Any hope of The Flash recovering from its disastrous June 16-18 opening was dashed when the Warner Bros. and DC tentpole disappeared over a cliff in its second weekend. It tumbled 72.5 percent, the second-worst decline ever for a Hollywood superhero pic at the domestic box office behind Morbius, which fell 73.8 percent in its sophomore outing last year.
Insiders at Warners didn’t even try to gloss over the situation, saying the movie was rejected by moviegoers on a wholesale basis (the studio had anticipated a 50 to 55 percent drop). Going into the summer, The Flash was expected to be sizeable player at the box office (think well north of $500 million or $600 million globally). Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav went so far as to say in April the pic was the best superhero movie he’s ever seen, heightening expectations.
The movie wasn’t the only major miss in late June. Animated pic Elemental, which launched opposite The Flash over the June 16-18 weekend, opened to $29.6 million, the lowest debut in the history of Pixar when adjusting for inflation. (Unlike The Flash, Elemental has a shot at making up some ground.)
The mid-summer turbulence means that revenue for the season might not hit the $4 billion pre-pandemic levels as predicted. It also puts additional pressure on a parade of July Hollywood studio tentpoles to perform, beginning with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny over the July Fourth holiday and followed by Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part One on July 12 and Oppenheimer and Barbie on July 21.
“This summer is a stress test,” says one top studio executive, who adds that 15 percent of moviegoers still haven’t returned to cinemas post-pandemic amid the rise of streamers and financial worry. And that percentage is even higher for certain genres, such as family fare or films targeting older moviegoers. The hope is that this summer will narrow that gap as Hollywood tries to win back those who are still AWOL.
“Nothing says ‘normal’ like the stomach churning ups and downs of a dynamic summer movie season,” says Comscore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “Despite the solid pedigree of many of the upcoming films, predicting the final outcome of the summer movie season is as perplexing and as confounding as any in recent memory.”
It wasn’t so confounding to begin with. The summer kicked off on a high note with Marvel and Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which has earned more than $832 million at the global box office, but things quickly got complicated. Universal’s Fast X, debuting in the latter half of May, has earned $144.8 million domestically, the worst showing in years for the franchise, but has prospered overseas on its way to grossing a respectable $711 millions worldwide. The reverse was the case for Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. The pic earned $273.2 million to date in North America, the third best-showing of the summer season so far domestically behind Guardians 3 ($352.2 million) and Sony’s hit Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse ($323.2 million). Little Mermaid, however, has underwhelmed overseas, in part because of a racist backlash over casting a Black actress as Ariel. The film’s current foreign tally is $229.8 million (it’s not uncommon for Hollywood event titles to earn far more offshore).
After Guardians, which opened in the wake of spring sleeper blockbuster The Super Mario Bros. Movie, analysts began predicting that summer domestic revenue could clear $4 billion for the first time since the pandemic and come in not too far behind 2019’s $4.34 billion summer. Those predictions have stopped for the time being. Revenue for summer to date (May 1-June 2) is running only 1.8 percent ahead of last year and is down 14.9 percent from 2019, according to Comscore.
Hollywood studio executives, along with analysts, note that the box office is always topsy-turvey and that no one is in panic mode — yet.
“You’ve always had titles that overperformed and underperformed, but The Flash is just so visible,” says one Hollywood studio executive. “We’re sensitive right now and hypervigilant. With that being said, if Indiana Jones does less than $50 million this weekend, then I think maybe we have a problem. I have it in the $60 million-plus range.”
It remains to be seen whether Indiana Jones series can lure a new generation of fans, including younger adults, who have been propping up the box office in general since the pandemic. Disney and Lucasfilm have gone all out in promoting Dial of Destiny, including premiering the film at the Cannes Film Festival, where 80-year-old star Harrison Ford was honored. The franchise was a box office sensation throughout the 1980s before taking a long hiatus. It picked up again in 2008 with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which teamed Ford with Shia LeBeouf. Crystal Skull opened to $100 million domestically on its way to earning $790 million globally.
Times have changed. Dial of Destiny is looking at more modest domestic opening of $65 million or so. A major challenge will be convincing older adults — the target audience — to take a trip to the cinema.
Wall Street analyst Eric Handler is of the mindset that tentpoles continue to perform well, minus the regular amount of misses, but that mid-level movies are still a problem since they can arguably be seen in the home. “You can’t replicate Guardians or Avatar in the home. But take a movie like The Machine or About My Father, or even No Hard Feelings and the prospects change. I think people are being more selective,” he says.
Handler also believe the writer’s strike is hurting the box office since there are no late night talk shows, which have long been used to promote movies. “Take a movie like Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, where the robots are voiced by stars including Anthony Ramos and Pete Davidson. They have broad appeal and could have gone on late night shows,” Handler says. Studio marketers agree.
Most are expecting Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part 1 and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie to be huge earners at the July box office. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, an adult drama, may have a slower build. And while Insidious: The Red Door doesn’t qualify as a tentpole, it is another July offering to watch.
Mission is tracking to launch to a franchise-best $65 million or more in North America. The next weekend, Barbie could open to a big $70 million to $80 million, according to tracking. Oppenheimer is tracking for a domestic opening of $40 million. For the most part, this summer has been notable devoid of $100 million-plus openers.
On Thursday, Mission star Tom Cruise personally appealed to this fans to see rival films Indy, Barbie and Oppenheimer in addition to his new pic. Cruise has become something of moviegoing ambassador. Last summer, Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick was a defining moment for the box office recovery in winning over all demos, including older adults. Steven Spielberg even credited Cruise and the Top Gun sequel with saving “Hollywood’s ass.”
“This summer is full of amazing movies to see in theaters,” Cruise wrote on an Instagram post that showed him standing with his Dead Reckoning writer-director Christopher McQuarrie in front of posters for Indy 5. “These are just a few that we can’t wait to see on the big screen.”
Not everyone is bullish. One source sums it up this way: “There’s a lot of pressure on the back half of summer.” And another insider is now worried that summer domestic revenue could come in behind last year’s $3.4 billion. “That,” says the source, “wouldn’t be good.”