Hollywood Is on Crack: What This Weekend’s Horrible Holiday Box Office Says About Cinema’s Blockbuster Fixation

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If you spend too much time reading the weekly movie box office reports, the headlines can all start to blur together: “SUPERHERO MOVIE OPENS BIG,” “SUPERHERO SEQUEL TOPS ORIGINAL,” “TRANSFORMERS MOVIE BREAKS RECORDS IN FIRST WEEK,” “TRANSFORMERS MOVIE BREAKS RECORDS FOR SECOND WEEK DROP-OFF,” etc. etc. But there’s nothing normal about the headlines this Fourth of July weekend. Variety: “SUMMER BOX OFFICE DOWN NEARLY 20% AFTER JULY 4TH FILMS FIZZLE.” Box Office Mojo: “’TRANSFORMERS’ REPEATS ON WEAK INDEPENDENCE DAY WEEKEND.” The Hollywood Reporter: “WHAT’S BEHIND SUMMER’S FREE FALL AT THE BOX OFFICE?” And Gawker, as usual, is not afraid to put too fine a point on it: “NO ONE WENT TO THE MOVIES THIS FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND.” So, uh, what happened?

In retrospect, it’s downright baffling that the studios went into the major movie-going weekend with such a weak line-up of new releases. The Fourth of July, alongside Memorial Day and the first weekend of May (or Marvel weekend, as it has basically become), has always been one of the major target dates for giant summer movies; studios will stake it out years in advance, and Independence Day (obviously), Men in Black, The Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Superman Returns, War of the Worlds, Armageddon, and Terminator 2 and 3 all opened then. Yet this year, there were only three wide releases: the forgettable (and weirdly un-buzzworthy) Melissa McCarthy comedy Tammy; Deliver Us From Evil, yet another demonic possession movie; and Earth to Echo, which I guess was a family flick?

The point is, none are the kind of thing that spring to mind when you think “blockbuster,” and traditionally, studios open blockbusters on the Fourth of July weekend. So why did they steer clear of this one? According to The Hollywood Reporter , “no big tentpole rolled out, probably because no one wanted to open in the wake of Transformers: Age of Extinction, which debuted June 27.” What’s unclear is why Paramount chose to open the fourth Transformers movie the weekend before the Fourth, when both the first and third films in the series opened over the holiday in previous years. But it seems safe to guess that by going a week earlier and scaring off the competition, they figured they could win two weekends.

And they did — but just barely. Trans4mers “plummeted 64 percent” in its second week, according to Box Office Mojo, and for good reason: if you’re the kind of person who genuinely, earnestly wants to spend nearly three hours being assaulted by Transformers 4 (and they’re out there, I know), you’re the kind of person who is going to see it opening weekend. This is not the kind of movie that sees its shelf life bolstered by glowing word of mouth; it is the kind of movie that is anticipated by months of hype, has a blowout opening weekend, and fades away quickly.

But more and more, that’s what’s they all are — and what Hollywood wants them to be. The Dream Factory has become a jonesing junkie, showing up every week in desperate need of a fix. The “blockbuster of the week” films — like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and even the summer’s biggest grosser, X-Men: Days of Future Past — arrive in theaters preceded by bushels of ballyhoo, do monster business in the first few days, and then… just… disappear. (Just for fun, get on your phone and see how many opportunities you have to see Godzilla today.)

On one hand, hey, the machine keeps cranking — but the cracks are starting to show. Going into the summer season, domestic box office was up nine percent over last year. Now, it’s down an astonishing 19 percent. A full four percent of that was just from the Fourth of July weekend, when the junkie didn’t get its hit. The junkie needs its hit. “Thank goodness we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy coming, because we need it,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, told Variety, uncomfortably aping the language of the industry’s beloved street-corner crackhead archetype. “Boy, do we need it.”

It would be easy to spin this odd moviegoing weekend — like the high-profile failure of The Lone Ranger and White House Down this time last year — as another kick in the gut for the “original” films that are increasingly losing the battle for Hollywood’s soul to endless remakes, sequels, and reboots. But there are two problems with that equation: this weekend’s new releases weren’t particularly “original” (Tammy was basically a remake of Identity Thief, Deliver Us from Evil was basically a remake of The Exorcist III, and Earth to Echo was a found-footage E.T.), and they weren’t particularly good.

And that’s the real issue here, with films “original” or otherwise. Going to the movies over a three-day holiday weekend is basically a national tradition. So what does it say about the actual quality of what’s at the multiplex — not the marketing, not the branding, not the familiarity — when a nation of vulnerable mainstream moviegoers check their theater listings and can’t find anything there worth going to see?