Summer Schooled: What the summer season at the movies meant in 2016


From May to August, the summer movie season is in full swing, a cavalcade of blockbusters designed by large corporations to bring in as much money as possible by appealing to as many people as they can. And if those studios just so happen to produce a good film in the process? Well, that’s a bonus. As opposed to the dumping grounds of January and February, or the prestige-filled months at the end of the year, summer is the awkward middle child attempting to overachieve and set new box office records. But what can filmgoers learn about the state of the movie nation based on what was a success this year? And was there a huge disparity between what was popular and what was critically praised? I looked at the numbers and took the pulse of 2016’s summer movie season, and I found some surprising trends.

First, to make sure we’re all working from the same math, here are the top ten films, by box office for May to August, along with their Rotten Tomatoes critic scores and audience scores:


So what are we to draw from this? A few things…

Franchise Fatigue

While many people complain about how tired they are of Hollywood constantly churning out sequels, remakes or entries in an expanded universe, the numbers certainly suggest otherwise. Of the top ten movies for the summer, only two were truly original films, and even those can be seen as less than inspired movies (“The Secret Life of Pets” is just “Toy Story” with animals, while “Central Intelligence” is another in the Kevin Hart buddy action comedy saga). The rest of the films are sequels, a remake (“Ghostbusters”), a retelling of a well-known story (“The Legend of Tarzan”) and another entry in an expanding movie universe (“Suicide Squad”).

Despite people bemoaning the fact that Hollywood is constantly churning out the same product again and again, they are still going out to see these new entries in established franchises. People still prefer the familiar in their film choices during blockbuster season. While there weren’t too many original offerings released in general this summer, the ones that were put out couldn’t compete with these pre-established worlds and didn’t fare as well with general audiences or critics.

And while there has been much discussion about the “passing fad” of comic book movies, three of the summer’s biggest films find their origins in the confines of panels and word balloons. “Captain America: Civil War,” “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Suicide Squad” prove there’s still life in this “temporary” interest the public has with superhero stories. And while the latter two weren’t critical favorites, all received passing marks from audiences and “Civil War” garnered lots of praise from critics. Beyond their financial and audience approval reception, the three films also showed that viewers are willing to accept and even embrace large ensemble cast stories, even with new characters like in “Suicide Squad.”


There’s No Accounting for Taste… Or is There?

Lately there’s been a lot of online scuttlebutt about a disparity between critics’ and general audiences’ opinions. Charges of elitism and lack of understanding what “real” people enjoy have been flying around for ages towards the critical set but have risen and seemingly increased in the social media age where everyone dispenses their views to the world. However, looking at the Rotten Tomatoes scores of both critics and audiences, it appears that they weren’t too far from each other for the most part.

The top two films both effectively earned A’s from critics and audiences alike who not only enjoyed the movies but had to see them multiple times to garner such large box office returns. In fact, there were very few films reviewed higher than “Finding Dory” or “Captain America: Civil War” in the top 400 of the summer box office. “Hell or High Water,” “Love & Friendship,” “Kubo and the Two Strings” and “The Nice Guys” all got higher marks (and some box office love), but the reigning top two films of summer 2016 are right there in the running for best reviewed summer films.

It’s also interesting to note that out of the four biggest “disagreements” between critics and audiences (“Suicide Squad,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Ghostbusters” and “The Legend of Tarzan”), two of them had active online campaigns that targeted Rotten Tomatoes to inflate or devalue the films. Many DC fans came out in droves and even petitioned that Rotten Tomatoes (partially owned by Warner Bros, as is DC, by the way) be shut down due to its “negative” aggregation of critics’ scores for “Suicide Squad.” Meanwhile, the so-called Ghostbros came out to drive down the rating on “Ghostbusters” in retaliation for seemingly ruining their otherwise perfect childhoods.

Despite all of that, six of the top ten movies still had very close agreement on ratings for the films between audiences and critics. So while there is a conventional wisdom afloat in social media that “critics don’t understand,” the vast majority of the time they actually do and are fairly aligned with the reactions of general audiences.


Summer Scares

The last element to note, looking over the top hits of the summer, actually lives outside the top ten films. Out of the 40 biggest hits of this summer, six of them were horror films. “The Conjuring 2,” “The Purge: Election Year” (again, two sequels), “The Darkness,” “Lights Out,” “Don’t Breathe” and “The Shallows” all showed that horror had a very good season in 2016, with many of those films receiving rave reviews from critics and audiences alike.

Traditionally, horror films are rolled out in the fall and winter months, but this shows that audiences are looking to be scared (provided it’s a good story…except for “The Darkness”) all year ‘round. With some films looking to be genre staples for years to come – particularly “Don’t Breathe” and “The Conjuring 2” – they’re dark horses that broke up the monotony of all-star comedies, children’s films and action blockbusters. This sort of counterprogramming will probably increase over time as more studios want to find something to offset the inundation of the same old type of films.


Summer 2016 wasn’t a banner time for film. There aren’t too many all-time classics that were released, and it’s possible they’ll be forgotten in just a few years. But films like “Finding Dory,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “The Secret Life of Pets” not only show the power of continuing of franchises but the beginnings of one as well. Reviewing the list of the top 40 films, not too many stand out as future staples, but who can really say? One never knows what populist entertainment will become enshrined in cult love and glom onto the pop culture consciousness for years to come. In the end, it appears that people still love franchises, that critics are people too (after all), and that hot weather means you can’t scare some folks. In a mixed bag of a summer, and in an industry where no one knows what will work, perhaps that’s enough of a lesson.


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