Hollywood will spend the rest of 2014 trying to dig itself out of a very deep box office hole, with ticket sales sputtering behind last year's windfall.
The difficulty is that the upcoming holiday season isn't just battling the ghosts of Christmases and Thanksgivings past. The studios are trying to recover from the worst summer moviegoing season in nearly a decade – one that left overall revenue down nearly 5% and admissions down more than 5% from last year. In order to make up that ground, the fourth quarter will have to exceed last year's $2.7 billion haul by more than $400 million.
"It's not very likely that we'll catch up with last year unless we have some knock-it-out-of-the-park hit," says Bruce Nash, founder of box office tracking site the Numbers. "A movie like 'Interstellar' wouldn't just have to be huge – it needs to be gigantic if it's going to do anything to save us."
Christopher Nolan's pricey space adventure, which arrives shrouded in mystery, is one of the high-profile pictures that the film business is counting on to power the remainder of the year. Ridley Scott's biblical epic "Exodus: Gods and Kings," starring Christian Bale as Moses, is a risky bet that also has tremendous upside potential.
Helping with the rescue effort are Hollywood's more reliable franchise installments, including Peter Jackson's final chapter of "The Hobbit" trilogy, the penultimate edition of "The Hunger Games," and a "Madagascar" spinoff. Also for the family crowd, Disney is releasing the animated robots comedy "Big Hero 6" on Nov. 7.
"It feels like a strong fall and Christmas season," says Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures. "You have a number of big players in it, and a number of original movies that have the potential to be global performers."
Of all of the pictures set to soar across big screens, perhaps none has the potential to fly higher than "Interstellar," which Paramount will release domestically Nov. 5, and Warner Bros. will bow internationally in most major territories at essentially the same time.
Nolan's reputation is gold among fanboys weaned on his "Dark Knight" films and "Inception." And the picture's star, Matthew McConaughey, is in the throes of his McConaissance.
"That's the wild card," says Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, essentially in lock-step with Nash's assessment. "It has huge breakout potential."
On paper, many of these movies look like they have what it takes to draw crowds, but past years also have boasted impressive firepower.
The 2013 holiday season got a boost from "Hunger Games" and "Hobbit" sequels while benefitting from two other blockbusters that shattered expectations – "Gravity" and "Frozen," which made $716 million and $1.3 billion, respectively. Matching their worldwide box office bounties will be nearly impossible.
Last year's awards contenders also seemed more commercially viable, with "The Wolf of Wall Street," "American Hustle," and "Captain Phillips" all topping $100 million Stateside. It's hard to imagine the current quirkier crop of Oscar hopefuls such as "Birdman," "Foxcatcher," and "The Theory of Everything" rivaling those results.
When January rolls around, box office watchers expect ticket sales will end up roughly 3% off last year's record-breaking result of $10.9 million. That's a disappointment, to be sure, but not quite the catastrophe that the summer seemed to portend.
Though catching up may be unlikely, there are a number of factors that will benefit studios and exhibitors over the last few months of the year. The recent strong debuts of "Annabelle" and "Gone Girl," both of which shattered tracking with openings of more than $37 million each, are being viewed as the start of a larger turnaround.
"It bodes well," says Richard Fay, Lionsgate's president of domestic theatrical distribution. "We're grabbing back what we lost this summer, and we're going forward in a very, very positive way."
Studios also have done a better job of scheduling their major releases. Unlike in past years, November will see only seven wide releases, which should allow a murderer's row of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1," "Big Hero 6," "Penguins of Madagascar," and "Horrible Bosses 2" to avoid too much bloodshed. "Each of these films will have a chance to open, play successfully and do a meaningful bit of business without stepping on each other's toes," says Dave Hollis, Walt Disney Studios' executive vice president of theatrical distribution.
Christmas is competitive, with nine wide releases hitting theaters over a weeklong period, including the musical "Into the Woods," the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy "The Interview," and a new version of "Annie." However, that's a standard number of releases for the season.
The box office downturn and a series of disruptive recent moves, ranging from Netflix's move into feature films to failed deals to buy Time Warner and DreamWorks Animation, have some arguing that the ground is shifting under the movie business. Change may be coming, but analysts caution not to read too much into the recent cold spell at the multiplexes.
"Go back to your movie history," says Barton Crockett, a media analyst at FBR Capital Markets. "When you're talking about box office, fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride."