As soon as Doctor Strange 2 unofficially kicked off the summer season back in late April with the second-biggest opening weekend of the pandemic, sighs of relief started to spread across the industry and continued until August.
It was the season that confirmed that, as many of us already knew, nope the cinema experience isn’t dead and with records being broken throughout the summer, it’s not looked this alive for some time. But there were enough misses alongside the hits to show that in some areas, things aren’t quite as healthy.
Here are the key lessons of the season:
Tom Cruise is the rethroned King of Hollywood
There was understandable caution surrounding the belated release of Top Gun: Maverick, an expensive, much-delayed sequel (announced in 2010, filmed in 2018) to an 80s film that wasn’t exactly calling out for one. Tom Cruise’s box office appeal outside of the Mission: Impossible films has been so spotty that he barely makes anything but Mission: Impossible films now and while the original holds a firm place in Hollywood history, it’s not received a noticeable second life with the advent of streaming. So there were dropped jaws all around when back in May, it not only opened big but opened bigger than anything Cruise has ever starred in before, flying high for the rest of the summer, making $1.3bn globally and counting (it recently surpassed Titanic to become the seventh biggest film of all time in the US).
Rightwingers laughably claimed such success was down to the film being pro-America and “anti-woke” (a dumb assertion that fails to correlate with other monster hits that have embraced more diversity) but its popularity can be more easily traced to two things. First, unlike other follow-ups to dusted off classics, the entry point for Maverick was far easier for younger, less familiar audiences. It’s a film about planes and flying planes and people who fly planes and like the recent retconned Halloween hits, doesn’t rely on a convoluted backstory, such as the doomed Terminator franchise did (one could enjoy it as a standalone film without having seen the original). Then secondly, and most importantly, it showed the re-energised star power of Cruise, a reminder that audiences still gravitate en masse toward the 60-year-old when he’s in familiar territory, playing to type (charming, rule-breaking, complexity-free), something that also saw fellow 90s A-lister Sandra Bullock score a $190m global hit with adventure comedy The Lost City this Spring. It’s an added relief for Paramount, with two exorbitantly priced Mission: Impossibles on the way, the first of which arrives next summer, a hope that he might be their billion-dollar man two years in a row.
Universal rules the world
While Paramount nabbed the top spot, of the summer and perhaps even the year, it was Universal that had ultimate bragging rights of the season. This week saw the company cross $3bn for the year so far, the first time a studio has done that since the before-times of 2019. Leading the pack despite mostly, unfairly atrocious reviews is Jurassic World: Dominion, the second highest-grossing film of the year with just under $1bn worldwide, a legacy sequel that like Maverick showed the nostalgic power of playing the long game (the “final” film of the franchise will surely not be so final now) and the Minions prequel not far behind with almost $800m. The studio also saw strong results over the summer for the animated adventure The Bad Guys ($246m), The Black Phone ($150m) and Nope ($114m and counting). During the pandemic, Universal was one of the first studios to shrink a theatrical film’s release window, first for a premium $20 rental and then for its burgeoning streaming platform Peacock. Since then, and this is part of the reason for their bumper season, there’s more discernment over which film goes where and when. So while The Bad Guys and The Black Phone were free at home on Peacock in seven weeks, bigger films like the Jurassic World and Minions installments are yet to materialise as they still make money at the box office. Outside of Disney, Universal is also the studio with the most successful ongoing franchises, with their winning streak likely to continue until next summer with sequels Halloween Ends, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and Fast & Furious 10 on the way.
Breakouts struggled to break out
While summer season is traditionally a time for superheroes and their super stunts, it’s also a time for many of us to get utterly exhausted with superheroes and their super stunts and so with each year there’s increasingly more and more smaller films to act as much-needed counter-programming in the US. In recent years, Midsommar ($27.7m from 2,707 screens), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22.8m from 868 screens), Eighth Grade ($13.5m from 1,084 screens) and Sorry to Bother You ($17.4m from 1,050 screens) all successfully broke out of the outskirts and this year, a long line of low-budget non-franchise films all hoped to provide respite from product placement and post-credits cameos. But it wasn’t to be and instead, it was something of a bloodbath. The period romcom Mr Malcolm’s List ($1.8m from 1,384 screens), stalker thriller Watcher ($1.9m from 764 screens), metaphorical horror Men ($7.5m from 2,212 screens), Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future ($2.4m from 773 screens), BJ Novak’s satire Vengeance ($3.8m from 998 screens), well-reviewed fantasy Marcel the Shell with the Shoes on ($5.3m from 821 screens) and Diane Keaton body swap comedy Mack & Rita ($1m from 1,930 screens) all struggled to get noticed.
