Let's Face It: The 2019 Summer Movie Season Was Dreadful

Takeaways from Hollywood's ongoing existential crisis.
Illustration: Damon Scheleur/HuffPost; Photos: Universal Pictures, Annapurna, Disney, Sony

With summer coming to a close, we can finally say goodbye to what was arguably the most horrendous movie season in the history of summer movie seasons. Good riddance.

Profits dipped and quality plunged. Ticket sales in the United States and Canada are projected to total $4.33 billion, a 2% decline from last year, according to the media analytics firm ComScore. But the fine print is what’s important. Disney monopolized the summer to a vast degree, meaning a disconcerting amount of that revenue belongs to one studio alone. Even sequels that seemed like surefire hits for rival companies — Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and Sony’s “The Angry Birds Movie 2,” for example — fell short of expectations.

Who can blame audiences for that? “King of the Monsters” was soulless cacophony. Why leave the couch? At the risk of sounding like a grumpy bore, the summer’s lineup had little to offer discerning moviegoers itching for variety, aside from a few gems (“Booksmart,” “The Farewell,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”).

The blockbuster deluge nowadays starts in mid- to late April, which gives us four months’ worth of existential crises rippling through the industry. Here are some upshots.

Disney Had The Quantity. Where Was The Quality?

Summer began with an “Endgame.” After 11 years and 22 installments, Marvel’s core “Avengers” franchise bid a three-hour adieu to Iron Man and the other OG crusaders who turned superheroes into Hollywood’s leading capital. Good luck to anything that hopes to unseat its spot atop the year’s box-office charts, where it became the fastest movie in history to earn $1 billion globally.

More tellingly, “Avengers: Endgame” was a harbinger of Disney’s huge summer payday, as well as a reflection of the studio’s overwhelming cultural sovereignty. No one can compete with the Mouse House, which in March added the 84-year-old 21st Century Fox to a cache that already includes Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel.

Disney followed “Endgame” with a live-action “Aladdin,” “Toy Story 4” and a pseudo-live-action “Lion King,” three overwhelming moneymakers that tweaked familiar stories from the ’90s. As a result, Disney can now claim four (including March’s “Captain Marvel”) of the year’s five highest grossers ― an imperialism that threatens to further homogenize Hollywood’s ethos. If Disney has no steadfast competition in the marketplace, what incentive does it have to amplify the creativity of its output? (Sorry, but no matter what you thought of the “Lion King” reboot, “creative” is not a word that applies.)

This isn’t the only red flag in Disney’s corner. The studio’s leadership axed much of Fox’s development slate after the acquisition went through, which implies that Fox ― home of exemplars like “All About Eve,” “The Sound of Music,” “Alien” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” ― will be molded to resemble its parent company. Meanwhile, the forthcoming streaming service Disney+ announced new editions of “Home Alone,” “Night at the Museum,” “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” It’s old hat to bemoan the industry’s remake mania, but the summer has felt more unrelenting in this department than ever before.

Zazu, Mufasa and Simba in "The Lion King."
Zazu, Mufasa and Simba in "The Lion King."

Brad Pitt Lost To ‘The Lion King,’ Again

Despite being summer’s highest-grossing movie without a franchise affiliation, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” debuted behind “The Lion King,” which held on to the No. 1 ranking in its second weekend. “Hollywood” is currently Quentin Tarantino’s second-highest-grossing feature behind “Django Unchained.” But one of the film’s leads, Brad Pitt, endured a bit of deja vu. For the third time in his career, his movie succumbed to those cats from Pride Rock.

In 1994, several months after the original “Lion King” had opened, “Interview with the Vampire” fell behind the Disney musical its sixth weekend in theaters. In 2011, “Moneyball” debuted to less revenue than a 3-D conversion of the ’94 smash. And now, this. Pitt still just can’t wait to be king.

Comedy Feels Like A Dying Art

Summer was once a laugh factory. From the ’80s through the 2000s, live-action comedies were as much a seasonal staple as action spectaculars and family fare. Almost every year, multiple comedies landed among summer’s 10 highest grossers. The sun didn’t shine without a major Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, Will Smith or Julia Roberts vehicle there to attract its rays. But as intellectual property has replaced movie stars as Hollywood’s box-office kingmakers, comedies built around A-list personalities have grown scarcer. This year, there was nary a “Trading Places,” “Back to the Future,” “Sister Act” or “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to be found.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the closest we got to a hit comedy, but the cult of Tarantino occupies a rarified space that transcends genre classifications. Discounting it, “Yesterday,” “Good Boys,” “The Hustle,” “Long Shot,” “Booksmart,” “Stuber,” “Late Night,” “Poms” and “The Dead Don’t Die” all opened to middling sums, with most underperforming by significant margins. Even the most acclaimed of the bunch, “Booksmart,” which should have been every bit as fruitful as the similarly themed 2007 summer knockout “Superbad,” could only muster a depressing $22.7 million.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in "Booksmart."
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in "Booksmart."
Annapurna Pictures

The Reevesurgence Is Upon Us

Let’s pause for some good news. Here’s to everyone who adores Keanu Reeves’ glower.

