Can Holiday-Season Blockbusters Save 2017’s Box Office After Dismal Summer?

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It’s been a bruising year for the movie business. Major studios are trying to move past a brutal summer box office — the lowest in more than two decades — as well as the ever-widening sexual harassment scandal that has heaped dirt on some of Hollywood’s biggest names.

As the bad headlines continue to pile up, the industry is hoping it will finally have something to celebrate this holiday season. At least one film hitting theaters in December is guaranteed to be a global blockbuster: Disney/Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” But several other pictures are elbowing their way into a packed Christmas corridor, looking to be runners up. It’s a critically important season, one that in recent years has accounted for 15% of the annual box office haul.

This year the pressure is particularly intense to make up ground, though hopes of approaching 2016’s domestic record at the turnstiles seem dim at best.

“It’s a foregone conclusion that we’re not going to catch up to last year,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “What we need are surprise hits. We need a movie that can hold on to audiences week after week.”

Among the pictures hoping to achieve breakout status are Fox’s “The Greatest Showman,” Paramount’s “Downsizing,” Sony’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “All the Money in the World,” Universal’s “Pitch Perfect 3” and Warner Bros.’ “Father Figures.” Most of those titles bow on Dec. 22, with “Showman” and “Jumanji” out Dec. 20.

The relative success of these films, many of them arriving with big production and marketing budgets, is the movie business’s best chance at ending 2017 on a high note after a series of setbacks and disappointments. Yet even if all these releases hit, the year is likely to end down, perhaps off 3% from last year, studio executives predict.

There are important takeaways from what worked and, more frequently, what fell flat. Bloated superhero films and sequels such as “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “Justice League” contributed to a sense of franchise fatigue.

“2017 is going to be remembered for sequels that completely underperformed,” said Bock. “At the end of the day, the studios need to make better movies.”

Through Dec. 3, the 2017 box office has been weighed down by a string of flops this summer, sliding 3.9% from last year. To match 2016’s domestic haul of $11.4 billion, the holiday film slate will have to make a collective $2.2 billion.

Holiday Box Office Illustration

Though it’s expected to lead the holiday box office, “The Last Jedi” is unlikely to equal the haul of “The Force Awakens,” which benefited from reuniting the original cast members decades after they last shared the screen.

The other Disney film, Disney/Pixar’s animated comedy “Coco,” arrived Nov. 22 after opening in Mexico last month and quickly becoming the biggest-selling film of all time in that territory. The film debuted domestically to more than $70 million over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend.

“We’re in a great spot, and we have a lot to be confident about,” said Dave Hollis, president of worldwide theatrical distribution for Disney. “We have brands that are recognizable to consumers and content that has been very high quality.”

Disney’s dominance in 2017 is clear. Eight months after its release, “Beauty and the Beast” continues to top the year’s box office, with a worldwide gross of $1.26 billion.

With so many films competing for eyeballs, one fear is that titles may cannibalize each other in a crowded marketplace. There are about 10 movies debuting in wide release this holiday season, with many others arriving in limited release, including Fox’s “The Post,” a drama about the Pentagon Papers starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.

Studio executives say that 2017 has shown that the leading indicator of box office success is quality. A number of films this year sank after receiving negative reviews, and the surprise runaway success of “It” during the typically slow month of September showed that audiences will head to the multiplex any time of the year for the right picture.

“If you make a great movie,” Disney’s Hollis said, “you can put it just about anywhere in the calendar.”

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