It was reported the other day that this August had a record breaking decline at the box office, and the other summer months weren't exactly encouraging either. First summer that grosses didn't clear 4 billion since 2006, steepest decline (16%) on record, a 25 year low in attendance - these aren't things any of the people putting up money for these films wants to hear. Silver lining though: with expensive flops abound, studios might be looking to focus on more lower-budgeted fare, i.e. horror films. While their grosses paled next to the likes of Pirates and Transformers, I doubt any exec would be happier with those mega-budget films' performance than they would be with spending a mere $15m on a killer doll movie that topped $200m worldwide in three weeks. When you look at the actual profit margins (that is, the amount spent vs the amount earned), horror films routinely look more impressive than anything Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer might be involved with, and this summer's near disastrous performance for any "tentpole" that wasn't a superhero movie made that distinction more clear than ever.
Alas, things didn't start out so well, with Alien: Covenant failing to keep pace with Prometheus, which will likely remain the only film in this franchise to top $100m domestically (not counting inflation). Its $36m opening in May was decent but not great, but word of mouth didn't exactly help the film out, and it closed with a mere $74m in the US - attendance wise, it's actually the least successful film in the series besides AVP:Requiem. It performed better overseas, of course, so its $232m take (on a sub-$100m reported budget) MIGHT be enough for Ridley Scott to get one more chance at ending one of these prequels at the beginning of Alien '79, but I doubt Fox is beating down his door right now unless Blu-ray sales are skyrocketing. As with Prometheus, I found the film more interesting when it had zero to do with the Xenomorphs and other related Alien plot devices, and could watch Fassbender's characters do their thing for hours, but for all the shit Prometheus takes for its dumb characters it's got nothing on these idiots (particularly Amy Seimetz's trigger happy Faris), which made the film a tough sell. Long story short: Fassbender deserves awards for his performance, but the screenwriters deserve stern lectures, and at times it almost feels like it's lucky to have made any money at all after anyone had seen it and proceeded to warn every potential ticket buyer away.
In June, A24 gambled on marketing It Comes At Night as a creepy monster kind of movie, playing up the title's suggestion and teasing audiences with what "it" could possibly be. It didn't quite work, as it got a D Cinemascore, which is usually what happens when an audience feels cheated. To be fair I'm not sure how else they could sell the movie, and they at least didn't try to hide the fact that it was a slow burn kind, so I can certainly think of more frustrating examples of this kind of thing. And really, I doubt this kind of movie could ever gross much more than the $13m it did, during a competitive month and with no big stars or, yes, traditional action/horror to lure people in, and given its tiny budget it's closer to winner than loser. I personally didn't care much for the film, finding it constantly detouring away from potentially interesting plot points (such as Joel Edgerton's son's attraction to the other man's wife) and feeling more like a very padded short story than a film, but I was in the minority with peers and critics (it has an 88% rating at Rotten Tomatoes). It's on Blu-ray and VOD now for you to see for yourself - it'll probably play better at home anyway.
And it's hard to look at anything as a flop when it was released the same weekend as The Mummy, which was a mega-budget film designed to kick off an interconnected batch of reboots of Universal's beloved Monster collection, known as the Dark Universe. Overseas money put it in the black, of course, but I can't imagine Universal is too thrilled that their experiment kicked off with a movie that couldn't even open at #1 when they had one of the most dependable stars in the world at their disposal - who woulda thought Gal Gadot could beat out Tom Cruise? It eventually scrambled its way to $80m in the US ($400m+ worldwide), which should soften the blow that it actually had worse reviews from fans and critics alike than Dracula Untold, which was the original "pilot" movie for this series (they've apparently decided not to include it with the future entries). Bill Condon is still set to remake Bride of Frankenstein for 2019 (and Universal is unlikely to can a project from the guy who just directed the 8th highest grossing film of all time) so it's possible this franchise can find its footing and be as interesting - and profitable - as they hope, but I doubt they will proceed unless Bride is a total smash across the board.
On the other end of the expectations spectrum, we have 47 Meters Down, a star-free killer shark movie that was slated to go VOD until Entertainment Studios (who?) gambled on a theatrical release, hoping to entice the same folks that turned The Shallows into a hit last summer. Shockingly, it worked - it can practically be considered a sleeper hit as it managed to ultimately gross $44m after an $11m opening weekend, all on a $5.5m budget. Alien, Mummy, etc. can only dream of making 4x its opening weekend when all was said and done, and it just proves once again that folks love watching sharks eat people. I actually didn't love the movie as much as I hoped, despite being a fan of the sub-genre as well as director Johannes Roberts (whose last film was the underrated Other Side of the Door), finding the dialogue to be cringe-inducing far too often to care much about the girls and the runtime padded with a very unsuccessful (to me) attempt at a twist of sorts. But I still enjoyed it more or less; it certainly had a number of nail-biter sequences and was superior to at least two actual Jaws sequels, so there's something. Ultimately, I just wish I liked the movie as much as I liked seeing audiences turn out for this kind of thing, proving that big stars/budgets are still secondary to a story that people want to see.
