Q&A – Film critic Charles Gant on disappointing summer box office figures

Guardians of the Galaxy was the biggest film of the summer at the US box office
Guardians of the Galaxy was the biggest film of the summer
Photo: Marvel Studios

 

This has been a weird summer at the box office. In the USA, box office takings for Summer 2014 were 15% down on 2013, creating the worst-performing year since 2006, despite an impressive display from Guardians of the Galaxy. If the figures are adjusted for inflation, the picture is even gloomier – the worst year since 1997.

The picture in the UK wasn’t much stronger, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes alternating top spot with The Inbetweeners 2 throughout the last few months.

Charles Gant, film critic for Heat, is one of the UK’s most knowledgeable box office experts. He spoke to The Popcorn Muncher about whether this year really has been all doom and gloom.


 
With all of the doomy reporting, should we be worried about this summer’s box office figures?

I think, whenever you see box office spike up or spike down, it’s hard to say whether it’s just a blip or part of a bigger trend. I think that, if you look at what happened this summer, lots of films did reasonably well – it wasn’t flop after flop. But what we lacked was any title that absolutely popped through the barrier. In the USA for example, only Guardians of the Galaxy made it past $300m, whereas last year Iron Man 3 did over $400m and Despicable Me 2 did $350m.

Heat film critic and box office expert Charles Gant
Heat magazine film critic and box office expert Charles Gant
Photo: Twitter

I think one of the big problems this summer was a lack of compelling family films. Last year, we had Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University, which were big hits. This year, I think the biggest animated title was How to Train Your Dragon 2, which just didn’t perform at a similar level.

On the one hand, it’s definitely a bit of a blip, but I think more generally, America is a maturing market. In terms of audience, they’ve definitely been plateauing for the last decade, probably drifting slightly downwards. The UK has seen a similar trend.

For Hollywood, the good news is that there are big family markets abroad, especially China, which is one of the top three markets now. Hollywood product is succeeding all over the world, in ways stronger than it was a decade ago.

 

The biggest film in the UK this year so far has been The Lego Movie. Does this mark a move for big movies away from the summer season?

I think that’s a really good point. Blockbusters are now a year-long phenomenon. Whereas, a decade ago, all of the good blockbusters would come out in the summer or at Christmas, they are now being spread out across the year. I would say The Amazing Spider-Man 2 kicked off the summer box office season, but of course that was released in April.

If you look at, for example, last year, although there were big summer movies like Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2, there were also a lot of big films that came out at other times of the year.

Notably, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. That did $425m in the USA, which was bigger than any film that came out during the summer period and also Frozen did over $400m.

 

Do you think that studios have chosen this summer to release more risky, mature movies?

I think that Guardians of the Galaxy was definitely a risk because the property was relatively unknown. It was something different for Marvel and Chris Pratt was not a proven movie star. I think that was a creative risk that really paid off and, for me, the fact that film has done so well both in the USA and internationally is a really encouraging sign.

If you offer audiences something different and a bit special, but with the cache of a brand they’re comfortable with, you can produce a creatively interesting film that does well.

 

Marvel also hit top spot in 2013 with Iron Man 3
Marvel also hit top spot in 2013 with Iron Man 3
Photo: Marvel Studios

 

Is all of this gloom a little premature in the wake of how strong 2015 looks?

I read Hollywood box office reports over the years and, whenever we have a summer that hasn’t done that well, there always seems to be loads of good films coming down the pipeline. 2015 does look particularly strong and I’d be surprised if we don’t bounce back a little.

 

With all of these big films appearing outside of summer, is the summer blockbuster an outdated idea?

It’s certainly true that Hollywood studios do tend to want to release films where they have the maximum potential to engage audiences and the family audience is very important. I think that holiday times will continue to be important because, rather than your films just playing on a weekend, they can play really strongly all week as well, especially with family films.

So I don’t think the idea of the summer blockbuster is going to go away, but those bigger movies will be seeking a safe home in other months of the year. The problem for a big movie is that, if you open soft, there’s another summer blockbuster coming seven days later.

If you release in February-April, it’s a lot less competitive and I think that studios will continue to exploit those pockets of the calendar.

 

Are summer audiences now more family-orientated than before?

I think summer’s always been a big time for family.

It depends whether you’re talking strictly animated movies for kids or, for example, something like a Harry Potter film. Some of the Potter films did very well in the Christmas period, but others did well in the summer. I think movies with family appeal will continue to do well in the summer.

| “Movies with family appeal will continue to do well in the summer.”

Most of the big hits in the summer were 12A certificates and that means you can take a child of any age as long as they are accompanied by an adult. That means a lot of kids will have gone to see Guardians of the Galaxy, Transformers, X-Men, Spider-Man and Godzilla. Those films have strong family appeal.

 

Does the UK success of The Inbetweeners 2 suggest that 15-rated films can do well?

I don’t think you can really draw a huge trend from the success of The Inbetweeners 2. The Inbetweeners is a phenomenon.

A raunchy, sweary comedy always has an appeal, whether it’s The Hangover or some of the Judd Apatow comedies. The Inbetweeners Movie did $45m in the UK and the second one has done maybe 25% less.

It’s still a phenomenal result, but it’s like catching lightning in a bottle. You’re not gonna see something like that come along very often.

 

Summer box office hit Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes cleared $200m at the US box office
Photo: 20th Century Fox

 

Is there a film on the way that could beat Avatar to be the highest-grossing film ever?

Avatar did about $2.8bn. The next biggest film is way, way behind that so I wouldn’t be expecting to see anything catch Avatar. I wouldn’t be able to pick a project that’s currently in the pipeline and say that it will beat Avatar. Even the next Star Wars film.

I don’t even know whether Avatar 2 will beat it. Because they’re promising three more movies, I worry that audiences won’t go.

The first movie was a phenomenon because of excitement around 3D and seeing something that was completely fresh and different. The reason Avatar did well was that it played to people who didn’t usually go to the cinema. There’s a huge audience out there that only go to see one film a year and Avatar swept up those people.

I don’t know if a sequel will have that same quality.

 

Thank you, Charles Gant! You can read his weekly box office analysis pieces in The Guardian.

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