Transformers' $300 million box office a huge turnaround in sluggish, grim summer lineup

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, July 4 2014 10:31 p.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, July 4 2014 10:31 p.m. MDT

Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager in "Transformers: Age of Extinction."

Paramount Pictures

It's painful to say, but Michael Bay might have just saved the 2014 summer movie season.

The fourth installment in the multibillion-dollar-grossing Transformers franchise, the suitably grandiose-sounding “Age of Extinction,” debuted to worldwide ticket sales of more than $300 million this last weekend, including roughly $90 million in China alone, making it possibly the biggest opening ever for that market, according to Box Office Mojo.

This positions it to be the first movie of the year that stands a chance of cracking $1 billion.

And with that, studios and theater owners can begin to breathe again.

Prior to “Age of Extinction,” domestic box office for the first two months of summer had been down a whopping 13 percent from what was seen during the same period last year, as reported by Box Office Mojo's Ray Subers.

That’s a big deal, considering the roughly four months from Memorial Day to Labor Day typically account for more than half of the industry’s annual revenue.

There are a few factors that might have been contributing to the generally slow box office so far. But overall, it’s a simple matter that so-called “blockbusters” just haven’t quite been living up to the name. Despite no shortage of costly, high-profile sequels, reboots and adaptations throughout the months of May and June — featuring all the usual stuff like superheroes, aliens, time travel, talking animals and any combination of those — audiences just haven’t been turning out in massive enough numbers.

As Subers notes, before last weekend, in fact, only one summer release, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” had even managed to cross the $200 million line in domestic box office.

Disney’s “Maleficent” and Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” both barely managed to inch past that mark last weekend with $201.8 million and $200.1 million, respectively.

By contrast, at the same point of time last year, there had already been four films that had surpassed $200 million — “Iron Man 3,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel” — and of those, Disney’s “Iron Man 3” had more than doubled it, with $405 million by the end of June (contributing to a final cumulative box office of $1.2 billion worldwide).

One of the big differences this year versus previous years is the comparatively dark tone of many of the studios’ “tentpole” releases.

With the obvious exception of a movie like “Rio 2” and, to a certain extent, Marc Webb’s Spider-Man sequel, 2014 has seen an unusually gloomy bunch of would-be blockbusters.

Beyond the fact that a lot of these seem to actively go against everything one could possibly describe as “summery” — sunlight, beaches, family vacations, etc. — the grim, gritty, apocalyptic imagery and heavy thematic content of movies like “Days of Future Past,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Godzilla” don’t leave a lot of room for family audiences at movie theaters.

And that darker tone isn’t just limited to PG-13 action movies. Even a film like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a more serious, grownup movie compared to the first film.

Likewise, “Maleficent” deals with some surprisingly dark stuff in its live-action retelling of “Sleeping Beauty.”

All in all, it’s a summer that could have really benefited from a new Pixar movie. Too bad the Emeryville-based studio’s “The Good Dinosaur” got pushed back from its original May release date to November of next year, leaving this the first summer since 2005 without something bearing the Pixar logo.

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