As everyone welcomes autumn and pumpkin spice with open arms, we all must wish a sad goodbye to summer. But before it’s completely gone from our minds, let’s reflect on the movies from the last few months.
During the summer movie season, we saw franchise installments, superhero flicks, and every sort of blockbuster you can think of. For a lot of people, it’s their favorite time of the year because of all the great movies that get released—no matter who you are, there’s bound to be something released that you’ll like. And as Americans are reported to go to less and less movies each year (now at around 5 movies per year), these tent-pole events become even more important for bringing audiences in and defining the collective cinematic culture for the country.
Beyond this, summer blockbusters are crucial to the companies that make the movies. Despite the success of other non-summer movies (like the live-action Beauty and the Beast from earlier this year that is now the #10 top grossing movie of all time or the destined-to-succeed Last Jedi coming out this December), production companies rely on their summer releases to support their projects over the course of the next year. They take the money they earn in that one season and invest in other movies over the coming months.
And that’s why I want to take a brief moment to analyze this summer’s movie season. To define summer, we’ll use the broad parameters of any movie released in May through August. Which of these movies did the best financially? Which ones did the best critically? What does this tell us about the movie industry?
A brief note: For most of the movies below, I’m including the amount they grossed (domestic first and then worldwide) followed by their production budget. Companies don’t usually release how much they spent on advertising, but it’s said that a good estimate for how much is spent on a movie in total is double its production budget (apparently a lot is spent on advertising). So keep that in mind as we go along.
Top 10 by Domestic Gross
10. Girls Trip (Gross: $114,850,245 | Production Budget: $19 million)
9. Transformers: The Last Knight (Gross: $130,168,683 | Production Budget: $217 million)
8. War for the Planet of the Apes (Gross: $146,288,952 | Production Budget: $150 million)
7. Cars 3 (Gross: $152,412,453 | Production Budget: N/A)
6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Gross: $172,558,876 | Production Budget: $230 million)
5. Dunkirk (Gross: $186,425,073 | Production Budget: $100 million)
4. Despicable Me 3 (Gross: $261,863,570 | Production Budget: $80 million)
3. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Gross: $332,003,538 | Production Budget: $175 million)
2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gross: $389,813,101 | Production Budget: $200 million)
1. Wonder Woman (Gross: $412,038,809 | Production Budget: $149 million)
(Honorable mention goes to Baby Driver. Well done, Baby Driver.)
So, in our first list, we find three superhero films leading the pack, three more fantasy/sci-fi movies (all installments in a franchise), two cartoons (also from franchises), a movie from Christopher Nolan (who has a history with superheroes), and the surprise of the summer: Girls Trip.
Top 10 by Worldwide Gross
10. Cars 3 (Gross: $362.0 million | Production Budget: N/A)
9. The Mummy (Gross: $407.8 million | Production Budget: $125 million)
8. War for the Planet of the Apes (Gross: $470.9 million | Production Budget: $150 million)
7. Dunkirk (Gross: $516.2 million | Production Budget: $100 million)
6. Transformers: The Last Knight (Gross: $605.4 million | Production Budget: $217 million)
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Gross: $794.2 million | Production Budget: $230 million)
4. Wonder Woman (Gross: $820.4 million | Production Budget: $149 million)
3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gross: $863.4 million | Production Budget: $200 million)
2. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Gross: $874.4 million | Production Budget: $175 million)
1. Despicable Me 3 (Gross: $1,020.4 million | Production Budget: $80 million)
When we expand our scope to include profit from other countries, we have generally the same list. You’ll notice the top four are the same—though backward—and Girls Trip dropped out to Tom Cruise’s The Mummy. That is, of course, because spectacle translates better than jokes. Also, you may be sad to hear that Despicable Me 3 with its $1.02 billion success has reached the #30 spot for best performing movie of all time, just edging out The Dark Knight.
Top 10 Summer Flops
10. Snatched (Gross: $60,845,711 | Production Budget: $42 million)
9. The Circle (Gross: $33.9 million | Production Budget: $18 million)
8. CHiPS (Gross: $26,800,152 | Production Budget: $25 million)
7. A Cure for Wellness (Gross: $26,559,557 | Production Budget: $40 million)
6. The Space Between Us (Gross: $14,793,385 | Production Budget: $30 million)
5. Collide (Gross: $4,811,525 | Production Budget: $21.5 million)
4. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Gross: $148,675,066 | Production Budget: $175 million)
3. Rock Dog (Gross: $20.8 million | Production Budget: $60 million)
2. Monster Trucks (Gross: $64,493,915 | Production Budget: $125 million)
1. The Promise (Gross: $10 million | Production Budget: $90 million)
These movies didn’t fare quite as well—who knew Monster Trucks had a budget of $125 million? Most of these aren’t terribly surprising failures as they were mostly bad movies (though The Promise, for one, was not atrocious). A lot of these even had acclaimed actors in them—but I think that just goes to prove my point that we all need to stop talking about the acting in movies.
Money’s not everything, though. Let’s look at what the critics had to say about the movies this summer…
Top 10 by RottenTomatoes Score
10. It Comes at Night (89%)
9. Girls Trip (89%)
8. A Ghost Story (92%)
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming (92%)
6. Wonder Woman (92%)
5. Logan Lucky (93%)
4. War for the Planet of the Apes (93%)
3. Dunkirk (93%)
2. Baby Driver (93%)
1. The Big Sick (98%)
Again, we got a lot of overlap here—especially with the domestic list. Still, our top two acclaimed movies did not make the top 10 at the box office, and Logan Lucky, one of my favorite movies of the year, didn’t even recoup its budget domestically.
Top 10 Overall Success
10. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
9. Annabelle: Creation
8. Girls Trip
7. Cars 3
6. War for the Planet of the Apes
5. Despicable Me 3
3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
1. Wonder Woman
Don’t put too much stock in this list. I compiled this by multiplying a movie’s domestic earnings by its RottenTomatoes score. (Admittedly, a more interesting formula might have been to give the profit some sort of divisor like budget or the top grossing movie that year.) That said, we can still see a loose relationship between the merit of a film and how we reward them financially. Nonetheless, movies like Cars 3 and Despicable Me 3, which you could best describe as passable, are disproportionately high.
Looking at these numbers is more than an exercise in interesting. Box office results tell us what films people liked and wanted to see. Despite claims that crowds are growing tired of hero movies, they still top the lists for dollars earned and have maintained (in MARVEL’s case) a consistent level of cinematic craftsmanship. We see also that audiences like spectacle, and the critics don’t seem to mind it either. Apparently you can still tell a good story and have a little magic and fun along the way.
But we also see in these lists that lazy filmmaking still gets rewarded if the colors are flashy enough. On the flip side, people aren’t seeing good movies if they’re not advertised in front of their faces 24 hours a day. A lot of films that have been slaved over and expertly shaped by the artists involved never get the chance to impress viewers.
Lastly, I think these lists lead us to a question: does money help make a good movie? The egalitarian in all of us wants to say No, all that matters in a movie is the skill and heart that goes into making it. We might even go further and conjecture that money hurts a movie and add something about soulless profiteering and how that’s not real artistry. But, the numbers seem to suggest otherwise. Or is this correlation and not causation? I guess we’ll have to look more at this at another time.