Can 'Apes' save a bombing summer box office?

Fox's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" opens in theaters across the country this weekend, and even rival studios across Hollywood are hoping it'll be a hit. This isn't an unusual wave of entertainment empathy, but rather industrywide hope that this summer's box-office doldrums are a blip that upcoming films will be able to turn around.

A scene from "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."
Source: 20th Century Fox

Hollywood is still shuddering in the wake of a dismal July Fourth weekend box office, down 44 percent from the year-ago weekend. Beyond the lack of megahits on the scale of last year's blockbusters, the industry also blamed low turnout on the fact that the fireworks landed on a Friday, which usually generates a crucial chunk of the weekend's ticket sales.

This weekend the "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is expected to dominate—as of mid-Thursday it's responsible for 70 percent of all of Fandango's weekend ticket sales, and it's outselling its predecessor "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," putting it on track to beat its $55 million opening. (Last weekend's victor—"Transformers: Age of Extinction"—had a $36 million gross in the U.S., down 64 percent from the prior weekend.)

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The "Apes" sequel is pacing similarly to last summer's "World War Z," which opened with $66.5 million its first weekend and ended up grossing more than $200 million in the U.S. The reviews—and audience anticipation—are working in "Apes" favor—it has a 94 percent rating from critics sand a 98 percent "want to see" rating from audiences according to

Then coming up there are other highly anticipated films which could break out: Disney's "Guardians of the Galaxy" opens on Aug. 1; Paramount's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" opens on Aug. 8, and could reach the audience for the original film plus a new generation. And Universal's action flick "Lucy" looks like it could be a sleeper hit based on early tracking numbers.

Box office bust

The question is whether this can turn the summer—and year—around. The summer box office (starting in May) is down more than 19 percent compared with last year and the total U.S. box office year to date is down nearly 4 percent.

Why? With the World Cup on TV and virtually limitless content online and on-demand, the bar is higher than ever. "The movies that are in the marketplace have to be profoundly compelling to get people to move away from their on-demand, the Internet, all the different services that allow people and potential moviegoers to get filmed entertainment on their devices, at home and other places," said Rentrak senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

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It doesn't help that the average adult spends record time on entertainment other than going to the movies—more than five hours watching live TV and nearly three hours listening to the radio, according to Nielsen.

But even in this struggling summer, Hollywood has seen some massive strength overseas, in China in particular. "The international box office is sort of the savior," said Dergarabedian.

"Transformers 4" has grossed more in China than it has in the U.S., and although Tom Cruise's "Edge of Tomorrow" didn't open huge in North America, it's been a massive hit overseas, where it's drawn 73 percent of its total box-office take. The rising importance of international audiences will push Hollywood even more toward the kind of familiar brands and sequels that are easier to market overseas.

—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin