Moviegoers Flock to Mid-Budget, Well-Reviewed Movies This Summer

Eric Anderson, A&E Writer

It’s easy to be cynical about the state of the film industry these days when it is seemingly driven by nothing but greed and producing nothing but expensive franchise sequels (or remakes) and restricting the top billings to white male superstars.

This year, however, the summer box office tells a different story. In a surprising development, it was not superheroes, giant robots or retro space adventures that dominated the box office this summer, but rather an eclectic assortment of lower-budget titles featuring female comedians, a cappella stars, yellow cartoon minions and the N.W.A., among others.

Although indie films like “Dope” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” struggled to capture audience attention, mid-budget studio films exerted a powerful influence this summer, with titles like “Pitch Perfect 2”, “Spy”, “Trainwreck” and “Straight Outta Compton” massively outperforming big budget would-be tentpoles like “Fantastic Four” and “Tomorrowland.”

Especially notable is the fact that nearly all the movies in question did not feature a white male lead character. Summer was sold on names like Anna Kendrick, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Schumer and the Straight Outta Compton trio (Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell and O’Shea Jackson Jr.), while past draws like Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney and Adam Sandler suffered major box office and critical misfires (though Sandler is no stranger to those).

In addition to scoring big in attendance, this lower-budget slate of films also won a lot of critical praise. Rotten Tomatoes ranked Compton, Trainwreck, The Gift and Spy very highly, each scoring 85% or higher on the site’s “Tomatometer.”

Reviews and word-of-mouth were the keys to success this summer, as nearly all of the summer’s biggest films earned positive press while the flops were generally unpopular with those who saw them. On the higher-budget side, “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Ant-Man,” and “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” were successes in both the critical and box office sense, while “Fantastic Four,” “Terminator: Genisys,” and “Pixels” fell victim to terrible press and gained no traction with audiences, becoming costly disappointments.

This may seem like stating the obvious, but considering the past success of critical failures like “Transformers” and “Twilight,” it’s noteworthy that none of the summer’s top 10 films scored below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Notably, “Mad Max: Fury Road” leveraged extremely positive press. Praise for the movie’s direction, story, characters and usage of practical effects, helped this summer flick break out of box office obscurity and become a surprise hit. Although the film’s 1980s predecessors were primarily known only by cult film enthusiasts, “Fury Road” pulled itself to a strong $150 million domestic gross, even as the more well known Terminator franchise sunk to a new low (less than $90 million domestically).

Disney-Pixar’s “Inside Out,” which boasts an incredible 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes, was similarly rewarded, earning one of the top debuts ever for an original (i.e. non-franchise, non-adaptation) picture and powering to a joyous box office tally (over $350 million domestically). That’s well ahead of Pixar’s other post-Toy Story 3 endeavors, all of which garnered less ecstatic reviews.

Still, it was Universal Studios who ran away with the gold this summer, and it wasn’t all thanks to big-budget blockbusters – though Jurassic World’s spectacular ~$650 million gross cannot be discounted. Instead, Universal succeeded through a stellar line-up of attractive mid-budget titles, including “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Minions,” and “Trainwreck.” Those four films produced a combined stateside gross of over $780 million – a number that is still climbing – which is more than the entire yearly output of 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and Sony, all of which chose to rely on long-running franchise titles and male star power. And they did it with a combined budget of $166 million, which is less than the $190 million budget Disney gave to Tomorrowland alone.

So what are the lessons to be learned from this summer at the movies? Will studios give up on expensive, effects-heavy productions in favor of smaller-scale stories? Probably not, considering that “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and “Furious 7” were global hits that each made over $1.4 billion worldwide this year.

But the stateside success of these smaller, star-minimizing titles may certainly influence some of those other struggling studios to focus less on resurrecting dead franchises and instead look at a potentially more diverse slate. Universal played its cards right with many small movies that appealed to all kinds of different audiences, rather than one big movie that tried to appeal to everyone (though, ironically, they also released a movie that did exactly that with “Jurassic World”). Perhaps others will follow their lead. Or perhaps they’ll look at the resurrection of Jurassic Park and Mad Max and keep trying to dredge up old franchises to reboot. But hey, it’s Hollywood. What else is new?

All box office data from