The only genuine indie hit was Everything Everywhere All at Once ($69.6m from 2,213 screens) which technically came from before the summer back in March but played well for the warmer months and part of its success can be traced to it being marketed and structured like a Marvel blockbuster, toying with issues of superpowers and the multiverse, jam-packed with VFX, cleverly competing with the big boys. The overriding message of the summer might have been that cinema is well and truly back but audiences were still mostly craving Imax-level spectacle above all else, not surprising when so many of the season’s streaming premieres (from Hustle to Spiderhead to Father of the Bride to Prey to The Grey Man) looked like big-screen movies, making a trip to the multiplex harder to justify. But while the indies couldn’t get people to watch so-called “adult” movies …
Studio counter-programming paid off
It was down to the studios to prove that money could be made without relying on films with colons in the title with two notable hits sustaining the idea of summertime counter-programming. The first, and biggest, was Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis. The director is no stranger to turning prestige awardsy dramas into summer events (The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge were also both mid-year hits) but pundits were still surprised at just how many people were all shook up by a 159-minute Elvis Presley biopic. The film has made over $260m worldwide to date, a robust number given key caveats, and the second highest-grossing music biopic of all time after Bohemian Rhapsody. Again, smartly, under the new management of Discovery, the film wasn’t made available on HBO Max 45 days after release like previous Warner titles and instead continues to play in cinemas while being available to rent for a premium price. While not on the same scale, the Reese Witherspoon-produced adaptation of hit novel Where the Crawdads Sing also proved a popular summer diversion, making $86m worldwide and counting. Negative reviews and uneasy controversy over the author Delia Owens didn’t stop the overwhelmingly female fanbase coming out (opening weekend was 74% women). Both turned known property into glossy must-see-on-the-big-screen events (something highlighted in the marketing of the two) and while neither could be defined as particularly challenging or cerebral, the success of both was a reassuring sign that audiences will still head to the cinema en masse for non-franchise titles.
The continued success of the Despicable Me franchise with Minions: The Rise of Gru edging close to $800m worldwide (a release this week in China will probably push it closer to $1bn), and The Bad Guys cracking $254m show that families were more than enthused to return to the cinema, reflected also by two other notable kids hits in the last year, sequels to Sing and Sonic the Hedgehog ($407m and $402m globally). Yet the last year has also been plagued by family films that failed to engage (there were underwhelming returns for Ron’s Gone Wrong and Spirit: Untamed along with seemingly sure things like The Boss Baby 2 and Peter Rabbit 2) and the summer also saw enough disappointments to cause more concern about the current state of big-screen animation. After an original release was skipped in 2017, cursed caper Paws of Fury finally landed in cinemas with a prime July slot but tanked with $20m worldwide (in the UK it went straight to streaming). Things were slightly better for DC League of Super-Pets with $110m globally but a $90m budget and a weak $58m in the US meant that it will probably be a big loser for Warners (in comparison, Universal’s two Secret Life of Pets films have made over $1.3bn combined). Even the adult-skewed Bob’s Burgers Movie couldn’t make back its $38m budget (it fell short at $34m worldwide).
But the most-reported under-performer of the season was Pixar’s Toy Story spin-off Lightyear which made, for a Disney franchise film, a modest $118m in the US and $225m globally (in comparison, the average domestic gross for a Toy Story film is around $320m). Disney’s aggressive Covid-expedited push to get more Disney+ subscribers has impacted Pixar films the most with the last three films all going straight to streaming. While, again, rightwingers ebulliently blamed the weak box office on the inclusion of a same-sex couple, the numbers more likely reflect two things. First, the strange sideways step for the franchise (Lightyear was a film that a Toy Story character once saw before the first film took place) was arguably confusing for many, especially kids, and second, with Disney+ subscribers topping 87m worldwide and with a streaming-first strategy for even its biggest movies, others probably chose to stay home and wait it out. Lightyear was made available on Disney+ in just 47 days, making an expensive family day out at the cinema seem that much less desirable (it started well upon digital release with over 1.7m households tuning in within the first three days). The easy streaming availability of kids’ films might further explain why other animated films also stumbled this summer, the pull to rush out to the multiplex needing to be that much more persuasive.
The death of Marvel has been greatly exaggerated
The season saw two Marvel releases, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder, fail to crack $1bn worldwide while also receiving mixed reviews (from fans as well as critics with both scoring a B+ Cinemascore, down from As for the previous installments). It was tempting to see this as the beginning of the end for the the industry’s most reliable hit-maker but with the former occupying the third place on 2022’s worldwide box office chart with a mammoth $954m and the second at six with $721m and counting, it’s worth holding off on any rash diagnoses just yet. A key reason why both came short of the magic $1bn number is down to China, where both films didn’t nab one of the coveted international release slots. Doctor Strange 2 was rumoured to have angered authorities with a reference to the Epoch Times, a paper that opposed the Chinese Communist party while there were reports that LGBT content in Thor 4 were said to have caused that particular ban (although the last six MCU films have all been denied a Chinese release also). Because within the US, both films bested the films that preceded them and provided a boost after the underwhelming performance of Eternals last year. Quality control is an increasing issue though and one that will hopefully be redressed with Ryan Coogler’s feverishly anticipated Black Panther sequel releasing later this year. The director, who has already given us the most acclaimed MCU film yet, could well help steer the franchise into a more heroic future.