It's painful to say, but Michael Bay might have just saved the 2014 summer movie season.
The fourth installment in the multibillion-dollar-grossing Transformers franchise, the suitably grandiose-sounding “Age of Extinction,” debuted to worldwide ticket sales of more than $300 million this last weekend, including roughly $90 million in China alone, making it possibly the biggest opening ever for that market, according to Box Office Mojo.
This positions it to be the first movie of the year that stands a chance of cracking $1 billion.
And with that, studios and theater owners can begin to breathe again.
Prior to “Age of Extinction,” domestic box office for the first two months of summer had been down a whopping 13 percent from what was seen during the same period last year, as reported by Box Office Mojo's Ray Subers.
That’s a big deal, considering the roughly four months from Memorial Day to Labor Day typically account for more than half of the industry’s annual revenue.
There are a few factors that might have been contributing to the generally slow box office so far. But overall, it’s a simple matter that so-called “blockbusters” just haven’t quite been living up to the name. Despite no shortage of costly, high-profile sequels, reboots and adaptations throughout the months of May and June — featuring all the usual stuff like superheroes, aliens, time travel, talking animals and any combination of those — audiences just haven’t been turning out in massive enough numbers.
As Subers notes, before last weekend, in fact, only one summer release, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” had even managed to cross the $200 million line in domestic box office.
By contrast, at the same point of time last year, there had already been four films that had surpassed $200 million — “Iron Man 3,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel” — and of those, Disney’s “Iron Man 3” had more than doubled it, with $405 million by the end of June (contributing to a final cumulative box office of $1.2 billion worldwide).
One of the big differences this year versus previous years is the comparatively dark tone of many of the studios’ “tentpole” releases.
With the obvious exception of a movie like “Rio 2” and, to a certain extent, Marc Webb’s Spider-Man sequel, 2014 has seen an unusually gloomy bunch of would-be blockbusters.
Beyond the fact that a lot of these seem to actively go against everything one could possibly describe as “summery” — sunlight, beaches, family vacations, etc. — the grim, gritty, apocalyptic imagery and heavy thematic content of movies like “Days of Future Past,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Godzilla” don’t leave a lot of room for family audiences at movie theaters.
And that darker tone isn’t just limited to PG-13 action movies. Even a film like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a more serious, grownup movie compared to the first film.
Likewise, “Maleficent” deals with some surprisingly dark stuff in its live-action retelling of “Sleeping Beauty.”
All in all, it’s a summer that could have really benefited from a new Pixar movie. Too bad the Emeryville-based studio’s “The Good Dinosaur” got pushed back from its original May release date to November of next year, leaving this the first summer since 2005 without something bearing the Pixar logo.
However, even though there haven’t been any out-of-this-world, astronomically huge hits so far this summer, unlike previous years, there also haven’t been any complete bombs. This year has yet to see a “Battleship” or “Lone Ranger” — just a few unexpectedly soft openings like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and Disney’s family-friendly, cross-cultural baseball movie “Million Dollar Arm,” with Jon Hamm.
Even one of the summer’s biggest critical disappointments, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which holds the dubious honor of being the lowest-grossing, worst-reviewed Spider-Man movie to date, has still managed to rake in more than $700 million worldwide. Not quite the “Avengers”-sized hit Sony had predicted, but still nothing to sneeze at.
Other films have also performed well enough to at least guarantee future installments, the standout being “X-Men: Days of Future Past” with its $223 million in U.S. tickets. Although not enough to single-handedly save the domestic box office from its overall slump, it more than proves that the 14-year-old franchise — the longest continuous superhero series ever — still has life in it.
Combined with another $489 million from overseas markets (the biggest foreign box office for any X-Men movie by more than double), “Days of Future Past” and its $712 million worldwide haul were even big enough to get Hugh Jackman to reconsider his retirement from the role of Wolverine.
Likewise, Gareth Edwards’ “Jaws”-influenced “Godzilla” also did reasonably well with a $93 million opening weekend that was perfectly befitting of a member of the monster royal family, if not the King of the Monsters himself.
While the big summer tent poles have struggled to attract audiences, though, studios have found a surprising amount of success with smaller fare.
This year is looking a little bit like the summer of counterprogramming. R-rated comedies and a certain young adult drama, in particular, have done remarkably well against their bigger, louder cousins.
Following the breakout hit that was “Neighbors” in May, June saw the Channing Tatum/Jonah Hill buddy comedy “22 Jump Street” take the top spot at the box office with just shy of $140 million, beating out DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel, which opened on the same day, by a sizable margin.
The real winner, though, is really Fox’s adaptation of the John Greene young adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars.” On just a $12 million budget, the PG-13 romantic drama about a girl (Shailene Woodley) diagnosed with cancer has earned close to $200 million worldwide.
Compare that with something like “Edge of Tomorrow,” a sci-fi action film that combines two of the summer movie season’s most tried and true subjects (aliens and time travel), stars one of the biggest actors in the world (Tom Cruise) and was directed by a hugely successful filmmaker (Doug Liman of “The Bourne Identity” fame). On a $178 million budget, it’s earned a healthy, but not exactly jaw-dropping, $318 million internationally (only $84 million domestically).
With some of the year’s most anticipated releases still to come (i.e. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"), the summer of 2014 could still wind up being as successful as last year’s.
Given the way things have gone so far, though, studios might be wise to take another look at next year’s particularly tentpole-focused summer release schedule and try to make room for a few smaller films here and there. Just in case.
After all, Michael Bay doesn't have another Transformers movie coming out in 2015.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website filminquiry.com.