In May, the third entry in the “John Wick” series defeated the odds, halting the three-week sweep that “Avengers: Endgame” enjoyed. “Wick” marks a rare series to maintain megasuccess without coasting on established source material. (The other example: “The Fast and the Furious,” which was recently spun off via the lucrative “Hobbs and Shaw.”) Later that month, adopting the ultimate movie-star power move, Reeves played a heightened version of himself ― aggressive, mysterious, bizarre ― in the Netflix rom-com “Always Be My Maybe.” Come June, he voiced a daredevil action figure in “Toy Story 4.” And in August, “The Matrix 4” was announced, ensuring the Reevesurgence has legs.

This quasi-comeback ― Reeves never went anywhere, after all ― is a refreshing example of a hardworking actor finally getting his due, and a testament to the alchemy of classic screen-star mojo.

So Many Great Actresses Wasted By Terrible Scripts

One of summer’s least lucrative horror stories: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Tessa Thompson, Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Cate Blanchett and Diane Keaton were lost to bad movies. Not routine disappointments, but flat-out misdemeanors.

I have a soft spot for “Ma,” which gave the 47-year-old Spencer her first lead role and is almost bonkers enough to overcome its own shoddiness, but “The Hustle” (starring Hathaway and Rebel Wilson), “Men in Black: International” (starring Thompson), “The Kitchen” (starring McCarthy, Haddish and Moss), “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (starring Blanchett and based on a difficult-to-adapt bestseller) and “Poms” (starring Keaton and other top-notch septuagenarians) barely merited green lights. Over at Netflix, “Wine Country” (starring Amy Poehler and friends) and “Otherhood” (starring Angela Bassett, Patricia Arquette and a scandal-ridden Felicity Huffman) arrived with little fanfare and baffling banality.

If these films looked good on paper, you wouldn’t know it from the finished products. Each required its respective star(s) to infuse life into dead weight. Character-driven movies like these serve as alternatives to the more costly provisions that monopolize summer. But when none deliver, it’s harder to guarantee a diversified slate in the future.

Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish in "The Kitchen."
Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish in "The Kitchen."
Warner Bros.

Sundance Fare Didn’t Fare Well

Every January, distribution companies snatch up a smattering of movies at the Sundance Film Festival, some of which become blockbuster counterprogramming. Those that hit theaters in recent months were alarmingly DOA.

Amazon spent huge sums on “Late Night” ($13 million) and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” ($14 million), while Warner Bros. shelled out an eye-popping $15 million for the Bruce Springsteen singalong “Blinded by the Light.” It’s easy to see the appeal of these acquisitions: Each is an ostensible crowd-pleaser that would have obvious commercial clout in a less homogenous marketplace. But the disparity between Sundance’s indie sensibilities and America’s current moviegoing habits has never been greater. Amazon barely recouped its expenses on the poorly marketed “Late Night,” but at least the retail behemoth will benefit from exclusive streaming rights. Warner Bros., on the other hand, has to more or less cut its losses on “Blinded by the Light,” which bowed to a paltry $4.3 million in wide release. (“Brittany Runs a Marathon” just opened last weekend, so time will tell how far it can sprint.)

Meanwhile, “The Tomorrow Man,” “Ophelia” and “Luce” didn’t even crack $1 million in earnings. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” scraped together $4.5 million ― a decent tally for an idiosyncratic gentrification drama without name-value stars, but nothing earth-shattering.

“The Farewell” was the only Sundance success story, and even it doesn’t look very flashy on paper. Featuring last summer’s breakout star Awkwafina, the family dramedy has amassed $14.7 million after more than a month in theaters. Trendy distributor A24 spent about $6 million on the movie’s rights, so without knowing how much subsequent marketing costs set the company back, that’s a profitable turnaround and a good omen for second-time director Lulu Wang, who in July booked a sci-fi feature for her next project.

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