Well the numbers are in and, much to Hollywood’s likely relief, the 2018 summer box office wound up being a lot better than 2017’s.
The final tally from comScore shows total domestic U.S. ticket sales from Labor Day through the first weekend of September – traditionally the period that defines the summer movie season – were up 14.4% from 2017 to just shy of $4.4 billion. That effectively brings sales back to their 2016 level, after 2017 saw sales drop roughly the same percent from the year before and come in at a disturbing $3.8 billion. Executives and industry watchers broke out the sackcloth and ashes, fretting about a weak slate of films and what the future held considering that was the last time sales were that low was 2006.
There are plenty of caveats that could be added to comScore’s report, as well as some lessons marketers can learn. Here are some of them:
It’s Still Lower Than Half The Last Decade
2018’s $4.4 billion in sales shows that the massive decline last summer wasn’t the beginning of an ongoing downward trend. But looking at the totals from the last decade, this is still only the fifth highest summer, beat by ‘16, ‘15, ‘13 and ‘11. Since 2011 the average movie ticket price has risen from $7.93 to $9.27, so the fact that sales are roughly equal to what was realized seven years ago is not objectively good news.
In fact, if you look at the estimated number of tickets sold so far in 2018 (based on dividing revenue by the average ticket price), the actual audience count is on track to be statistically flat with last year, meaning Hollywood is still putting out material that’s increasingly unpopular with the public. It’s just that more people are going to see a few big movies in premium formats, which cost more and therefore push up the revenue number.
Avengers Is Throwing Off the Figure
comScore’s report looks at what’s traditionally defined as the “summer movie season” of, roughly, Memorial Day (early May) through Labor Day (early September). But Disney threw a gold metal glove in the gears when it moved Avengers: Infinity War to late April. That means the movie’s massive $258 million opening weekend take.
That decision was questionable at the time and has grown only more so over subsequent months. At the time it was seen as a panic move by Disney to give the movie an extra weekend before Deadpool 2 was released and to create a bit more of a cushion before the studio put Solo: A Star Wars Story in theaters in May.
Avengers would have easily topped the list if it had stuck with its original release date as Deadpool likely wouldn’t have competed that directly for the same audience. Doing so changes the summer picture significantly, something Disney had to know would happen. There doesn’t appear to have much Monday morning quarterbacking over time, so the exact rationale remains a mystery.
Finales Motivate Audiences
As hinted at above, the only reason Infinity War isn’t in the top slot on comScore’s list is because it doesn’t count the $257 million the movie brought in when it opened April 27th, a release date change that came just weeks before it was originally scheduled for release.
The total domestic box-office of $679 million is one of the big reasons ticket sales numbers are up overall in 2018, the other being Black Panther, which opened in February. That massive figure was the result of a campaign that embraced all 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and positioned as the culmination of everything audiences have been following since Tony Stark walked out of a desert cave in a suit of armor.
There was also the fact that the campaign – and subsequent word of mouth – focused on how emotionally devastating the movie was going to be, promising more than just the usual hero/villain dynamic. Audiences were promised some kind of closure on a number of plots from across the MCU, though how much of that will be undone in next year’s sequel as well as future Marvel Studios remains to be seen.
Characters Don’t Matter…At All
That’s the single biggest takeaway from the success of movies like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and The Meg. The campaigns for both movies made sure audiences understood the human characters were only there because studios haven’t yet figured out a good way to do without them.
In the Jurassic World push not only are the characters played by Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard utterly inconsequential in the trailers, but they’re almost completely missing from the posters, which instead focus on the spectacle of dinosaurs on an island with an actively erupting volcano. The focus on that aspect of the story lead to one of the most ridiculous and laughable one-sheets in recent memory, one that didn’t even bother to mention Pratt or Howard’s involvement.
While the posters weren’t quite that over the top for The Meg, the point of the campaign was never to establish any sort of stakes for the characters or the story. Entire motivations and explanations are missing from any aspect of the movie’s marketing, with Warner Bros. instead promising audiences a modern B-movie about a massive prehistoric shark that rises from the depths of the sea. Even Infinity War was less about any one character and more about the massive assemblage of heroes.
