NEW YORK — As Hollywood girds for a low-key Fourth of July box office weekend and watches its summer season dip 15 percent below last year’s, an even more worrisome trend has taken shape: Moviegoers are growing pickier.
Business has never been better for big, crowd-pleasing movies. Disney’s acclaimed sequel “Finding Dory” passed $300 million domestically after just 12 days of release — a pace that could make it the highest grossing animated film of all time. Despite a trio of debuts this weekend (“The Legend of Tarzan,” “The BFG,” “The Purge: Election Year”), “Dory” is expected to top the box office for the third straight week.
But for films that aren’t “the movie to see,” moviegoers are increasingly staying home. With word-of-mouth traveling at the speed of Twitter, quality has become a more vital currency.
Will Smith (who knows something about box-office success) told attendees last week at Cannes Lions, the annual advertising festival, that the movie business has shifted.
“Smoke and mirrors in marketing is over,” Smith said. “Now what happens is 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting, ‘This is (expletive), go see Vin Diesel.’ ”
Smith was notably absent from “Independence Day: Resurgence,” the sequel to his 1996 blockbuster. The Fox release, which cost $165 million to make, debuted with just $41.6 million in North America last weekend. It was the latest in a season-long series of underperforming sequels, including “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” and “The Divergent Series: Allegiant.”
Some of these films, boosted by international box-office, will one day turn a profit for their studios. But they all, despite following lucrative installments, couldn’t shake the stink of being, well, bad.
Dismal reviews and disappointed fans have often, though certainly not always, meant trouble at the box office. But social media has made those reactions swifter, cutting into even opening weekend grosses.
Though few ever went to “Independence Day” expecting the next “Citizen Kane,” Fox took the unusual step of largely hiding “Resurgence” from the press and critics prior to release.
“We wanted the movie to stand on its own,” said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for Fox. “Look, we’re in the 30s on Rotten Tomatoes which unfortunately is one of the barometers that moviegoers use to decide whether to go or not. We would rather them discover it on their own and let the moviegoer decide whether they like the movie or not, not have somebody else tell them.”
Yet moviegoers and critics are often not so far apart these days. Though some fans reacted with fury to the atrocious reviews for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” once theaters were letting out, even die-hards came away with the grim realization: the critics were right. The film fell off a cliff at the box office, eventually making a relatively disappointing $873 million.
“There used to be this disconnect between critics and audiences,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore. “Well, now we’re seeing that they’re pretty much in lockstep on most of these movies. If you look at ‘Zoolander 2,’ ‘Ride Along 2,’ ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass,’ you could name probably five others — by and large, the movies that didn’t perform also did not get good reviews.”
It would be an overstatement to say critics and moviegoers, after decades of on- and off-again tussles, have finally joined forces. If that were so, the documentary “Weiner” would have made more money than “Now You See Me 2.”
But moviegoers are showing signs of being more discerning, of not automatically turning up for a big-budget sequel the way they might have years before. The top five films last year, among them “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Jurassic World,” all had at least a 70 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Going to the movies is also, for many, a more considered night out. Not only have the alternatives on television grown more enticing, higher ticket prices have put more pressure on movie choice. Ticket are 50 percent higher now than they were when the first “Independence Day” came out. And if you’re paying for premium formats, seating and other amenities that can push a night at the movies past $50, you might not want to throw your money away on “Warcraft.”
But for the films that are roundly considered “good,” like the spring hit “Zootopia,” the payoff can be huge. The summer’s No. 1 film, “Captain America: Civil War,” owns exactly a 90 percent rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 90 percent rating from audiences.
“A movie cannot hide from anyone once it’s opened because of social media,” says Dergarabedian. “That’s a double-edged sword. It’s great if you have a great movie. Then that can help your box office. If you don’t and you can’t deliver the goods, the audience will bust you on it immediately.”