When the dust settles on this Labor Day weekend, U.S. summer box office income will be the second highest ever (behind 2013). But the number of folks going to the movies is near a 20-year low. Were it not for sky-high ticket prices and international sales, studios would face substantial losses. It seems American moviegoers simply lost interest in big-budget tentpoles. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Summer of 2016, it’s that less is more when it comes to box office success.

Fewer Folks at the Movies

Robert De Niro in the theater scene from Taxi Driver
Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

U.S. theaters sold approximately 500 million tickets this summer. That’s 31 million less than last year. It’s the lowest result in nearly two decades. This reduction comes despite a plethora of big budget fare designed to pry us off our couches. The early summer blockbusters suffered the most. By July, ticket sales were down about 10%, thanks mainly to big movies that weren’t so big. Alice Through the Looking Glass, Warcraft, The BFG and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows all failed to perform.

“The theater business has weaker prospects going forward than at any time in the last 30 years,” media analyst Hal Vogel told Variety at the time. “It’s encountering visible strain this summer. It’s a superhero, mega-blockbuster, tent pole strategy run amuck. There’s too much of it, and it’s not working.”

Fewer Hits Than Misses

a long line of moviegoers wait to enter the cinema
Moviegoers line up for tickets

That’s not to say there weren’t big movies that did big box office. Captain America: Civil War and Suicide Squad landed in the $300 to $400 million range. They were the exception. The list of similarly-budgeted movies that failed to crack $200 million is much longer. Formerly reliable names like Jason Bourne, Star Trek, Ghostbusters and Independence Day failed to stir audiences.

There is some argument to be made that the perceived poor quality of the movies offered has more to do with reduced receipts than does the lack of interest on the part of the audience. However, in the case of Suicide Squad, those who saw it mostly agreed with critics that it’s not a great movie, but they still paid to see it.

Pandering to Foreign Moviegoers

The foreign box office fuels part of Hollywood’s current blockbuster obsession. American movies with recognizable stars and lots of action tend to do better in the world’s other major markets. China currently leads the way for international ticket sales. As a result, Hollywood aims much of its effort there.

This global marketplace is very profitable for some films. Stateside flop Warcraft is among the top five movies of the year in China. Chinese ticket sales total five times its domestic gross. It also beat Captain America: Civil War by $30 million. For other big movies, the Chinese reception was decidedly colder. Besides those two films, none of the US summer blockbusters cracked the year’s top ten in ticket sales in China.

Smaller Movies Make Bank

a theater marquee advertising Sausage Party
Sausage Party showing at a small town theater

We find the real success stories of the summer of ’16 among animated family fare and relatively low-budget sleepers. Pixar’s Finding Dory hauled in nearly half a billion dollars in US ticket sales and is number one for the year. Families lined up for The Secret Life of Pets too, lifting it to more than $359 million.  Those animated features aren’t cheap, but both managed to double their budgets at the box office.

The most profitable film this summer didn’t crack a hundred million but made its budget back nearly eight times over. The Purge: Election Year cost $10 million to make. At last count, its domestic take is over $79 million. Central Intelligence with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart is also a certified hit. It made $135 million on a $50 million budget. Bad Moms is currently at five times its $20 million budget.

Lessons Learned?

Despite the pitiful summer of ‘16, don’t expect to see much of a reduction in the number of big-budget blockbusters. Hollywood’s weathered waning audience interest before and come out swinging again with a winning slate the following summer.

One change you will probably see is an increase in the number of smaller-budget films getting the green light from studios. There will likely be more movies like The Purge and Bad Moms because it’s easier to absorb losses from one big flop if you have a dozen cheaper, but more profitable films in there propping up the bottom line.

Paul V. Rea
A monster science created but could not destroy; Paul V. Rea is a radio, TV and web journalist based in Clarkesville, Georgia. Paul is addicted to television of all genres and can often be found mouthing off about things he sees @paulvrea on Twitter.