Representation *Does* Matter, Though
While Asian-American audiences weren’t *solely* responsible for the success of Crazy Rich Asians, it’s hard to overlook the demographics and how they impacted the movie’s fate.
According to the MPAA, Asian-Americans accounted just eight percent of the moviegoing audience in 2016 (PDF) but made up 38 percent of the ticket buyers for Crazy Rich Asians. That’s a 475 percent increase in a single audience group, something any marketer would be lucky to see. That’s similar to how Black Panther over-indexed on black audiences, with 37 percent of ticket buyers in that group compared to the 15 percent found in the 2016 MPAA report.
It wasn’t just that movie, though. The $139 million in sales for Ocean’s 8, which had Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett leading a majority-female cast, is absolutely in-line with the previous three entries in the franchise. And Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again showed a decade isn’t too long for audiences to wait for even more ABBA-powered relationship hijinks set on a stunning Greek island.
PG-13 Is What Audiences Want
More than half the movies on comScore’s list of the summer’s top-performers are too violent, sexy or both for a PG but haven’t gone all-out to earn an R rating. The six titles not rated PG-13 are split evenly between those two other designations.
No studio has embraced that in-between level like Disney, which has learned PG-13 allows it to include all sorts of “comic book violence,” a couple harsh words, and some implied hanky-panky in a way that makes younger kids feel grown-up while also serving an older audience looking for a little gritty realism in their movies. It’s the perfect rating for CGI-driven franchises.
Owned Media is A Big Plus
You could make a case – and I would – that the box-office take for something like Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again wouldn’t be what they were if it weren’t for Paramount and Universal, respectively, realizing a solid owned content marketing approach would help bring the message of the movies to audiences.
For both movies the studios put out a steady stream of videos that focused on the main value propositions of each film. For Fallout it was the extraordinary and death-defying stunts engaged in by star Tom Cruise for our entertainment. For Mamma Mia it was the joyful singing and dancing featured in the movies as well as the on-set camaraderie of the cast.
Those videos helped generate press mentions and gave the audience direct views into what it took to make the movies and what they could expect if or when they paid for their tickets.
Theaters Know Moviegoing Is Increasingly a Premium Experience
It’s notable that the MPAA, in its 2016 report on box-office trends (PDF), doesn’t break out the audience by income like it does by ethnicity and age. You can tell a lot by the kind of person the theater industry is catering to, though, by how it actually caters to them. Specifically, what kind of concessions are offered.
As Alissa Wilkinson at Vox points out, those offerings increasingly include craft beers, artisanal snacks and other high-end treats. That means theater chains and owners know the people coming in not only want that kind of food and drink for reasons of changing demographic tastes but because they can afford it.
Oh…But Where’s the Buzz?
We all loved Incredibles 2 and everyone was discussing the poor performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story. But while comScore blithely dismisses the threat posed by Netflix and other streaming services as “misguided,” saying they pose no threat to the theatrical exhibition industry.
But, as mentioned earlier, ticket sales for 2018 are likely going to be statistically flat, with much of the revenue boost coming from factors like MoviePass (before it pivoted to irrelevance), the higher ticket price paid for IMAX and other premium showings of tentpole titles and more.
Meanwhile, Netflix has owned the online conversation over the summer by releasing titles like Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and others that have resonated with younger audiences looking for a good old-fashioned romantic comedy that doesn’t speak down to younger audiences. Netflix has kept that going with the steady release of additional video featurettes, interviews, and cute videos featuring the casts of their buzz-generating features.
We don’t know exactly how that translated into actual viewership of the Netflix movies or what impact those conversations had on driving subscription numbers because the company doesn’t reveal stats on each movie. Regardless, those titles felt even more like cultural events than some of the theatrical titles on comScore’s list, ones that *had* to be seen. And the egalitarian distribution they enjoyed, with no incremental cost in place, meant they could be at the viewer’s leisure.
Summer 2018 may be good news for the movie industry in terms of money earned, but there are other parts of the picture that aren’t quite as rosy. Good marketing that speaks to broad, inclusive audiences can help keep some tides at bay, but not all.