After Earth just became the first official flop of the summer season.
Despite Sony’s (SNE) best attempts at hiding director M. Night Shyamalan’s involvement, audiences largely avoided the film. The movie stars Will Smith and his son Jaden as two soldier-types who crash on Earth a thousand years after humanity has abandoned the planet. Its weekend total was $28 million, which given the $130 million budget, is a relative box-office whimper.
We’re already a month into the summer movie season, the domain of big-box office totals and even bigger explosions. And although we’ve seen a couple of big hits already, there are still a few months of big-budget spectacles coming our way. Here’s a look at this summer’s major releases and what they could mean for the companies releasing them. (All numbers reflect domestic grosses.)
The biggest hit of the year is probably behind us already. Disney’s (DIS) Iron Man 3 has brought in $385 million, making it a strong favorite for this year’s box-office winner. The movie took in $174 million in its first three days — the second-highest weekend gross of all time (behind last year’s Avengers, which brought in $207 million). And it still has a few more weeks to push higher.
Tony Stark’s biggest box-office competition will come from another superhero: Superman. Warner Brothers’ Man of Steel opens next weekend, and has perhaps the best earnings potential of the remaining summer movies. Sure, it doesn’t have the same build-up as last year’s trilogy-ending The Dark Knight Rises, but Superman is a more iconic character, which could translate into a bigger haul. Even 2006’s lackluster Superman Returns earned $200 million, so imagine what a good movie would bring in.
Monsters University, developed by Disney’s Pixar, is another solid bet. Pixar films average $251 million at the box office, and 2006’s Monsters, Inc. was the company’s highest-grossing production at the time. The studio’s sequels have seen mixed results, though: Toy Story 3 brought in $415 million, while Cars 2 only earned $191 million. Splitting the difference — and adding the benefits of 3D ticket prices and the absence of Larry the Cable Guy — the $255 million average isn’t a bad bet.
A few other hits are lurking in the summer schedule. Despicable Me, the latest from Dreamworks (DWA), should see solid, if not exactly huge ticket sales. And Pacific Rim, about giant robots fighting giant monsters, is exactly what summer movies were made for. (See also: The Wolverine — Hugh Jackman battling ninjas.)
Warner Brothers looks poised to come out on top of the box office. The Great Gatsby brought in more than $100 million, The Hangover Part III is soon to cross that mark, and Man of Steel and Pacific Rim are almost guaranteed hits. Disney isn’t far behind, either, with the combined power of Marvel and Pixar in its lineup. (Although the studio is making a pretty big gamble with The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp and all.)
Sony could be the biggest loser, especially after the failure of After Earth. The studio has a long list of movies slated for the summer, but none of them are sure-fire hits. There’s generic action (White House Down) and comedy (This is the End), not to mention two questionable sequels (Grown Ups 2 and Smurfs 2). The studio is hoping Matt Damon’s starpower will make Elysium a hit, but futuristic sci-fi films like Oblivion and After Earth have struggled this year, which doesn’t bode well.
Looking at the bigger picture, Disney investors shouldn’t be too excited, nor Sony investors too worried (at least about the box office). A single movie won’t affect either stock very much. For example, Disney’s Studio Entertainment division accounted for less than 14% of the company’s revenues — less half of what Parks and Resorts brings in. And of that 14%, only about a quarter comes from theatrical distribution — and that includes all the films from the year.
So one hit isn’t going to send stock soaring, nor will one flop destroy the company. (Not the parent companies, anyway. A financial flop can kill a production studio, though.) A string of successes or failures is more substantial, though, and can affect a company. So it’s a good idea to pay attention to major trends — especially in the summer season, where the films’ financial stakes are much higher.
Just don’t expect Superman to lift your portfolio.
Adam Benjamin is an Assistant Editor of InvestorPlace. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. However, he does have tickets to the midnight premiere of Man of Steel.