Don’t be surprised if Marvel’s Kevin Feige starts green-lighting movies based off mutant stick figures he sketches on the back of a cocktail napkin: The previously anonymous Guardians of the Galaxy is officially the summer’s biggest hit, and it should be the highest-grossing film (domestically) of 2014. Star-Lord finally swooped past Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles and fire-breathing robosaurs to reclaim the top spot at the domestic box office ($17.6 million weekend gross) and the summer overall ($252 million and counting). Right now Guardians is set to pass both Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s and The Lego Movie’s grosses before Labor Day comes to a close. And there was much rejoicing among talking trees everywhere …
… but nowhere else. The new films of this final major weekend of the summer opened with a resounding “blah.” (Labor Day weekend doesn’t count because kids are back at school and the rest of us are too busy licking those empty mojito pitchers.) Aside from TMNT and Guardians trading the no. 1 spot at the box office like Bushes and Clintons swapping the Oval Office, the new arrivals puttered onto the theatrical stage with less aplomb than a 12:54 SNL sketch. Quaffing down the last dregs of the summer’s young-adult craze, Chloë Grace Moretz’s If I Stay didn’t quite meet expectations, with $16.33 million Thursday through Sunday, which is nowhere near the $48 million opening of industrial-strength tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars. But If I Stay cost a mere $11 million, which means it’ll, like, still make money! It doesn’t need your judgment and overblown box office expectations, analysts. And it won’t buy into your shallow, materialistic notions of success. It’s going to go lock itself in its room and listen to Feist.
But if you want to talk true disappointment, look no further than the tattooed, trench coat–wearing Sin City 2, which had all the impact of a hard-boiled egg hitting a mattress. Turns out Frank Miller’s sequel was less a dame to kill for than a girl you might talk to after a few more beers because this bar’s kind of dead anyway. With a $6.48 million opening off a $70 million budget, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For didn’t just bomb — it made a bomb like The Expendables 3 look young and handsome. The aging ’roid-age relic dropped like a rock its second weekend, but still beat Mickey Rourke and his enormous prosthetic jaw with a mere $6.6 million. (Don’t get cocky, Expendables 3! At $27.5 million, it’s taken you two weekends to gross what The Expendables 2 made in one.) Parading Eva Green around naked wasn’t enough to overcome even the faith-based, inspirational charms of When the Game Stands Tall, a.k.a. Soul Surfer on the gridiron. With its $9 million take, When the Game beat Sin City despite playing in 200 fewer theaters. Boyhood also kept its own inspirational running game up, earning another $1.8 million for a $16.5 million domestic total so far.
While the weekend was up 19 percent compared with last year, the newbies provided that vaguely disappointing aftertaste to an already underwhelming summer. The summer domestic box office remains down a hefty 15 percent compared with 2013, and Hollywood as a whole is still off 5 percent for the year. Sure, international grosses continue to save the bottom line, but North America is still the biggest film market in the world, so taking a 15 percent hit during prime profit season never feels good. And while China boosted Transformers’ year-conquering gross, Hollywood sees less than a quarter of the $300 million it earned there, because China’s distributors take an outsize cut of the action.1
That magic $300 million is actually a useful lens through which to look at the season. In 2012, five movies topped $300 million, and in 2013 four films cleared that hurdle, with Man of Steel not quite making it at $291 million. More important, 2012 saw four films cross the $1 billion mark worldwide, and in 2013 two films hit that magic number. As of summer’s close, only Transformers has topped $1 billion. Even Guardians is unlikely to clear that high-water mark, though it will probably hit that magic $300 million number at the domestic box office.
Since summer usually accounts for 40 percent of studio profits, it would take quite a one-two punch from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and The Hobbit: What’s the Unnecessarily Long After-Title 2 to fix this year’s broken box office. Of course, with the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals heralding the arrive of fall prestige season, the champagne-soaked Oscar buzz will put off Hollywood’s hangover until the end of the year. Until then, we’ll just have to distract ourselves with whatever inevitably perplexed reviews of Birdman come out of Venice next week.