It's beginning to look like a cruel summer at the box office for blockbuster franchises. It started off strong with "Avengers: Endgame," which has earned $2.7 billion worldwide, but 2019's other would-be blockbusters have been met with a collective shrug by moviegoers.
"Godzilla: King of the Monsters" was the highest-grossing movie of the weekend when it opened on May 31, but its $48 million take is subpar by summer blockbuster standards. It dropped to fourth place the following weekend and took in only $15 million, a 68% drop from just one week earlier.
The movies that pushed it from the top spot didn't fare any better. The latest entry in the "X-Men" franchise, "Dark Phoenix," debuted at number two with a take of $33 million, the worst box office performance in "X-Men" history. It was denied the top spot by "The Secret Life of Pets 2," which earned $47 million, less than half of the $104 million that the 2016 original made during its opening weekend.
"[A]s the last few weeks have shown us, the market has been saturated with franchise films as of late, and many have been under-performing," said the revenue tracking website Box Office Mojo.
That being the case, it's worth wondering if audiences are growing weary of cinematic universes, prequels, sequels, spinoffs and reboots in general. And if that's the case, it could be bad news for the blockbuster sequels slated to open later this summer, such as "Toy Story 4" and "Spiderman: Far From Home."
"There were similar problems back in summer 2016 and 2017, whereby a large amount of the sequels and franchises released those years flopped or missed expectations for opening weekend box office sales," said Mark Pacitti, managing director and founder of the Woozle research firm in London. "Take, for example 'Independence Day,' 'Ice Age,' the 'Huntsman' films in 2016. In 2017, we had the same trend with 'Pirates of the Caribbean.' Same goes for the 'Transformers' franchise, which is seeing a commercial decline."
Daniel Green, director of the Master of Entertainment Industry Management Program at Carnegie Mellon University, said that while it's true that many moviegoers are staying away from some franchises, that's not the primary cause of box office disappointment. Sometimes, the competition is just too hard to overcome.
"There seems to be a bit of fatigue, especially for the 'X-Men' franchise," he said. "Audiences, especially fans, have already been impressed with 'Avengers: Endgame,' and since the reviews were not pushing people into the theater, 'Dark Phoenix' wasn't imperative to see."
Author, actor and entertainment reporter Christopher Lucas said that studio politics and advertising strategies are much more significant factors in box office performance than many may realize.
"'Dark Phoenix' is not a totally bad film, it just got lost in the Disney/Fox merger shuffle," he said. "Disney was putting all of its marketing strength behind 'Avengers: Endgame,' so another superhero saga conclusion film, acquired from another studio, became an afterthought for them."
He added that in the case of "Godzilla: King of the Monsters," the problem may have been that the story didn't make sense to filmgoers, which may have put a damper on word of mouth.
"It was mostly audience unfamiliarity with the other monsters in the film and confusion as to whether Godzilla was a hero or villain in this chapter," he said.
Despite its box office performance, Godzilla will return and not just because "Godzilla vs. Kong" is already scheduled for March 2020. Many franchises have misfired and still gone on to win large audiences, as long as the next movie is better than the last one.
"Warner Bros. didn't know what to do with the 'Batman' franchise, and then Christopher Nolan and Legendary gave audiences' Batman Begins,' 'The Dark Knight' and 'The Dark Knight Rises,''" said Green. Those movies went on to make a combined $2.5 billion at the worldwide box office, despite 1997's widely loathed "Batman and Robin."
It's tempting to blame streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video for contributing to the early demise of some blockbuster films. But while author and entertainment writer Christopher McKittrick agreed that moviegoers might choose to wait a few months for a movie to come to streaming services, large-screen spectacles remain as enticing as ever.
"Non-franchise films like 'Bohemian Rhapsody' have found the right audience to great success," he said. "If the film is big enough in terms of spectacle, positive word of mouth and marketing, people will still go to theaters to see it, sometimes multiple times."
Christopher Lucas said the basic principle is that if a movie is good, people will come to see it and if it stinks, they won't. He noted that this applies to every major franchise, even ones that might seem to be on life support, such as "X-Men."
"The 'X-Men' cinematic franchise will survive and be reinvented by Disney/Marvel after a hiatus," he said. "The successful strategy is to move on from the money loser, take a break for audiences to refresh, and then come back with another film in the series."