Hollywood is in the midst of its stormiest summer in years. Box-office ticket sales since the first weekend in May are down 8 percent from a year earlier, according to data firm ComScore.
But there’s one ray of sunshine as the industry struggles to get people to the multiplex: Critically acclaimed movies are doing robust business.
The summer movie season — which accounts for about 40 percent of annual box-office revenue — typically relies on generic popcorn fare with little regard for quality. But the movies that have earned virtually unanimous praise from critics — including “Wonder Woman,” “Baby Driver,” “The Big Sick” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” — are the ones breaking out.
Conversely, movies that have been reviewed harshly have been rejected by American audiences, illustrating a hard reality in today’s changing marketplace.
Reviews can often mean the difference between life and death for a movie, as the big screen is facing greater competition for audiences’ attention. As prestige TV enjoys a golden age on HBO, FX, Netflix and Hulu, viewers are visiting review aggregation sites such as Rotten Tomatoes to decide what movies to see, if any. Early buzz is amplified by social media, where people share reviews and give their own opinions on what to see on the big screen.
“Getting off on the right foot is crucial and … having a film that is critically well received makes it much easier for our message to cut through the clutter,” said Adrian Smith, president of domestic distribution for Sony Pictures, which released “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Baby Driver.”
Some analysts have blamed the summer doldrums on an overabundance of sequels and reboots. Franchise fatigue has contributed to the disappointing domestic returns from Walt Disney Co.’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” and Paramount Pictures’ “Transformers: The Last Knight,” each the fifth installment in their respective series. (They’ve fared better internationally.)
However, aging intellectual property can’t explain the failure of Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” which collected a disastrous $39 million in the United States and Canada after costing $175 million to make.
Filmmakers and actors sometimes respond to dismal reviews by saying they make movies for audiences, not critics, a refrain echoed this summer by “Mummy” director Alex Kurtzman and “Baywatch” star Dwayne Johnson. That defense, though, is not supported by the box-office figures.
“The disconnect between critics and audiences is largely gone,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for ComScore. “When you look at all the movies that have underperformed this summer, what’s the common denominator? They’ve all been terribly reviewed.”
The negative sentiment is taking a toll on movie theater stocks. AMC shares are down nearly 26 percent in the last three months. Regal and Cinemark have slipped about 10 percent. Analysts blame the movies.
“Consumers are driven to the theaters by compelling content, and this summer has largely been lacking,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter wrote.
Except when it hasn’t been.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the sixth web-slinger movie in 15 years, hauled in $117 million last weekend, surpassing industry estimates to become the biggest opening for a “Spider-Man” film in a decade. “Wonder Woman” has grossed $747 million at the global box office since Warner Bros. released it in June, overtaking last year’s Warner superhero movie “Suicide Squad.” Both “Homecoming” and “Wonder Woman” scored more than a 90 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Warner Bros. next week will release the latest Christopher Nolan movie, “Dunkirk,” a World War II thriller about a mission to rescue hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers from a French beach. Reviews have not been published but early social media reactions have been largely positive.
Then on July 28, Focus Features releases “Atomic Blonde,” an ultra-violent action film starring Charlize Theron as a highly skilled assassin that has been well recieved so far.