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Summer box office bust? This season’s movie slate could put up the lowest haul in decades

For the first time since 2009, the box office doesn’t have a Marvel film to kick off the summer movie season — and it shows.

Since the 2008 release of “Iron Man,” Marvel Cinematic Universe films have consistently launched this highly lucrative moviegoing season, with only two films generating less than $100 million openings in that time (not including pandemic years).

This year, the headline film for the first summer weekend was Universal’s “The Fall Guy.” And despite strong marketing efforts and solid reviews, it failed to drum up ticket sales during its opening last weekend. The film tallied less than $28 million during its domestic debut. (Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.)

“‘The Fall Guy’ had quality co-stars in Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, but the lack of a known franchise brand and a niche storyline made it too narrow to attract a mass summer-like audience,” Eric Handler, managing director at Roth MKM, wrote in a note to investors Monday.

Ryan Gosling in ‘The Fall Guy.’Eric Laciste / Universal Pictures via AP

That stumble doesn’t bode well for the summer box office, which was already set to decline from last year’s $4.1 billion haul after dual Hollywood labor strikes halted production and clogged the pipeline of new film releases.

The result could send the 2024 summer box office down as much as $800 million compared to 2023, according to Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian, and have ripple effects for the whole year. After all, the key summer period, which runs from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, typically accounts for 40% of the total annual domestic box office.

A limited and unsteady stream of new films means moviegoers haven’t been exposed to film trailers and poster promotions at their local cinemas and may not be aware of what features are headed to the big screen. Additionally, this summer’s movie slate is not as strong as prior years, with fewer blockbusters and major franchise films.

There’s only one superhero film slated for the summer — “Deadpool and Wolverine,” the first R-rated Disney Marvel flick — and it doesn’t arrive until late July.

At present, analysts believe the summer movie season will exceed $3 billion in ticket sales, but just barely. Before Covid, the summer box office consistently topped more than $4 billion. The last time ticket sales were as low as $3 billion during this season was in 2000, according to data from Comscore.

Hugh Jackman and Ryan Reynolds in ‘Deadpool & Wolverine.’20th Century Studios / Marvel Studios via AP

“Even with the inevitable year-over-year revenue downturn, the summer of ’24 should be judged more by the quality and value of the moviegoing experience than the quantity of box office cash in the drawer,” said Dergarabedian.

So far this quarter, the box office is tracking down 48% year-over-year, Handler noted. While he expects the May slate to help strengthen ticket sales, the box office “will need to see some big splashes” to “reclaim some lost ground.”

“Right now, cinema operators are in need of a significant content infusion,” Handler wrote. “Not only is the volume of content down in 2Q, but it also lacks sizzle.”

For the rest of May, Disney’s “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is currently tracking for a domestic opening weekend of between $55 million and $60 million. Paramount’s “IF” is looking at around $40 million. And Warner Bros.′ “Furiosa” is expected to hit between $40 million and $50 million.

However, those forecasts pale in comparison to major releases during the same month last year. Universal’s “Fast X” tallied $67 million during its opening, and Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” opened to $96 million.

Owen Teague, Freya Allan and Peter Macon in ‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.’20th Century Studios via AP

It’s yet to be seen if this summer will have any breakout hits, like Angel’s “Sound of Freedom” last year, that could bolster the overall box office.

What the summer 2024 slate has going for it is more family-friendly fare. A slew of animated features from established franchises should draw out parents and kids during school vacation.

Currently, Universal’s “Kung Fu Panda 4” is the second-highest grossing film domestically for 2024, with $188.4 million in ticket sales. Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s “Dune: Part Two” is the highest-grossing domestic release so far this year with $281.3 million.

And there’s some heavy-hitters coming during the last stretch of the year.

“Beetlejuice Beetlejuice” arrives in early September, “Joker: Folie a Deux” hits in October alongside “Venom: The Last Dance,” and November sees “Gladiator II,” “Moana 2” and “Wicked.” Additionally, December will have “Kraven the Hunter,” “Sonic the Hedgehog 3″ and “Mufasa: The Lion King.”

Notably, the first “Joker” tallied $335 million domestically in 2019, both “Venom” films generated $213 million apiece, 2016′s Moana took in $248.7 million and the two previous “Sonic” movies scored $146 million and $190 million during their runs in theaters.

“Ultimately the race is won at the multiplex and not on a spreadsheet,” said Dergarabedian.

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