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Who Won the 2023 Summer Movie Season: A Recap

Staff writer Taha Khambaty reviews the highs and lows of this summer’s American movie scene.

The Big Picture

As the days gradually grow shorter and the weather takes a wetter turn, the distant memory of long, sun-soaked summer days seems far gone. Yet, for some, myself included, these precious days of warmth are intimately intertwined with the highs and lows of the summer movie season. As we reminisce on the season, it becomes compelling to delve into the striking pink feminist triumphs embodied by Barbie and the speedy, tumultuous descents witnessed in the case of The Flash. These cinematic extremes serve as a window to discern the winners and losers of the summer movie season.

In the final days of the season, a landscape emerges full of successes and setbacks, with major releases postponed due to the writer and actor strikes. Looking at the big picture, the summer movie season kicked off on May 3rd, with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and is likely to end with the last major studio release of Blue Beetle on August 18th. During this time the domestic box office amassed a staggering $3.4 billion with the UK contributing a cumulative box office of $400 million. Yet, to truly grasp the nuances of this season’s cinematic journey, we must zoom in on individual highlights that paint a more nuanced picture.

The Good

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 (5 May)

James Gunn’s return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 proved to be a resounding success. The interstellar adventure opened with critical acclaim, amassing a commendable $118 million at the domestic box office and an impressive $289 million worldwide in its opening weekend. Gunn’s devotion to the beloved characters, especially Rocket, allowed the beloved franchise to have a fitting and heartfelt conclusion, enchanting audiences and critics alike. The film’s performance made $845 million worldwide, despite a production cost of $250 million and marketing expenses of approximately $100 million meaning it likely recouped its investment during its theatrical run.

Spider-Man: Across the SpiderVerse (2 June)

Spider-Man: Across the SpiderVerse swung into the spotlight with undeniable excitement. Building upon the sleeper hit success of its predecessor, the film’s exceptional critical and audience reviews propelled it to a remarkable domestic opening of $120 million and a worldwide debut of $208 million. The film’s responsible budget allocation, with $100 million dedicated to production and an equal sum to marketing, paved the way for a substantial profit within its theatrical run. With a current worldwide gross of $680 million, Across the SpiderVerse underscored the enduring appeal of the friendly neighbourhood superhero and the power of animated storytelling.

Barbie (21 July)

Undoubtedly standing out as the undeniable blockbuster of the year, Barbie has etched itself into the collective consciousness. Eclipsing all expectations and generating immense anticipation alongside Oppenheimer, the Barbenhiemer Phenomenon made its mark by securing the fourth-best weekend total in the history of the domestic box office. With boundless enthusiasm and critical acclaim, the film claimed the distinction of being the highest domestic opener of 2023, raking in a staggering $162 million domestically and an impressive $356 million worldwide. It also set the record for the most substantial opening ever under a female director’s helm as Greta Gerwig’s masterful direction and script garnered widespread praise. The film’s budget of $145 million for production was an additional advantage. Although its marketing expenses slightly surpassed the production costs, totalling $150 million, the film’s extraordinary global earnings of over $1 billion serve as a compelling testament to the extensive reach and effectiveness of its marketing endeavours.

Oppenheimer (21 July)

Offering ideal counter-programming to the vibrant pink world of Barbie, Nolan’s film, centred on the architect of the atomic bomb, stood as a success on its own terms. Crafted with care on a comparatively modest budget of $100 million, complemented by marketing expenditures ranging from $65 to $100 million, the film’s opening weekend garnered $82 million domestically and was met with resounding praise from both critics and audiences. Its global impact was equally impressive, amassing $180 million in its inaugural weekend. However, a unique factor in this equation is the film needed to factor in Nolan’s agreement with Universal Studios, which entails a 20% share of the net gross. Yet, with its current global tally resting at $580 million and showcasing remarkable staying power, the film holds promising prospects for profitability within the confines of the theatrical window, ensuring its financial success for Universal Studios.

