When “Transformers: The Last Knight” arrived in theaters this past June, virtually everyone hated it. The fifth installment in Michael Bay’s robot-vehicle franchise was the worst-reviewed yet, earning a dismal 14 percent at RottenTomatoes and dubbed “2017’s Most Toxic Movie” by Rolling Stone. Audiences, too, shunned the film. With a $44 million opening weekend, less than half that of the previous film, “The Last Knight” is shaping up as the worst performer in the series by far.
Guess what? The studio, Paramount Pictures, is not only working on a sixth “Transformers” film but recently began shooting a spinoff, “Bumblebee,” about a feisty Volkswagen bug.
“Transformers” is part of what you might call the Summer of the Living Franchises. Shunned by audiences and blasted by critics, these Hollywood properties somehow keep stumbling forward. Universal Pictures’ “The Mummy,” released in June, has been a box-office disappointment, but the studio still plans to create a multi-film “monsterverse” starring the Wolf Man, Frankenstein and other classic Universal movie creations. The May release “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” another badly reviewed and poorly attended film, could still pave the way for a sixth film in the series.
If nobody seems to like these movies, why do they keep getting made? One reason is the increasing dominance of Disney, which owns three dependably high-grossing movie-brands: Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars. Last year, Disney became the highest-grossing studio with more than 26 percent of total box office — a larger share than any studio has earned this century, according to BoxOfficeMojo. As a result, other studios are trying to duplicate Disney’s success with their own franchises and “universes.”
“Disney is so dominant in this market that the other studios have to play their game,” says Bruce Nash, founder of the box-office tracking website TheNumbers.com. With a schedule that includes roughly five movies per year that are likely to earn more than $500 million apiece — upcoming titles include Marvel’s “Black Panther,” Pixar’s “Coco” and the untitled “Star Wars” spinoff based on Han Solo — Disney is “just going to keep cranking those out,” Nash says. “And all the other studios are going to have to compete. So you’re just going to get a schedule of cookie-cutter movies that all feel the same.”
That may bore American moviegoers, but Chinese audiences remain entranced. China last year added more than 7,500 new movie screens for a total of approximately 39,000, a close second to America’s 40,475 screens, according to a 2016 report from the London-based research firm IHS Markit. For a Chinese moviegoer who hasn’t yet seen “Transformers” or “The Mummy” on an IMAX screen or with state-of-the-art effects, “that’s a completely different experience,” Nash says. “Whereas, for us, we’ve become a little bit jaded.”
In short, movies that play terribly at home can often succeed overseas, which encourages studios to make more of the same kind of movies. “So,” Nash says, “we’re stuck.”
There have been some bright spots this summer: namely, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Wonder Woman,” which both earned positive reviews and became major hits at the box office. “Spider-Man” has earned more than $672 million worldwide, while “Wonder Woman” is getting close to the $800 million mark.
Here’s how this some of this summer’s biggest franchises fared, and where they might go from here.
KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD
Director Guy Ritchie gave the Arthurian legend a street-tough twist in this, the first of a possible six films. Alas, “King Arthur” fizzled at home and overseas as well, earning a worldwide total of just $143 million. According to Scott Mendelson, who writes about the film industry for Forbes magazine, noted that “King” reinvented its characters so dramatically that they were barely recognizable. “That film was ill-conceived from the get-go,” Mendelson says. “When you take a property and emphasize all the ways it’s different from the property people know and love, then who are you making this for?” With Ritchie currently directing Disney’s live-action “Aladdin,” the fate of additional “King Arthur” films looks far from certain.
TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT
The “Transformers” films have never been much affected by bad reviews, but “The Last Knight” appears to be an exception. The review-aggregating website RottenTomatoes.com seems to be “slowing down the potential business of popcorn movies,” according to a recent report from Deadline.com. “The Last Knight” received a B+ grade from the audience-polling firm CinemaScore — meaning viewers enjoyed it well enough — but it’s been tanking at the domestic box office, perhaps because poor reviews kept potential ticket-buyers away. Another recent film that polled with a decent B+ but sold poorly after scathing reviews is the comedy “Baywatch,” currently hovering at $58 million.
Clearly inspired by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, Universal Pictures decided to turn its classic monster movies into a new “monsterverse” full of creatures like The Wolf Man and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “The Mummy” was intended to launch this Dark Universe, as it’s officially known, using the star-power of Tom Cruise. Instead, the movie has been a box-office dud. “I still think they have the makings of something interesting,” Nash says of the Universal franchise. Rather than make a risky $200 million movie every year, he suggests, “find a young director, give them $30 million and see what they can do.”
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES
The fifth film in the series caused critics to beg for mercy — “Can we toast the end of this franchise? Please?” wrote Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times. It made a meager $171 million domestically. Overseas, however, it racked up $604 million for a total of $776 million worldwide. “That is a substantial number,” says Karie Bible, box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, who fully expects to see a sixth “Pirates” installment from Disney. “They’d be fools not to do more based on that.”
Anticipation was high for this Warner-DC Comics production, one of the first female superhero movies in years (with Gal Gadot in the title role) and the first of its kind to be directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins). Released to rapturous reviews on June 2, “Wonder Woman” earned $100 million in its first weekend — the largest opening ever for a female-directed movie. “It was unique,” Mendelson says. “It was the only Wonder Woman movie out there. And it was good.” Soon after the release, Warner Bros. announced a sequel to the film; Gadot also will play Wonder Woman in November’s superhero-ensemble film “Justice League.”