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Blockbuster busts: Big summer flicks in peril

Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) prepare to fight monsters in
Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi play the pilots of giant robots inKerry Hayes / Warner Bros. Pictures

The world may have ended several times at the movies this summer, but it's the blockbuster itself that is really in peril.

"Pacific Rim," the post-apocalyptic, monsters-versus-robots action thriller, did perform slightly better than predicted at the box office with a $38.3 million weekend take. But the Warner Bros. film has a long way to go before it can declare itself even remotely successful.

Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi play the pilots of giant robots inKerry Hayes / Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, "Rim" cost nearly $200 million to make and placed third behind "Grown Ups 2," which collected $42.5 million, and "Despicable Me 2," which netted nearly $48 million in its second weekend.

So even though "Pacific Rim" opened a little above its $30 million domestic estimate, it will need a huge boost internationally to avoid being designated a total flop, according to The Hollywood Reporter. And that leaves the film looking like the latest in a summer of blockbuster letdowns.

Despite the formidable performances of Warner Bros.' "Man of Steel" and Universal Pictures' "The Fast and the Furious 6," entertainment industry analysts predict fewer super-sized pricey films for future summer seasons. If Will Smith and Johnny Depp can no longer guarantee a massive return on fun summer popcorn fare, the thinking goes, it’s time to scale back the spending on original live-action films.

“The trend is definitely to reduce tentpoles,” said Bruce Nash, founder of The Numbers, a box office tracking site. “One of the things we’re looking at as a company and is being talked about in the industry is that films are either huge hits or completely flop. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground anymore. That puts huge pressure on the studios, particularly on franchise films.”

Without a doubt, the summer’s biggest big screen disaster is Disney’s western “The Lone Ranger,” starring Depp as sidekick Tonto, which cost $275 million. Opening on July 2 against the mega hit “Despicable Me 2,” the masked lawman didn’t stand a chance even with Depp by his side. The film has only pulled in nearly $71million domestically and $24 million internationally, according to The Numbers. Disney had a similar debacle last summer with the sci-fi flick “John Carter,” which also cost the studio $275 million.

Smith’s “After Earth” opened over Memorial Day weekend in third place, generating only $27 million, behind “The Fast & The Furious 6” and the indie “Now You See Me.” The Sony post-apocalyptic flick, also starring Smith’s son, Jaden, cost about $130 million and has netted nearly $59 million domestically and $198 million worldwide, according to The Numbers.

“You can argue about the artistic merits of ‘Lone Ranger’ and some of the other films where it’s just excess — trying to appeal to everybody and indulging the big star, producers and directors,” said entertainment industry stock analyst Harold Vogel, of Vogel Capital Management. “It’s hard for Hollywood to say no to these people. But at the end of the day, they only damage their own reputations and next time they will not get that amount of money to spend.”

Sometimes movies that fail outright or have mediocre results in the United States make up the slack overseas, but the international competition has become just as fierce, Nash points out. Last summer’s “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” for example, has netted nearly $900 million worldwide and 70% of that was collected internationally. Foreign markets such as China and Japan have become crucial to Hollywood.

“Some of the international markets have gotten big enough to support the blockbuster sensibility,” Nash said. “It’s going to get more and more difficult for a studio to make a ‘Transformers’ movie or a ‘Spider Man’ movie and expect it to play the same worldwide because that’s the only cool thing coming out this summer.”

Henry Cavill plays Superman inClay Enos / Warner Bros. Pictures

Even though Warner Bros. can brag about "Man of Steel," it's not likely to spend the big bucks on more than one franchise film for next year, Nash said. In addition to “Pacific Rim” surpassing expectations, the studio raked in in super money with “Man of Steel," which debuted on June 14. Starring Henry Cavill, it cost $225 million and has earned $597 million worldwide, about half of that at the domestic box office.

“I can see where next summer instead of spending this kind of money twice, they only spend it once,” Nash said. “But that increases the risk, too, so even though I think they will scale back a little, I also think that they can’t afford to risk not having something that could potentially crank out significant revenue.”

If anyone has owned the summer, it's the animated characters. "Monsters University," Pixar's 3-D prequel to "Monsters Inc.," opened No. 1 against Brad Pitt's "World War Z" and has earned over $400 million worldwide since its release on June 21. Featuring the voice talent of Steve Carrell, "Despicable Me 2" released on July 2, trounced "Lone Ranger," and has picked up over $330 million internationally. The sequel also boasts the second-highest July 4 opening behind "Transformers" in 2007.

With "Pacific Rim" as the summer's last big blockbuster, the industry will turn its focus to a handful of films in the $100 to $130 million production realm that don't rely on first weekend business as much as those with big stars and even bigger special effects to finish off the summer season. Like Nash, Vogel expects the crop of future summer movies to be more modest. (There are have a few franchises scheduled for next summer already: "X Men: Days of Future Past," "Transformers 4," and "The Expendables 3" and "The Fast and The Furious 7").

"There will always be expensive films but this summer will probably be the peak summer," Vogel said. "When it comes to these big movies, I think that story is ultimately the deciding factor. Is there uniqueness or innovation or surprise? These expensive pictures with a mishmash of ideas are not resonating anymore. Remember 'Cowboys and Aliens'? Good God, what were they thinking? Those kinds of films are on their way out."