*I want to start off by setting up the rules and guidelines for the following article. I defined a Summer movie the same way as Boxoffice Mojo, “The Summer Season is defined as the first Friday in May through Labor Day Weekend.” I used three primary tools. The first was an inflation calculator. I wanted to find an inflation calculator that is trusted and also easy to use. I used http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/ to quantify the amount of money of all the top ten grossing films from a given year. The second tool I used was http://www.boxofficemojo.com/seasonal/. I tallied the total domestic gross of the top ten films during the allotted dates and then ran the total through the inflation calculator. The last tool I used was http://rottentomatoes.com. I took the average score of the top ten films that were listed by domestic gross. This method is far from scientific, but it gives us a good idea of the quality of any given year.
Anyone who reads my blog knows how diligent I’ve been at writing reviews, but over the last few months I had to take a break. A string of movies hit the theaters that left me feeling less than enthusiastic. Good, bad, or ugly, I plan on making my return for Ghostbusters (2016). Looking back at the release schedule, it is shocking how bad this summer has been. There have been multiple critical and box office flops. This doesn’t mean the Summer of 2016 hasn’t given us hits. As I present my lists, you’ll notice almost every summer has at least one or two breakout hits. Some summers, most recently 2015, have had several huge hits.
Let’s start there. 2015 might be part of the reason 2016 looks so horrible. Last summer the top ten films consisted of three Academy Awards nominees, two of the top ten highest grossing films (domestic) of all time, and films featuring The Rock and Tom Cruise. When you compare the slate of films that were released last summer, it begins to become an unfair comparison. In fact, one could argue that recency bias might affect the way we view this year. 2016 has had two films that would be considered impactful in the same way 2015 was. Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War are films that are not only making boat loads of cash, but are also quality films. It is true Suicide Squad might be added to this discussion. With all that, making a statement like “worst ever” is bold, but is it true?
The short answer is no, but things are more complicated than that. On the surface, it seems only three movies might be considered memorable. The 2016 summer will undoubtedly be considered a dud by studios and critics, but it seems this sentiment is based on the culture of now. Have we forgotten about the horrible summer of 2009? What about the disaster that was 1996? I think a closer look at the numbers will tell a different story.
Critical consensus should be a good predictor of what kind of summer each year had. A good hypothesis might be that if a year has lots of critical success, then it might also have monetary success. The graph above gives us the ranking of five summers that are considered the worst in the blockbuster era. I’ve granted 2016 some leeway. In an effort to give 2016 the biggest benefit of the doubt possible, I projected that Suicide Squad and Star Trek Beyond would have a combined score of 180. It could be higher, but realistically it will be lower. As you see, critically, 2016 destroys the other years. The closest year is 1994, which had hits like Forrest Gump, The Lion King, and True Lies. 1994 was a particularly top-heavy year though. While it had some critical success, it also had huge critical flops like The Flintstones and Wolf.
As far as critics are concerned, 2009 is the year movies died. 2009 scored the lowest on our critical meter with an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 58.1%. That is horrible! What’s even more crazy? This is the summer that gave us Up (98%), Star Trek (95%), and The Hangover (79%). The rest of the top ten had an average score of 30.9%. With scores like that, how could there be another year that comes close to being as bad as 2009? 2016 will almost certainly not come close to those numbers. Star Trek Beyond and Suicide Squad would both have to be all time bad films in order to lower the 2016 score enough to be in that range. A quick glimpse at the chart brings up two other years.
1996 and 2011 were both critical wastelands. 2011 brought us gems like Cars 2 (39%) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (35%). But 2011 also gave us hits like Academy Award winner The Help (75%) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (82%). 2011 also had a Pirates of the Caribbean movie and a Harry Potter movie. So as bad as the numbers look, the quality was there. 1996 on the other hand wasn’t quite as good. While the ’90s were in full swing, the summer of 1996 was a wasteland for filmgoers. While Millennials might have nostalgia for some of these films, at the time critics weren’t kind. The highest grossing film that summer was Independence Day (61%). Feels kind of familiar. The rest of the list is a hodge podge of silliness. Movies like Phenomenon and Eraser drag 1996 to an extremely low level. While a film like The Cable Guy might be more appreciated now, in 1996 it was viewed as a failure.
As I mentioned earlier, critical success alone can’t define a summer’s success. We must also look at money. I’ll admit I was shocked how consistent the total dollar amounts were. Almost every year fell between $2.4 million and $2.6 million. I gave 2016 a little leeway here as well. If projections pan out as studios would like, 2016’s top ten summer films would barely slide into the $2.4 million range. With so much riding on the summer months, studios like Sony and Paramount need hits, which also makes this summer feel worse. Remember how awful 2009 was critically? It blew the competition out of the water when it came to cold hard cash. Adjusting for inflation, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the 10th place film in 2009, would be in 5th place with a $168,755,360 box office.
1994 and 2011 both had surprisingly decent box office returns. 1994 boasted an extremely top-heavy slate. Forrest Gump and The Lion King combined for a billion dollars themselves. So this begs the question, is 1994 as good as it looks? 2011 is a little different. 2011 is top-heavy with money also, but the bottom half makes up for it with a critically successful lot. The three most poorly reviewed films in 2011 sit at 2, 3, and 4 in terms of box office. Looking beyond the numbers a little bit, we see 2011 might have been a better summer than we credit it with, and 1994 might be a little worse.
The unfortunate honor of the worst summer movie season in the last 25 years goes to 1996. The summer of 1996 was gloriously mediocre. The highest grossing film from 1996 was Independence Day, which did slightly under a half-billion dollars and accounts for 22% of the top ten’s box office. Independence Day was barely fresh according to Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 61%. The highest critically rated film was A Time to Kill at 67%. That’s right, the highest reviewed movie of the top ten grossing films of the summer of 1996 was A Time to Kill. Do you remember that blockbuster? While I love the film, it’s hardly what we would call a summer time movie. Even if a combination of Suicide Squad, Jason Bourne, and Star Trek Beyond only totalled 150% on Rotten Tomatoes, 2016 would still have a higher average that 1996.
1996 is known as the summer of flops for a reason. Jack, Chain Reaction, Escape From L.A., and The Island of Dr. Moreau were all huge duds, and they were all released in August. I’m not the first one to recognize how bad 1996 was. Mike Ryan wrote about The Worst August Ever which provided the icing on a disastrous summer. Entertainment Weekly also gave an excellent summation of the summer of 1996 calling it “…one of the strangest, least predictable moviegoing summers in years…”
I will admit, I feel so much better about 2016. As unsatisfying as this summer has been, the good have been very good, and we haven’t even gotten Suicide Squad, Star Trek Beyond, or Jason Bourne yet. I think the panic is overstated, and even though it hasn’t been the best summer, it certainly hasn’t been the worst.