For most Americans this is the time of year to get the kids ready for school, the home ready for winter, and your fantasy roster ready for football season. In Hollywood, the studios are busy with more vital proceedings: counting their haul from the summer blockbuster season.
Most reports will be ebullient. Look how good this underdog picture performed! Congrats, we launched a new franchise! Note how Disney earned enough to qualify as an industrialized nation’s economy! But it is not all good news.
People like myself, whose life is devoid of value and carries all the charm of an open, sucking chest wound (according to my Twitter followers), find interest in bottom of the box-office ledger. I gravitate to the misfires, the bombs, the train wrecks, and the releases that left a crater in theaters. The collection of turbulent titles reveals audience reaction to the dross. A few themes emerge.
Audiences routinely avoided cynically released franchise chapters. They scoffed at movies that overly relied on CGI, apart from pure animated fare. Generally, the films audiences were expected—nay, commanded—to see were bypassed like an infomercial playing opposite the Super Bowl. So, as Hollywood congratulates itself for the money-making frame that just ended, allow me to point out the attempts that will not lead to bonus payouts in the executive offices.
This list is subjective. Obviously money-losing ventures get the nod here, but I considered other components, including notably poor quality and expectations placed on a film ahead of its release. Thus, tabulated in convenient list form for your reference, here are the ten worst releases from the summer.
10. The Movie Sequels
One of the main stories throughout the mid-year schedule was how poorly so many sequels performed, with audiences showing fatigue towards the Xeroxed content. “Now You See Me 2” earned barely half of what the first film totaled, unable to recapture the magic (I’m sorry—I feel dirty for that). “Neighbors 2” opted for a social-messaging lecture over comedy, and was rewarded with one-third the returns of the original. Even a sure thing like “Star Trek Beyond” performed markedly below average for that franchise.
Hardest hit were colon-titled retreads. “X-Men: Apocalypse” earned less than its bloated budget (but foreign sales will earn profits for 20th Century Fox). “Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows” drew less than $100 million, and “Independence Day: Resurgence” barely limped over that line. Many barely recall “Ice Age: Collision Course” and “Mechanic: Resurrection” were even released.
9. ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’
While lightly regarded from the start, this earned space on the list for its healthy release. The “Saturday Night Live” minds led by Andy Samberg, along with Judd Apatow, came together for a mostly enjoyable “This Is Spinal Tap”-style mockumentary. The problem is that sending up boy bands targets a subject that is already a self-parody. Given a modestly wide release in more than 2,000 screens, it could not even earn $10 million, and it disappeared from theaters after only three weeks.
8. ‘Nice Guys’
There was quite the pedigree for this early summer entry. Producer Joel Silver and writer Shane Black reteamed to lead Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in this period comedy. The press did much of the heavy lifting of promoting the film, and it drew a scintillating 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. What it didn’t draw was an audience.
7. ‘Free State Of Jones’
Full Disclosure: I am not a studio marketing executive. That said, maybe having a film about a slavery rebellion during the Civil War could have been sold on more than just the image of Matthew McConaughey. Sure, he plays the titular character, but how about a little chromatic to go with your mono? Released the week before the Fourth of July, it had a tepid debut the holiday weekend did not buoy. By week three, it lost 1,500 screens from the 2,800 at its opening, earning only 40 percent of its production costs.
6. ‘The BFG’
So much heft behind this family release. Steven Spielberg directed a Disney production from the classic children’s book by Roald Dahl. This script had been kicking around Hollywood for decades, but it was going to be a challenge to draw a huge audience. Adding to that was opening in the wake of another Disney animated title, the monstrous hit “Finding Dory.” Dahl’s giant opened by making less than half of that film, which was already on its third week in theaters. When all is tallied—global, home market, and video on demand—the $140 million effort may just about break even.
5. ‘Nine Lives’
This release is ranked more for the execrable quality and less for its expectations—mainly because there were none. This is a film starring Kevin Spacey, Christopher Walken, Jennifer Garner, and directed by one-time comedic titan Barry Sonnenfeld, and it seems to be all the more worse with them involved. Instead of staging comedy, Sonnenfeld was more concerned with using CGI for sweeping shots across landscapes for no reason. This feels like it was never intended for theaters and is assured of earning Razzie nominations.
Humans react with revulsion to artificial humans, an effect known as “the uncanny valley.” This film was so CGI-choked it was filled with unnatural valleys. All but the most devout fans bypassed this long-in-the-works adaption of the video-game universe. “World of Warcraft” has ebbed in popularity, video games have a rotten history of translating to film, and few wanted to see characters they didn’t create.
To get the full measure of how bad this was, you need only compare it to another gaming title released weeks earlier. “The Angry Birds Movie” more than doubled the box-office total ($107 million versus $47 million) and it was made for $100 million cheaper.
Sure, there was all the social upheaval about this film. But after all the hectoring, an actual film was released, and it was about as welcome as a vegan handing out recipes at a pit barbecue competition. The most-disliked film trailer in YouTube history (an actual statistic) led to a very lackluster performance in theaters.
While the returns were not the worst to be found, you need to consider all the hype attached, that this was a summer tentpole release, that this was an established and popular property, and that the studio was hoping to launch a new franchise. All of that is supposed to lead to gravy splashing over the transom. Instead, Sony is expected to take a $70 million loss on this venture.
2. ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’
The difference between this second attempt and the original film is more grotesque than any character found on screen. Tim Burton’s “Alice” was an explosive hit, earning more than $1 billion globally. This second attempt drew less than $80 million in its total run stateside. The original made 50 percent more than that in just its opening weekend, even though this was given a fertile summertime release slot while the first installment debuted in March. That will surely cause a red ink hallucination.
1. ‘Ben Hur’
Who really thought this was a good idea? Remaking a vaunted classic and populating it with B/C-list performers (save for Morgan Freeman) while delivering bland set pieces was bound for misery. Then there was diluting the majesty of the chariot races by rendering them in sterilized CGI. This did less than fail—it was rejected. A sprawling $100 million summer epic barely drew $15 million in its opening weekend. Here is just how embarrassing this will be for Paramount: It will not even earn half of the box office that the classic earned nearly 60 years ago.