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Hollywood has big summer without heroes

Published:Sunday | September 6, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Minions stars hoist a salute to the summer.Kevin and Bob are recruited by a supervillain in 'Minions'.
US music producer and rapper O'Shea Jackson, also known by his stage name Ice Cube, who stars in 'Straight Outta Compton'.


After a lacklustre 2014 summer, Hollywood has bounced back with one of its best seasons ever. But the most surprising part of the turnaround is that superheroes aren't the ones who saved the day.

Instead, Hollywood's summer was led by a banner season from Universal Pictures, the lone major studio with nary a cape in its cupboard. With a record-setting over US$5.3 billion in revenue so far this year, Universal has powered Hollywood to a near record summer with a diverse string of hits. These include the season's top film Jurassic World (US$1.6 billion worldwide), the top animated hit, Minions, and one of the most successful sequels, Pitch Perfect 2.

After the summer limps to a close over Labour Day weekend (Labour Day is today, September 7), the North American box office will have tallied about US$4.4 billion in ticket receipts, according to box office data firm Rentrak. That's second only to the record US$4.75 billion summer of 2013 and an improvement of about 7.5 per cent from last summer's downturn.

And the superhero-less Universal led the way.

"It's a lot of hard work, but it's also an indication that we're tapping audiences in different ways with the different kind of movies we're releasing," said Nick Carpou, distribution head for Universal. "I think our diverse slate doesn't tend to tire people out."

If superhero domination is slipping at all, it's not by much. Avengers: Age of Ultron was the summer's second-highest grossing film in North America with US$457.7 million, and Marvel has already staked out prime summer release dates for years to come, the billions sure to follow.

But this was the first summer since the final Harry Potter chapter in 2011 that a comic book movie didn't top all films.

Ant-Man (seventh place with US$170.1 million) was bedevilled by creative differences and fell well short of Marvel's last irreverent entry, the mammoth summer 2014 hit Guardians of the Galaxy. And Fox's Fantastic Four, which the director Josh Trank suggested was marred by studio overreach, was the biggest superhero debacle in at least a decade. Its US$25.7 million opening sent analysts back to the likes of 2004's Catwoman to find a comic book disaster of similar proportions.

It will probably go down as merely a dent in the superhero movie's armour, but it's also possible that the summer of 2015 will later be seen as a turning point. As Steven Spielberg reminded in a recent interview with The Associated Press, these things are cyclical: "There will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western," he said.

More important, perhaps, is that the movie business is generally quite healthy - robust, even. Despite clamours over the effect of digital media and the competition of television, films are finding success in a variety of ways. The summer proved that many of the characteristics that have long-driven hits - a reputation for quality (Pixar's Inside Out), the allure of top-flight stunts (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation), a sense of cultural timeliness (Straight Outta Compton), blinding B-movie thrills (Mad Max: Fury Road) - still work just fine.

"What audiences are looking for - and they found it, in large part, this summer - is a lot of options, a lot of different types of movies," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak. Universal, he says, "took what most would see as a negative and turned it into a positive by their movies seeming absolutely fresh".

There were bombs, just as there always are. Disney's Tomorrowland, starring George Clooney, made barely US$200 million globally, a mark Sony's heavily marketed Pixels, with Adam Sandler, hasn't reached. And Warner Bros.' The Man From U.N.C.L.E., based on the '60s TV series, also failed to entice audiences.