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Summer box office bust? This season’s movie slate could put up the lowest haul in decades

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Ryan Gosling stars in Universal’s “The Fall Guy.”
Universal

For the first time since 2009, the box office doesn’t have a Marvel film to kick off the summer movie season — and it shows.

Since the 2008 release of “Iron Man,” Marvel Cinematic Universe films have consistently launched during this highly lucrative moviegoing season, with only two films generating openings of less than $100 million — not including pandemic years.

This year, the headline film for the first summer weekend was Universal’s “The Fall Guy.” And despite strong marketing efforts and solid reviews, the movie failed to drum up ticket sales during its opening last weekend. The film tallied less than $28 million during its domestic debut.

“‘The Fall Guy’ had quality co-stars in Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, but the lack of a known franchise brand and a niche storyline made it too narrow to attract a mass summer-like audience,” Eric Handler, managing director at Roth MKM, wrote in a note to investors Monday.

That stumble doesn’t bode well for the summer box office, which was already set to decline from last year’s $4.1 billion haul after dual Hollywood labor strikes halted production and clogged the pipeline of new film releases.

The result could send the 2024 summer box office down as much as $800 million compared with 2023, according to Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian, and have ripple effects for the whole year. After all, the key summer period, which runs from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, typically accounts for 40% of the total annual domestic box office.

A limited and unsteady stream of new films means moviegoers haven’t been exposed to film trailers and poster promotions at their local cinemas and may not be aware of the features heading to the big screen. Additionally, this summer’s movie slate is not as strong as that of prior years, with fewer blockbusters and major franchise films.

There’s only one superhero film slated for the summer — “Deadpool and Wolverine,” the first R-rated Disney Marvel flick — and it doesn’t arrive until late July.

At present, analysts believe the summer movie season will exceed $3 billion in ticket sales, but just barely. Before Covid, the summer box office consistently topped more than $4 billion. The last time ticket sales were as low as $3 billion during this season was in 2000, according to data from Comscore.

“Even with the inevitable year-over-year revenue downturn, the summer of ’24 should be judged more by the quality and value of the moviegoing experience than the quantity of box office cash in the drawer,” said Dergarabedian.

A lackluster summer

So far this quarter, the box office is tracking down 48% year-over-year, Handler noted. While he expects the May slate to help strengthen ticket sales, the box office “will need to see some big splashes” to “reclaim some lost ground.”

“Right now, cinema operators are in need of a significant content infusion,” Handler wrote. “Not only is the volume of content down in 2Q, but it also lacks sizzle.”

The biggest summer movie releases

May 9 — “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes”
May 17 — “IF”
May 17 — “The Strangers: Chapter 1”
May 24 — “Furiosa: A Mad Max Story”
May 24 — “The Garfield Movie”

June 7 — “Bad Boys: Ride or Die”
June 14 — “Inside Out 2”
June 21 — “The Bikeriders”
June 28 — “A Quiet Place: Day One”

July 3 — “Despicable Me 4”
July 19 — “Twisters”
July 26 — “Deadpool and Wolverine”

August 9 — “Borderlands”
August 16 — “Alien: Romulus”
August 23 — “The Crow”

For the rest of May, Disney’s “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is currently tracking for a domestic opening weekend of between $55 million and $60 million. Paramount’s “IF” is looking at around $40 million. And Warner Bros.’ “Furiosa” is expected to hit between $40 million and $50 million.

However, those forecasts pale compared with major releases during the same month last year. Universal’s “Fast X” tallied $67 million during its opening, and Disney’s live-action film “The Little Mermaid” opened to $96 million.

It’s yet to be seen if this summer will have any breakout hits, such as Angel’s “Sound of Freedom” last year, that could bolster the overall box office.

A strong finish

What the summer 2024 slate has going for it is more family-friendly fare. A slew of animated features from established franchises should draw out parents and kids during summer vacation and time off from school.

Currently, Universal’s “Kung Fu Panda 4” is the second-highest-grossing film domestically for 2024, with $188.4 million in ticket sales. Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s “Dune: Part Two” is the highest-grossing domestic release so far this year with $281.3 million.

And some heavy hitters are coming during the last stretch of the year.

“Beetlejuice Beetlejuice” arrives in early September, “Joker: Folie a Deux” hits in October alongside “Venom: The Last Dance,” and November sees “Gladiator II,” “Moana 2” and “Wicked.” Additionally, December will have “Kraven the Hunter,” “Sonic the Hedgehog 3” and “Mufasa: The Lion King.”

Notably, the first “Joker” tallied $335 million domestically in 2019. Both “Venom” films generated $213 million apiece. “Moana” in 2016 took in $248.7 million, and the two previous “Sonic” movies scored $146 million and $190 million during their runs in theaters.

“Ultimately the race is won at the multiplex and not on a spreadsheet,” said Dergarabedian.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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