LOS ANGELES — Moviegoers in North America have spent roughly $4.4 billion on tickets this year, a 5 percent increase over the same period in 2015. Five films have taken in more than $300 million — two is typical — and more anticipated giants are on the way, including the Pixar sequel “Finding Dory” and “Star Trek Beyond.”
And yet very few Champagne corks are popping in Hollywood. Why?
For a start, big-budget sequels, typically the safest route to box office success, generated ragged holiday weekend sales. “X-Men: Apocalypse” (20th Century Fox) took in an estimated $65 million between Friday and Sunday, 29 percent less than initial results for its franchise predecessor. The film delivered the sixth best opening among the eight “X-Men” movies, after taking inflation into account.
Bombing was “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” which cost Walt Disney Studios $170 million to make. It took in $28.1 million, according to comScore, which compiles box office data. “We’re obviously frustrated and disappointed,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s executive vice president for distribution. “Alice in Wonderland” arrived to $127 million in domestic ticket sales in 2010, after adjusting for inflation.
But the misgivings in Hollywood extend beyond one disappointing weekend, even one as important as Memorial Day. A troubling box office trend started last summer and has only become more pronounced: The riches are not flowing evenly — four of the six major movie factories are struggling — and only expensive event films seem to be drawing crowds, with many general purpose, middle-tier movies being virtually ignored despite aggressive marketing.
What seems to be succeeding are familiar and liked brands (Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War”), bold interpretations (“Deadpool,” “The Jungle Book”) or movies that are events for a particular audience (“Miracles From Heaven,” “The Angry Birds Movie”). Increasingly lost in the mix are films aimed at older audiences or designed as alternatives to effects-driven spectacles: “The Nice Guys,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” “Money Monster,” “Mother’s Day,” “The Finest Hours,” “The Boss,” “How to Be Single,” “Hail, Caesar!”
Studios have long fought through hits and misses. The worry is that audiences — unhappy with rising ticket and concession prices and increasingly bivouacked in their living rooms — seem to be saying that an entire section of studio output is no longer viable in theaters: Unless it’s a must-see movie, we’ll catch it on Netflix.
Several films planned for release over the summer will either add to this concern or diminish it, including “Me Before You,” a romantic drama from New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, starring Emilia Clarke of “Game of Thrones”; “Central Intelligence,” a Warner Bros. crime comedy, starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart; and “Free State of Jones,” a Civil War period drama from STX Entertainment, starring Matthew McConaughey.
“I do still think that smart summer counterprogramming can work,” said Dan Fellman, a box office consultant who previously served as distribution chief at Warner Bros. “If you’re going to appeal to an older audience, though, you’d better have great reviews.”
Some analysts aren’t so sure. Doug Creutz, a media analyst at Cowen and Company, wrote in a recent report: “With box office trends over the last 16 months suggesting that a few films are likely to take the lion’s share of the returns, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which a significant number of this summer’s releases are not money-losers, or at least disappointments.”
Its failure with “Alice Through the Looking Glass” notwithstanding, Disney has been setting the studio pace by focusing on event films that trade on established brands. With smash hits like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Zootopia” and “The Jungle Book,” Disney has captured about 32 percent of the domestic box office so far this year, according to the database Box Office Mojo. Hits like “Deadpool” and “Kung Fu Panda 3” have powered Fox to second place, with roughly 20 percent market share.
That has left four studios — Warner, Universal, Paramount and Sony — trying to compete for the balance, and mostly waging their campaigns with lesser properties.
Studio executives cautioned against reading too much into lackluster returns for “X-Men: Apocalypse” and the collapse of “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” noting that they faced different challenges.
Directed by Bryan Singer, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” which cost at least $178 million to make, not including marketing, lacked some of the franchise’s major stars and received weak reviews. “This movie is going to play better than people think,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s president of domestic distribution. “The critics lashed out, but the exit polls are very good. People like this movie.”
Mr. Aronson estimated that “X-Men: Apocalypse” would take in $80 million for the four-day weekend. Overseas, the movie has collected an additional $158.8 million.
“Alice Through the Looking Glass,” directed by James Bobin, received withering reviews. Disney may have taken too long to make a sequel. Certainly not helping were domestic violence accusations that emerged last week against Johnny Depp, who plays the Mad Hatter. Amber Heard, Mr. Depp’s estranged wife, appearing in Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday, received a restraining order against the actor.
Mr. Depp’s lawyer, Laura Wasser, has rejected Ms. Heard’s claims, saying she is “attempting to secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse.”
Disney had no comment about Mr. Depp’s situation and whether it contributed to the audience rejection of “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” Mr. Hollis estimated that the movie would generate $36 million over the four-day holiday. Analysts had expected at least $60 million in ticket sales.