A similar experiment didn't pan out as well for Broad Green Pictures' Wish Upon, which might as well have gone VOD where it could be rightfully ignored. Featuring the least likable horror heroine in years and a baffling disconnect between her wishes and the tragic outcomes associated with them (when she wishes her crush would like her, the supernatural force kills her old neighbor, something that she doesn't even notice for a couple of days), not to mention a lot of obvious tinkering (the stupid box that the whole movie centers on inexplicably changes color from scene to scene) the movie was largely ignored and only barely topped its $12m budget. I'm sure they'll push it out on Blu and VOD for Halloween where it might thrill a few young girls having sleepovers, but they deserve better and there are better options for them out there. Rent them, I dunno, Prom Night '08 or something.
But at least no one gave a shit if Wish Upon sucked. Many hopes and dreams of fans (and investors) were riding on The Dark Tower being a. good and b. successful, but neither of those things came to pass. Idris Elba was an ideal Roland, but the production betrayed the actor and the character he was playing by sticking them in a messy, rushed, and distinctly non-fantastical/un-epic approach to Stephen King's magnum opus. And yes, it's not horror, but if they were adapting the books we would be seeing all sorts of monsters in the future (lobstrosities being the ones I was most excited about), and none of that will likely happen when the film's worldwide take ($88m as of this writing) has barely eclipsed its reported production budget, which can't help get anyone excited about the proposed TV show (which apparently would focus on Wizard and Glass anyway). I've always said that a movie made from a book has no obligation to stick to the text 100%, but there has to be justification for those changes, which this film never once provided. I know some folks walked away happy with it, and I wish I could have joined them, but my heart sank almost instantly when I realized they clearly cut Matthew McConaughey's introduction (we first see him casually watching an event, in a quick shot befitting an anonymous extra), and it never came back to life for me.
And if I can mock Wish Upon one more time, I'll note that it was directed by John Leonetti, who was following up Annabelle but did not direct its sequel (prequel) Annabelle: Creation, which was handed over to Lights Out's David Sandberg. At $15m it had a bigger budget than its predecessor, but Warner Bros/New Line probably doesn't mind that much, as the film opened to more than double that amount and has kept on going, making $77m and counting in the US and another $140m or so overseas, and will likely outgross the first Annabelle by next week or so. I found the film too jump scare heavy for my tastes, but I love that they've managed to keep expanding the Conjuring mythology (with another spinoff based on the 2nd Conjuring's demonic nun hitting next summer), making a "cinematic universe" almost accidentally while Universal flops around trying to make their Dark Universe happen*. Do things organically and let the audience dictate what they want! And what we want is more James Wan stuff, apparently (he also produced Lights Out, which cleaned up last summer).
As always there were also a number of smaller films hitting theaters, for which the measure of success is harder to gauge as they only played on a few screens and were often released theatrically on the same date as the presumably more attractive (and profitable) VOD releases. But for what it's worth, the sleep paralysis thriller Dead Awake scared up $11k on 12 screens, and something called Lycan has pulled together $9k at a mere five theaters. One that was most certainly NOT too impressive was The Bad Batch, which was Ana Lily Amirpour's followup to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. That film grossed nearly $500k on 19 theaters, and was not in English to boot, so I assume Neon was hoping that her English-language, star-powered (Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, and Jason Momoa were all in the cast) followup would at least reach those same numbers, if not higher. Alas, it could only scrape together $180k in 46 theaters, so it made less than half on more than twice as many screens - disappointing no matter how you slice it. Finally, this past weekend saw one theater release a holiday slasher called Red Christmas, which grossed 280 dollars, presumably because no one is QUITE in the mood for a Christmas movie just yet, though I will hopefully be adding 12 bucks to that haul this week, out of a careful mix of curiosity and pity.
So outside of Annabelle and 47 Meters, it's hard to get too excited about the past four months' worth of genre offerings in terms of box office, and I can't say I loved any of them on a creative level, though I at least enjoyed those and Alien in a timekiller kind of way. I probably wouldn't watch them again (I might revisit Covenant someday as part of a marathon or whatever, but I'm sure that Blu-ray - which I won - will stay shrink-wrapped for a long time), but they didn't actively annoy me like The Mummy or Wish Upon did, so at least audiences were, for the most part, picking the best options they had. And things are looking up anyway - next week we get IT, which by (nearly) all accounts is a damn near masterpiece, and should rake in Exorcist-level money if current projections are correct. We also get the long-awaited (by me, but hopefully others) return of the Saw series with Jigsaw, the fun looking Happy Death Day, and, at long last, Leatherface, which was shot in 2015. And if none of that interests you, you can settle for Tyler Perry's Boo 2! A Madea Halloween, which is the most obnoxious title ever listed. It's the one season we don't have to worry about options - but will any of them be any good? And more importantly (to the people who make them) will any of them make money in a year that is facing declining attendance numbers at an alarming rate? Here's hoping.
*When Mummy flopped I suggested Universal go smaller and make a DTV series of connected films involving their smaller franchises such as Child's Play, Tremors, and James Wan's would-be series Dead Silence. Since Wan is a license to print money, I'm going to use this space to suggest that and/or a proper Dead Silence sequel should be something for them to think about.