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Summer blockbusters flop at box office

Johnny Depp plays Tonto in "The Lone Ranger." Courtesy of Disney

It hasn’t been a summer to remember for A-listers Will Smith and Johnny Depp, normally bankable box office stars, whose summer fare has landed with a thud in theatres. Smith’s sci-fi adventure After Earth had less than worldly returns while Depp’s western The Lone Ranger barely produced a gallop.

That recent trend turned alarming this past weekend as the sci-fi action comedy R.I.P.D. had a dismal North American debut, continuing a Hollywood streak of weekly box office bombs for films that cost more than US$100 million to make.

R.I.P.D., starring Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds, cost $130 million to make and tens of millions more to promote. It opened with ticket sales of $12.8 million, seventh among films in theatres this weekend, according to the box office division of Hollywood.com.

The $135-million Turbo, collected $21.5 million in its first weekend, a distant third behind the horror film The Conjuring and also behind Despicable Me 2, which continues to do well in its third week in theatres.

“Well, the summer movie season of 2013 has literally been littered with big budget high profile flops,” explained Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com’s box office division.

“This has been very problematic for Hollywood because despite the fact that the summer box office has been up 10 per cent over the last year, the big story, the headline, has been all about the hyped-up, bigger-than-life, huge-budget, high-profile flops. That is never a good thing.”

Analysts say the misfires could prompt a parade of film write-downs for studios—a black eye for an industry that prides its public image nearly as highly as its private jets and summers in Europe. They add that studios will likely be forced to take a write-down for the The Lone Ranger and After Earth.

They point to an unprecedented crush of big-budget summer films this season as the major reason for the crash-and-burn of so many films.

As mentioned, the big budget bombs come even as the summer box office is up nearly 10 per cent.

Those films though are losing out to smaller budget comedies that are targeting the same demographic of moviegoers—teenage boys and young men. Among this summer’s hits is Universal’s Fast and Furious 6, doing damage among the same moviegoer demographic.

Hollywood marketing executives also said the plot for White House Down—the taking of the White House by terrorists—is much the same as Olympus Has Fallen.

After Earth is similar to the plot of the April release Oblivion, Tom Cruise’s sci-fi post apocalyptic movie and the cartoonish villain creatures in R.I.P.D. are reminiscent of those in Sony’s Men in Black sequel MIB3 last year.

“There are too many movies that seem too similar. Audiences see the advertisement for White House Down and feel like they have seen that earlier in Olympus Has Fallen,” said Dergarabedian. “That is a problem. R.I.P.D looks like Men in Black. That is a problem. There are too many films of a single genre. That is a problem.

“Audiences, with their hard-earned money, they are a little more discerning about where they are going to spend and they don’t want to spend it on the same movie.”

A silver lining among the dark clouds of box-office bombs is the fertile foreign market that could help studios mitigate their losses.

Pacific Rim is a great example that I think will recoup a lot of its cost in the overseas markets,” said Dergarabedian. “It has yet to open in China and Japan where this movie is going to be huge. For all these films, thankfully, they have the international markets to bolsters their bottom line. Without that they would really be sunk. It really has become important for these films to not just do well in America, but do well internationally.”

Still, the rate of failure of so many sure-fire summer hits has to be troubling to Hollywood power players.