A wrap of summer at the box office

September 7, 2019

This summer, Disney had a total of five films rake in more than $1 billion worldwide. Yet even with that momentous achievement, there were fewer tickets sold at the box office this season compared to numbers from the past three decades. 

Just what happened this summer? Let’s take a deeper dive before the waters get too chilly.

Here are some of the numbers:

  • $4.5 billion domestic gross 
  • About $2.25 billion from Disney-owned films
  • 80 percent: the gross coming from franchises and sequels
  • 1: Total original titles in the top 10 of summer: (Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood”)
  • 7 percent: Summer box office behind projected totals
  • 14 percent: How much industry must overperform in fall/winter to make up the loss
  • $4.01: Average ticket price in 1992

So summer was not the savior many had hoped, due to underperforming from expected blockbusters such as “Godzilla: King of Monsters,” “Men in Black: International” and “Dark Phoenix.” But there’s much more than just a few flops that could signal an industry-wide change in budgeting and programming.

Take, for example, adjusted ticket prices. It can be claimed that summer films raked in billions worldwide, but if we looked at this year’s top three films after adjusted for inflation, their spots on the blockbuster list are: 16th (“Avengers: Endgame”), 71st (“The Lion KIng”) and 123rd (“Toy Story 4”). To put that in perspective, this summer’s “Aladdin” is now Will Smith’s highest-grossing film, but it sold half as many tickets as “Independence Day.”

The mere fact that more than half the wealth at the box office was claimed by one company should also be alarming to independent filmmakers and filmgoers alike. Smaller-budgeted films failed to catch a footing, despite their availability on local screens. Titles such as “Booksmart,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “The Kitchen,” or “Late Night,” all films heaped with positive press, failed to find their voices. 

Instead, audiences were comforted with watching remakes of films from their childhood, or sequels and universe-dwelling films with superheroes. 

Some of the biggest, most-beloved films of all time were released in the summer months: “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” Jaws,”“Raiders of the Lost Ark,”“Jurassic Park,” the original “Lion King,” “Forrest Gump,” “Grease,” “Ghostbusters.” This year’s sole original film, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” was the ninth film from director Quentin Tarantino, who still vows he will retire with his 10th film. And while our superhero obsession will eventually wane, what will be left in its wake? 

It would be foolish to discount the number of current (and future) streaming options available having some say in audience dollars. New content is capable of being streamed through countless platforms, each offering their own originals in addition to familiar titles on a weekly basis. And now that Disney’s new streaming service is launching in November with all the Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and National Geographic titles in its library, they are poised to further corner the market. As a lifelong “Star Wars” nerd and fervent fan of all things Marvel, Pixar and Nat Geo, it still concerns me that all the power rests in Mickey Mouse’s gloved hands. 

And as a fan of independent films, I have an even greater concern, as the message to studios from the summer is that there is little incentive in getting such films greenlit. You can chicken-or-egg the current state: Did studios lose the drive for originality, or did audiences lose their appetite for films outside their comfort zone? Either way, it’s safe to say the box office would suffer even more greatly without them in the mix. 

The year is not over, as there are still many films on the schedule that could have legs. The new “Joker” film with Joaquin Phoenix received an 8-minute standing ovation at its premiere; “It, Chapter 2” is poised to take in a large crowd, and let’s not fail to mention the latest “Star Wars,” that promises to wrap the galaxy created back in 1976. 

It may be time to choose: Put on the mouse ears and simply march in the movie parade that Disney has created, or seek out and support some of the smaller films playing on our local screens. Area theaters have done a great job in offering a diversity of titles throughout the summer, but it’s up to the filmgoers to help decide whether or not they stay. 

Top 10

  1. Avengers: Endgame (technically started in spring): $858 million
  2. The Lion King: $523 million
  3. Toy Story 4: $430 million
  4. Spider-Man: Far from Home: $384 million
  5. Aladdin: $354 million
  6. John Wick 3: $170 million
  7. Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw: $159 million
  8. Secret Life of Pets 2: $157 million
  9. Detective Pikachu: $144 million
  10. Once Upon a Hollywood: $131 million


  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society. Email him at

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