked This Summer: According to data compiled by, this summer, the studios that commanded the big screen environment were Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) and Comcast’s (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Pictures.

Each had five films in the summer’s top 20 titles, with ViacomCBS’ (NASDAQ: VIAC) Paramount Pictures and AT&T’s (NYSE: T) Warner Bros. each placing three titles in the top 20.

The year’s top box office hit among the summer releases was Disney’s “Black Widow,” with a domestic gross to date of $183 million. This might come as a surprise to some, considering the public rebuke that Disney received from the National Association of Theater Owners that the studio’s simultaneous theatrical and streaming release of “Black Widow” diluted its ticket sales.

The second-place finisher among the summer releases was Universal’s “F9: The Fast Saga,” the ninth installment in the 20-year-old “Fast and Furious” franchise. And audiences were showing no weariness of films that extended or recycled older material — all but three films in the summer’s top 20 were either sequels, remakes or reboots of earlier films or, in the cases of Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” and Paramount’s “PAW Patrol: The Movie,” big screen adaptations of well-established properties from other mediums.

Of the three original productions, only “Free Guy” from Disney’s 20th Century Studios cracked the top 10, with a domestic gross to date of $105 million. M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old” from Universal ranked 12th with $47.8 million in ticket sales, but considering the film was made on a relatively low budget of $18 million, that turned into a profitable endeavor.

What Didn’t Work This Summer: Far less successful was the big-screen adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical “In the Heights,” which grossed $29.8 million to date on a budget of $43.9 million. Despite the extensive promotion of the work — which featured multiple reminders of Miranda as the creator of the “Hamilton” juggernaut — the summer’s only musical limped into 18th place within the top 20.

Animated features also underperformed during the summer. While Warner Bros. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” grossed $70.2 million to date for an eighth-place ranking in the top 20, it underperformed when held up to the original 1996 “Space Jam” which brought in $90 million.

Likewise, Universal’s “The Boss Baby: Family Business” has generated $57.1 million for a tenth-place finish, but the 2017 “Boss Baby” grossed $175 million. And “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” from Sony Pictures (NYSE: SONY) placed 15th with $40.3 million — while the 2018 original grossed $115 million.

“PAW Patrol: The Movie” was the first big-screen version of the popular animated television series, but it ranked 17th with $37.1 million.

Some studios with animated films bypassed the summer theater season completely and put their titles on streaming. This included “Luca” from Disney’s Pixar division. It had one-week Los Angeles theatrical engagement to qualify the film for Academy Award consideration.

It also includes “My Little Pony: A New Generation,” which was initially planned as a Paramount release but is now slated for a Sept. 24 premiere on Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) with limited theatrical release overseas.

Lessons To Learn: One obvious lesson from the summer is that bankable star power is no guarantee of a commercial hit. For example, while Ryan Reynolds headlined sixth-place finisher “Free Guy,” he also starred with reliables Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s Wife,” which placed 16th with a $38 million gross against a $70 million budget.

Other star vehicles that sank included the Matt Damon vehicle “Stillwater” (27th place at $14.4 million) and “Reminiscence” with Hugh Jackman (37th place with $3.8 million). That trend appears to have continued with Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho,” which emerged from the weekend with an anemic $4.5 million from 3,967 screens, placing third behind “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Free Guy.”

An unpredictable fall theatrical season became even more curious as Paramount Pictures pulled its remaining 2021 from the release schedule, including the long-awaited Tom Cruise vehicle “Top Gun: Maverick,” which was slated for the Thanksgiving weekend and has now been pushed back to 2022’s Memorial Day weekend.

And despite the success of “Black Widow,” Disney is focusing on a theatrical-only release slate for the rest of 2021, whereas Warner Bros. — which just released “Cry Macho” — is still on track for dual presentations in theaters and on HBO Max into 2022.

Photo: Scarlett Johansson in the summer’s top-grossing film “Black Widow,” courtesy of Disney.

© 2021 Benzinga does not provide investment advice. All rights reserved.

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