Why this 4th of July box office stunk -- and what it means

The box office was down approximately 40 percent this past 4th of July weekend -- the worst in years and possibly decades. How and why did this happen?

Coming right at the midpoint of the summer moviegoing season, Independence Day is usually a bonanza for Hollywood, both in terms of the money it rakes in and the movies it opens -- which tend to be among the most spectacular or family-friendly or both of that particular year. But the 2014 take was not just approximately 45 percent down from 2013, it may have been the lowest in 15 years. And if you adjust for inflation (always the dirty little secret in Tinseltown), it may have been the worst since 1987.

So, in simple terms: WTF?

First, the facts: While figures are still in the estimate stage until later this week, Box Office Mojo reports that the Top 12 movies at the box office this weekend look to earn a total of $118 million -- 47 percent down from last year and the lowest 4th of July gross since 1999, which pulled in $116 million. 

On the other hand, Variety gives the holiday number as around $130 million and 43 percent down from last year -- a little better but still a whopping and, for the studios, potentially frightening drop.

If you do that inflation adjustment thing, as Buzzfeed did, the lowest 4th of July before this one was back in 1987, when Dragnet topped the box office. 

Leading the pack was Transformers: Age of Extinction, which plummeted 64 percent in its second weekend to take in $36 million. While Paramount isn't ringing alarm bells yet (especially since the Michael Bay-directed movie is kicking butt internationally), its total domestic earnings of $174.7 million are trailing far behind the previous two entries in the series. This means that, if its current box-office rate holds, Age of Extinction will be the lowest-grossing Transformers movie in the U.S. and won't even hit $300 million (incidentally, it's also the lowest 4th of July chart-topper since Bay's own Armageddon back in 1998).

Last year's number-one movie at the box office, Despicable Me 2, delivered around $83.5 million over the weekend and led a robust $230 million overall take (The Heat, World War Z, Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger were all playing during that stretch).

Transformers, however, was doing Avatar-like business compared to the new movies that opened this past week. The Melissa McCarthy comedy Tammy opened on Wednesday (July 2) and by the weekend had earned around $32 million, well below expectations of $40 million. The horror movie Deliver Us From Evil also fell short of projections of $20 million, doing only $15 million since its July 2 arrival and just $9.5 million over the weekend. The third major new release, the family sci-fi adventure Earth to Echo, only scraped up $13.5 million in five days and a little over $8 million through the weekend.

So why did this happen? Analysis from the various trade publications point to several factors:

  1. No massive new tentpole to compete with Transformers: the Autobots were always going to fall in their second week, but there was no equally massive behemoth to fill the gap. And four really bad movies in, could audiences be getting tired of Bay's truly awful franchise?
  2. No big family films: Earth to Echo was no Despicable Me or Brave. In fact, Variety points out that this summer has the least amount of children's films on tap since 2007 -- an especially short-sighted move on a holiday weekend.
  3. Weather: Heavy wind and rains buffeted parts of the Northeast thanks to a tropical storm, which may have kept some potential moviegoers indoors.
  4. The calendar: Many of the analysts point to this as perhaps the most important factor aside from the skimpy number of offerings. The 4th fell on a Friday this year, giving people less opportunity to go to the movies than they might have had on a long holiday weekend. Last year, Independence Day fell on a Thursday and many people ended up not having to work on Friday, either -- that extra day could have made a vast difference.

What does it all mean? At the very least, the way the calendar falls each year can definitely make an impact on a big holiday weekend, for starters. And there is evidence that with the weaker grosses from Transformers and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 earlier in the season, certain franchises may be running out of steam with audiences.

It could just be a quieter year overall: 2014's total box office is down, and its summer total so far is running 20 percent behind last summer's. But last summer was the biggest on record and featured the mammoth Iron Man 3 ($406 million in the U.S. alone), plus contenders like Man of Steel ($267 million), Fast & Furious 6 ($235 million) and Star Trek Into Darkness ($222 million). Only three movies so far this summer have hit $200 million: Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, although Godzilla and Transformers are likely to join that pack (not one of them, however, will hit the heights of Iron Man 3).

Except for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11) and Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug. 1), the rest of the season looks pretty uninspired as well. If you believe The Wrap, however, the studios aren't panicking, because they're playing the long game: For every few gigantic summers, the theory goes that there has to be a slow one here or there. And if you look at next summer's slate -- The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, Fantastic Four, Ted 2, Minions, Mad Max: Fury Road, Assassin's Creed and Terminator -- then 2014 may just be a momentary bad memory 12 months from now.

Did you go to the movies over the 4th of July weekend? Have you been going a lot this summer? Discuss below how you think this season has shaped up.

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