How Did a Summer of Infamous Flops Set a Box-Office Record?

Variety yesterday pointed readers to Hollywood's box-office haul for summer 2009, which is nearing an all-time record with $3.99 billion in grosses through Sunday. That's a 5 percent jump over 2008 -- not as pure a boom as it seems at a glimpse, considering fake-IMAX inflation and 3-D ticket surcharges, but a respectable recession-era turnout nevertheless. Especially considering some of the historic flops we've seen rolling out since May.

That's another factor in the "record-setting" summer at hand: It starts earlier and earlier, with the successive hits X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Angels and Demons, Night at the Museum 2 and Up accounting for $1.03 billion on their own. Moreover, it went later than usual in 2009, with studios dropping low-risk moneymakers Julie & Julia, District 9 and Inglorious Basterds into an unusually fertile August mix. Add in the extra $3-$5 for IMAX and 3-D screenings in between, and it all adds up to an unprecedented (if inflated) overall take.

We're used to those economics by now, but who foresaw that such a running start combined with sleeper smashes like The Hangover and The Proposal would so dramatically offset the sizable tank jobs to come? Sure, Universal couldn't have counted on that much with its disappointing R-rated comedies Funny People and Bruno ($110 million combined), but even Uni co-chair Marc Shumger will tell you Land of the Lost was an unmitigated failure with $49.4 million domestically. Meanwhile, Sony watched The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Year One crash shortly after takeoff with a mere $100 million combined. For the A-list, anyway, it was the season time forgot -- or at least wished it could forget.

But I'm especially intrigued by this list of all-time worst wide openings, of which three of the top 11 -- Imagine That, Shorts, and Aliens in the Attic -- were released this summer by major studios. That the market could swing so wide and so frequently in three months is a testament to a scary new volatility that will carry over to the fall, which explains in large part why films like Shutter Island and The Wolfman wouldn't stick to their respective studios' release calendars, and why not even the international phenomenon of Avatar Day could steal opening weekend from Quentin Tarantino. Lesson: You want a hit in 2009? Keep it simple, keep it cheap, and just add Nazis, vampires, aliens or Zach Galifianakis. Oh -- and all the better if you trick people into thinking it's IMAX.

· August releases heat up box office [Variety]


  • James says:

    I don't think aliens really helped Aliens in the Attick all too much on second thought.

  • Right... I guess I meant "prawns."

  • Kilroy says:

    Mmmmm.....prawns! They certainly helped.

  • JudgeFudge says:

    Hollywood, listen to me very carefully. Heigl. Galifinakis. Mork and Mindy. Summer 2010.
    Keep Norah Effron's grubby, nuanced hands off of it, and you've hit pay dirt. Thank me later.

  • David Poland says:

    A. The list you use is mislabeled. The worst wide release this summer (over 2000 screens) is #8 on the list (Bandslam) and the worst studio wide release, in this context, is #132 since 1982.
    Not good... but you have overdramtized.
    B. The market swing? A non-issue. In fact, non-existent. Two pick-ups and a disaster they knew would be a disaster. Dumps.
    Will all respect, the notion that these had ANYTHING to do with Shutter or Wolfman moving is purely pulled from the pore that is anal.