Rotten Tomatoes didn't ruin this summer's box office, the movies did

Rotten Tomatoes didn't ruin this summer's box office, the movies did

Fewer Americans went to the movies this summer than any year in the since 1992. 

The box office started off ahead of last year, but now it’s down 6 percent from where it was this time last year, according to The Hollywood Reporter. After a strong start to the summer movie season with films like “Wonder Woman” and “Dunkirk,” the season ended with lowest domestic Labor Day weekend turnout in 17 years, according to Entertainment Weekly.

One reason for the low turnout might have been a lack of original content. Over the past decade, there’s been a shift toward making more sequels and adaptations rather than focusing on original films. 

“Part of the reason for that is that it's gotten so expensive to create movies,” said Glenda Cantrell, an associate professor with the department of journalism & creative media. “You have to bring in a lot of different pots of money in one place to create the film so [the studios] need something that they can feel reasonably sure has a target audience, that people are going to come see it.” 

The focus on franchises was what Cantrell saw as Hollywood’s greatest weakness this summer. People grew tired of seeing the the same thing they’ve seen before, she said, and sequels generally don’t do as well as their predecessors. 

One film that was able to combat that trend, “Wonder Woman,” joined “Dunkirk” in finding a nice balance between the familiar and the new, while still having a good marketing campaign.

“It was something that we hadn't seen before,” she said. “Where so many of these franchises, like the 'Transformers' franchise, it's stuff that we've seen. I think moviegoers wanted to see something different and so they went to see ‘Wonder Woman’ and they want to see ‘Dunkirk.’”

However, Cantrell said, summer is still the best season for big movies and she doesn’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

“Summer is still your biggest for blockbusters simply because there are more people who can go see it during the day,” she said. “And [the films] cost a lot of money so you’ve got a better chance of making your money back if you can air it during the summer months when kids are out of school and college kids can go.” 

Elliot Panek, an assistant professor with the department of journalism & creative media, said the low numbers might just be because there wasn’t anything people wanted to see. 

“I really think it might have just been a bad batch or a batch of movies that didn't sync up with what Americans wanted for this particular summer,” he said.

Panek also said he does not think there’s a reason to put too much weight behind the statistics just yet.  

“It's very easy for people to kind of misinterpret or over-interpret a kind of extreme datapoint like that,” he said. “Is it part of a trend? I think it's kind of too early to tell. It might just be an anomaly... I think it's a misreading to say that we’re done with blockbusters or we’re tired of comic book movies. I would have to see more evidence of that before we made that conclusion.” 

If it is a part of a trend, Panek thinks it shows that more of the revenue from blockbuster movies is coming from overseas. Films that do not do well in the United States will sometimes do better overseas. According to Box Office Mojo, the summer’s “Transformers: The Last Knight” made just over $130 million domestically, but brought in around $604 million internationally.

“Maybe studios are now understanding that they don't have to make all their money in the United States so they're no longer catering to just an American audience,” he said. “They're making movies that appeal to an international audience.”

While the domestic box office was down, the international box office actually went up 4 percent, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The overseas success of big films gives the studios very little reason to change their approach according to Kristen Warner, an associate professor with the department of journalism & creative media.

“Movie making is such a risk-adverse industry,” she said. “In many ways consistency is the way that they've maintained their foothold. So it's really hard to imagine a world where they completely upend that and do something different because, again, they’re risk averse; they don't do much different and if they do it's really incrementally.” 

And while some executives in Hollywood have blamed sites like Rotten Tomatoes for the bad summer, Warner does not agree with that argument. She agrees with Cantrell in that the problem may lie in an abundance of adapted content, leaving the audience wanting something original. 

“If they own the rights to it because it's part of their library then they don't have to pay anybody to make it so you're keeping a lot of your money in house,” she said. “Part of the difficulty for studios when it comes to why they should make original content versus why should they stay with what they've been doing—making more franchises, making more ‘Transformers,’ making more ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ those kinds of things—is they own that and that is something that they can suck dry until there is nothing left for enough for better for worse.” 

Cantrell said that she thinks the influence of Rotten Tomatoes is not as large as Hollywood would like to believe it is. 

“I think Hollywood would like to blame Rotten Tomatoes because that would be an easier solution,” she said. “Because putting money into original stuff is not a guarantee, so they don't like to do that. They don't like to create something from scratch that doesn't have a built-in target audience. Does Rotten Tomatoes have an impact? Of course, but that's really not the whole story because too many people want to make their own judgments whether they like something.”

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