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Summertime Sadness at the Box Office

A stretch of June flops has once again put a magnifying glass on the health of the movie industry, as every studio not named Disney struggles to make an impact

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The 2019 domestic box office has been an erratic beast, oftentimes looking more like a panicky heart monitor than a reflection of the year in cinema. Things got off to a frigid start in the first two months of the year, punctuated by diminishing returns for films like Alita: Battle Angel (which did much better internationally) and The Lego Movie 2, which was particularly upsetting when contrasted with the early months of 2018, a.k.a. when Black Panther reigned supreme. But the box office didn’t suffer in perpetuity: Eventually, films like Jordan Peele’s Us—the highest opening for an original horror movie of all time—and Captain Marvel reinvigorated the multiplex through March and into April, when Avengers: Endgame rolled into town. Endgame’s own dominance has been genuinely historic: an $830 million domestic total, along with the highest domestic opening of all time at $350 million. Endgame is still behind Avatar for the box office world record, but it’s a titanic achievement that’s surpassed Titanic along the way.

Unfortunately, as Endgame has slowly but surely receded into June, we’ve hit another slump defined by underwhelming sequels—four, in particular. This weekend, Men in Black: International and Shaft—a spinoff of the Men in Black trilogy and the third Shaft movie simply named Shaft (seriously, why do they all have the same name?)—both had disappointing returns. While International led the weekend, it did so with just $28.5 million. By comparison, all the previous Men in Black films debuted with at least $50 million. Shaft did even worse, failing to break into the top five and earning less than $10 million. With a budget of $30 million, it’s at least not a calamitous disaster, but Warner Bros. will likely still struggle to break even on the movie.

Along with the weak numbers of Dark Phoenix, which debuted last weekend with $33 million, a record low for the storied X-Men franchise, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which dipped 67.5 percent after its opening weekend on May 31, the summer of 2019 has been defined by a plethora of flops.

It’s hard to gauge how much these low totals are a result of franchise fatigue—or, even more simply, of bad films that audiences aren’t willing to shell out money for. What all these movies have in common—aside from bad financial returns—are pretty lousy reviews. International, Shaft, Dark Phoenix, and King of the Monsters all have Metacritic scores under 50; Rotten Tomatoes paints a similarly bleak picture, with all four earning “rotten” scores. Whichever way you shake it, and whatever critical aggregation site you use, the same story emerges: These are not good movies. Bad reviews might not be the sole reason these sequels are performing poorly, but to negate the reviews’ impact—especially after MoviePass, the service used by many to freely check out mediocre movies, has all but gone extinct—when examining this summer’s box office numbers would be misguided. Indeed, a year before International topped the weekend with a sub-$30 million opening, the very well-reviewed Incredibles 2 garnered $180 million over the same weekend, a record haul for an animated film.

Besides, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom for non-Endgame blockbuster sequels this summer. John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum hasn’t just garnered stellar reviews and the best box office numbers of Keanu Reeves’s glorious, dog-loving franchise, it’s proved that it has some serious legs. The film dipped less than 20 percent this weekend; like the Baba Yaga himself, Parabellum is refusing to die at the box office, despite debuting back on May 17. As other sequels have failed, there’s been enough of an audience to keep Parabellum floating—and perhaps that, too, is because the movie just so happens to be very good. Parabellum is the sixth-highest-grossing movie of the year domestically, with a $148 million cume and counting. But if there’s a larger idea to take away from the ever-fluctuating box office of 2019, it’s evinced by the three biggest earners on the year: Endgame, Captain Marvel, and Aladdin, all of which are Disney productions.

Disney has dominated the box office at the year’s midway point, just like it did in 2018 when it had the top three performers on the year (Black Panther, Infinity War, and Incredibles 2). Even if Dark Phoenix—under the 20th Century Fox umbrella, which itself has now been acquired by Disney—ends up losing the studio upward of $100 million, it’s just another reminder that Disney is operating at the height of its powers with more movies in theaters than ever before. Before we consider whether the studio may experience a lull for the remainder of 2019, remember that the company’s still got The Lion King remake, Frozen II, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on the docket later this year. It’s way too early to speculate what these movies are going to make at the box office, but “a crapload of money” seems like a reasonable estimate Nate Silver could agree to.

A larger concern still stands that the box office’s health is overly dependent on Disney’s releases. Other major studios are capable of hits—Universal’s Us is the fourth-biggest release of the year, and Warner Bros. also fills out the top 10 with Detective Pikachu and Shazam!, plus Lionsgate’s aforementioned fortunes with Parabellum—but without the consistency of the most influential entertainment company on the planet, the movie business would be on life support. The summer of 2019 won’t be completely dead thanks to Disney, the Disney-adjacent Spider-Man: Far From Home (which technically still belongs to Sony Pictures), and Universal’s Hobbs & Shaw, which looks like the Citizen Kane of street-racing-turned-superhero-franchise spinoffs. But more and more it’s becoming clear that only one studio is really making the nostalgia of past IP work for it, while the others might be better off coming up with a new strategy.