Have you heard? Hollywood just suffered a historically bad summer, with the US box office plummeting by 16 per cent compared with last year. Attendance hit a 25-year low. This past Labour Day weekend was the worst in two decades and served as an appropriate capper to what all agreed was a season of dismal underperformers and outright duds.
When the sad history of the Summer of ’17 is written, special mention will surely be made of misbegotten enterprises such as “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” two notably lame attempts at mining popular source material – medieval folk legend and a comic book, respectively – for their franchise potential. Their swift demise – along with the tanking of “The Mummy” and the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Transformers” movies – indicated that the studios’ old assumptions about fans showing up regardless of the quality of the movie no longer hold. Even “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Matt Reeves’ emotionally involving, visually impressive chapter of the rebooted series, failed to connect, suggesting that fatigue has finally set in among sequel-weary viewers.
The fate of “War for the Planet of the Apes” gets to a fundamental contradiction of the past few months: Business might have been terrible, but the movies themselves were often pretty good, if not great. In the comic-book world, both “Wonder Woman” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” brought vitality and rich production values into a genre that is showing signs of wear. Strong returns for Christopher Nolan’s structurally novel, cinematically lush World War II epic “Dunkirk,” Edgar Wright’s snappy crime musical “Baby Driver” and Taylor Sheridan’s moody thriller “Wind River” proved that well-executed original ideas hold far more promise than facile “Baywatch” adaptations. The summer’s most crowd-pleasing sleeper hits, “Girls Trip” and “The Big Sick,” as well as a steady performer like the provocative chamber piece “Beatriz at Dinner,” showed that originality plus inclusivity can be a winning proposition.
The lessons Hollywood will take away from this summer are open to interpretation. If Americans are showing signs of sequel-itis, foreign markets still seem game. It was international performance that saved such films as “The Mummy” and the “Pirates” and “Transformers” films from complete disaster. Still, studios surely took heed when a Chinese production, not an American one, dominated that country’s enormous and growing film market. (The movie, a patriotic action thriller called “World Warrior 2,” had only a limited release in the US.)
During a summer when hurricanes, super-hyped prizefights, “Game of Thrones” finales and reality show-worthy political drama competed for filmgoers’ attention, quality and originality helped, but might not have been enough: Reportedly, Comcast, Apple and Amazon are close to launching a $30-per-month premium video-on-demand rental system that will allow viewers to rent select titles 30 to 45 days after they appear in theaters. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the system could be in place as early as next year.
Presumably, the movies eligible for premium VOD wouldn’t be spectacles on a par with “Dunkirk” – or even “Get Out” and “Girls Trip,” which also epitomised the kind of film that becomes exponentially more enjoyable when it’s seen with a crowd. But it might find success with viewers frustrated with the drought-or-flood pattern of specialty releases, which tend to flow into theaters during the summer as counterprogramming to the big tentpoles, and then hit fire hose levels during awards season. For every hit like “The Big Sick” and modest success like “Beatriz at Dinner,” there are countless little-movies-that-could-but-didn’t, including the rap comedy-drama “Patti Cake$” and David Lowery’s intriguing supernatural romance “A Ghost Story.”
The fall looks even more crowded with prestige pictures that will be competing with the likes of comic book movies (“Thor: Ragnarok,” “Justice League”) and a “Star Wars” instalment (“The Last Jedi”) in the effort to coax filmgoers out of their appointment-viewing cocoons. At the Toronto International Film Festival, which gets underway this week, all-important awards buzz will begin in earnest for movies that have already played the festival circuit. Movies arriving with the wind at their backs include “Battle of the Sexes,” about Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical fable “The Shape of Water,” the Dunkirk movie “Darkest Hour,” starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Dee Rees’s 1940s rural drama “Mudbound,” the coming-of-age romance “Call Me by Your Name” and Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut “Lady Bird,” starring Saoirse Ronan.
Meanwhile, such Toronto premieres as Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game,” the Denzel Washington vehicle “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” the Ben Stiller comedy “Brad’s Status” and the politics-adjacent dramas “Chappaquiddick” and “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” will either find their own lane to go the distance or quickly fade. Will the must-see film of the fall be among them? An anxious industry watches and waits, hoping not only that the answer is yes, but that there will be far more than one.