The Bad

Fast X (19 May)

The eleventh instalment of the Fast & Furious Saga, directed by Louis Leterrier, suffered from a bumpy ride. The director change and behind-the-scenes drama resulted in Fast X struggling to accelerate at the box office. With a lukewarm critical reception and a domestic opening of $67 million, the film underperformed compared to its predecessor F9: The Fast Saga which released with greater success in 2021. However, its international gross salvaged the situation, contributing a commendable $556 million to the film’s total haul of $704 million worldwide. Regrettably, the substantial production budget of $340 million, coupled with an estimated $100 million in marketing expenses, leaves doubts about the film’s ability to achieve profitability within the theatrical window.

The Little Mermaid (26 May)

Making a splash, The Little Mermaid garnered a decent critical reception, with its true triumph being in its strong resonance with audiences, evidenced by its impressive cinema score. Standing out as a noteworthy addition to Disney’s roster of live-action remakes, the film’s star Halle Bailey earned notable acclaim for her performance. Unveiled over a 4-day weekend in the United States, the film’s domestic debut reeled in a substantial $119 million. However, its international reception fell short, failing to maintain the continuous engagement witnessed by other live-action Disney remakes. The film culminated its worldwide journey at $564 million, but its financial equation, comprising an estimated $250 million production budget and $140 million for marketing, leaves its ability to recoup investments during its theatrical run uncertain.

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One (12 July)

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One faced an uphill battle in the ten days preceding its release due to the imminent arrival of “Barbenheimer.” However, the timing of the film’s launch meant that it would inevitably cede a significant portion of its screen presence to the cultural phenomenon of Barbie and Oppenheimer. Despite its weekday debut, glowing critical reviews and enthusiastic audience reception, the film’s domestic opening amounted to $54 million over the weekend and $78 million during its initial five days. On a global scale, the film fared better with an opening of $230 million across the same five days. Nonetheless, a setback emerged as the film experienced a steep 60% decline in its second weekend, subsequently losing over a thousand theatres domestically. Produced with a budget of $290 million and accompanied by an estimated $100 million for prints and advertising, the film managed to accumulate around $490 million worldwide over four weeks. The film is poised to continue its box office journey but assuming a similar trajectory to previous franchise entries would be overly optimistic when looking through the theatrical window.

The Ugly

The Flash (16 June)

The long-awaited arrival of The Flash in cinemas was met with mixed emotions. Despite years of development and anticipation, the film struggled to find its footing, partially due to the controversy surrounding the film’s lead. A lacklustre box office opening of $55 million domestically, coupled with lukewarm critical and audience reception, resulted in a disappointing worldwide gross of $268 million. The film’s substantial production budget of $200 million and marketing expenses ranging from $100 to $150 million cast a shadow over its prospects, solidifying its position as the summer’s biggest flop. 

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (28 June)

Marking a remarkable 42-year return since the original Indiana Jones instalment, Harrison Ford reprised his role for the fifth film, this time alongside Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The decision to resurrect the swashbuckling adventurer was a calculated risk, teetering on the uncertainty of whether modern audiences still held an appetite for the iconic character. Regrettably, this gamble did not yield a positive outcome. While maintaining decent critical acclaim and audience approval, its opening weekend proved lacklustre, amassing a modest $83 million over the extended Fourth of July 4-day domestic period. Presently, the film holds the title of the fourth highest-grossing film domestically, surpassing only Temple of Doom. Moreover, the film’s hefty production budget of $300 million, coupled with a promotional expense of $100 million, stands in stark contrast to its global earnings of $370 million. This ranked it alongside The Flash as one of the most notable underperformance of the summer.

The End

Of course, there were more films over the summer including TMNT: Mutant Mayhem, Talk to Me, Blue Beettle, and surprise (domestic) hit Sound of Freedom, which further add to the performance of the summer box office. Yet, as the curtain falls on this summer’s cinematic journey, one thing is clear: the studio’s ability to strike a delicate balance between creative ingenuity and financial responsibility is critical to determining the fate of each blockbuster. While some films soared to unprecedented heights, others faltered under the weight of monumental budgets and high expectations. And I for one can not wait for Hollywood studios to repeat the same mistakes next year.

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