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Wasteland at the Summer Box Office?

By Eashan Reddy Kotha

Although pundits have reported the summer box office as a dud this year, down 14 percent from last summer with just $3.82 billion, this news may come as a surprise to some. After all, this summer was loaded with solid, diverse offerings to the public like “Wonder Woman,” “Girls Trip,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Dunkirk.” So what happened? It’s true that the box office suffered from the summer slump. However, this is not to say that streaming is the king of entertainment and traditional theaters are dead. In fact, it posits the opposite – theaters have a cultural foothold in society. And while there was a drop in tickets sold during this summer season, the downturn is merely representative of a shift in audience taste and diversity of quality content offerings.

The surprise success of Stephen King’s “It,” adapted from the book of the same name, injected some much-needed life into the box office. As of Sept. 21, the box-office for 2017 is tracking 5.2 percent behind 2016’s gross. With “Justice League,” “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in the pipeline, there is still time for 2017’s box office to pull ahead of 2016’s grosses. Also consider that August is traditionally a month with sparse offerings in the way of new releases. The last two weeks of the season provided no new films for moviegoers to enjoy, contributing further to a dismal month.

In light of the aforementioned information, it is important to recognize the highlights of the summer season as well. Despite a low overall box-office, audiences supported indie-films like “The Big Sick,” and “Ingrid Goes West.” These films broke out and had strong legs because of positive word-of-mouth and critical acclaim. Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” legged it to $411 million off an opening weekend of over $100 million. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” captivated audiences too, with $185 million and counting off a $50 million dollar debut. Why did these movies prevail? Why was Stephen King’s “It” a September blockbuster while “The Dark Tower,” released a month before, was not?

Of course there are many reasons for each film’s respective performance, but this summer is indicative of an evolving dynamic of audience-cinema relationships. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO and other streaming services have begun to fill the market with content. Of course, this aspect remains the same year after year, but the difference is in the amount of quality content. Shows like “Stranger Things,” “Game of Thrones,” “Rick and Morty,” and so on have filled a void that people used to fill with theater-time. Watching media at home is way more relaxed and accessible to everyone. Thus, it appears that event cinema will be the most surefire way to get tickets sold, receiving good critical reviews and  strong word-of-mouth. Audiences need to feel like they are going into the film to experience something unexpected,  that can grip their attention. This quality is reflected in most of the top grossing films of the summer and 2017 in general. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” stands a strong example, drawing groups of people to experience the film together. This so-called event cinema can be traced back to 2009’s “Avatar,” which ended up grossing $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office. The experience of Pandora and its  rich detail that couldn’t be emulated on the smaller screens at home brought around its success. The increasing selectivity is why films with high Rotten Tomatoes scores, like “War for the Planet of the Apes,” failed to break out like its predecessor did – it felt like more of the same as the previous installment.  

In the past, movies that possessed little substance and less-than-stellar reviews could easily reach the box-office stratosphere. However, with the availability of high quality content in the form of streaming services, palettes have become more refined. There appears to be a difference with how selective viewers have become when it comes to the films they enjoy on the big screen. After all, the top films at the box office, even the surprise indie-hits all did exceptionally well for their budget as they were good films. The positive word-of-mouth among viewers carried most of these top grossing films to the coffers   boosting interest and conjunctly, ticket sales. The fact that such films that are diverse and varying in subject matter are over performing on an individual level should be celebrated.