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Sunday, September 8, 2013
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Summer Blockbusters: The Times They Are (Not) a-Changin’

By Mark Pinkert
Contributor

***

Hollywood studio chiefs must have had stressful Labor Day weekends this year: if facing their parent companies’ boards of directors, after generating only lackluster returns on $250 million films over the summer, wasn’t painful enough, then came a plethora of scathing analyses about the judgment, or lack thereof, that led them to greenlight such projects in the first place.

Over the past few weeks, numerous pundits have been reviewing their summer blockbusters in a pessimistic, if not antagonistic, tenor. Luckily for the Hollywood bigwigs, the critics are now turning their sites toward the fall film festivals and the early presages of Oscar season. But the point has now been made loudly and clelarly: this was a terrible summer for Hollywood — or, as Timothy Egan of The New York Times described it, the “Summer of the Big Dud.” (If you caught Universal’s R.I.P.D or Disney’s The Lone Ranger, you know what I mean.)

But stirring up angst among Hollywood execs was not the primary goal of most of these writers. What they — and I — really hope for is sweeping change in the film industry. A night out at the movies today costs a family of five nearly $100, between tickets, concessions and gas. The movies, therefore, better be worth it, or, as the programming continues to get better on TV, people will simply stay home.

Even Steven Spielberg, who helped to usher in the age of the blockbuster with Jaws (1975) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), recently expressed dismay about the direction of the industry and prophesized the kind of catastrophic summer that Hollywood would have. During a USC Film School Symposium in the Spring, in which he spoke alongside fellow blockbuster-king George Lucas, Spielberg predicted that “about a half dozen or so mega-budgeted movies will go crashing into the ground,” causing an “implosion” of the industry. He also professed the belief that, when this happened, it would lead to an alteration in the “whole paradigm.”

Part one of his prediction essentially came true. But what about part two? Has Hollywood processed what has happened and decided to make changes, or will they — per the very definition of insanity — continue to do the same thing and expect a different result?

I shouldn’t speak for the entire film-watching community, nor generalize about what should be changed in Hollywood, but there are some common and widespread concerns. Bloggers, newspaper contributors, and film buffs all seem to be interested in this odd notion of “character arc.” Many people apparently think that we should actually care about characters in movies. We should laugh when they laugh, weep when they weep, etc… Poignant dialogue, original themes, and suspense are other keywords that pop up in conversation about “good films.” If the people are correct — if the aforementioned elements are necessary — then there definitely weren’t many “good” blockbusters this year. Instead we were left with White House Down, The Lone Ranger, Olympus Has FallenAfter Earth, and other films, which were all based on the false notion that bombastic action and visual effects are viable substitutes for compelling stories and dynamic characters.

So why doesn’t it just change? Why don’t they just make better blockbuster movies?

Even though the blockbuster bombs stood out this summer, the reality is that, all in all, Hollywood did not do so badly — at least fiscally. The numbers were not so calamitous as to incite immediate change, nor cost anyone a job, and, aside from the glaring flops, a lot of films actually surpassed their initial forecasts. Universal unveiled the monstrosity that was R.I.P.D., but also released Despicable Me 2 and Fast & Furious 6, which have done astonishingly well at home and abroad. The latter two movies cost $76 million and $160 million respectively, but have brought in nearly $1.6 billion worldwide. Even if you over-estimate the print and advertising budget as, say, an average $75 million per movie, and deduct the percentage split with theaters (most theaters take only %5-%10 of the opening and second weekend gross, with incrementally larger percentages in subsequent weeks), these films ended up being huge breadwinners for Universal. Further, franchise movies are appreciating assets with future profits in DVD releases, merchandise, and movie channel distribution. The same goes for Walt Disney, by the way, which flopped on The Lone Ranger, but grossed nearly $1.9 billion worldwide with Iron Man 3 and Monsters University combined.

So even though 2013 accounted for two of the ten biggest flops in movie history, “the paradigm” still works well for the studio bank accounts. It’s just that the model is not based on producing quality films; it’s based on milking franchises and pandering to built-in audiences. Iron Man 3, for instance, opened at $174 million and probably wouldn’t have done much worse had it been shot entirely on an iPhone 5. Really, not much changed this year, except that many of the movies that flopped lacked both quality and dedicated fan bases. Disney was probably thinking Pirates of the Caribbean 2.0 when they green-lit The Lone Ranger.  Instead, it compiled a miscellany of flamboyant action scenes and yet another whimsical Johnny Depp character in makeup. Disney made a similar mistake last year, by the way, when it tried to transform another antiquated fictional character into a Hollywood mega-franchise. This was the Barsoom sci-fi series by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the movie John Carter. 

Two other formulaic blockbusters from the summer include FilmDistrict’s Olympus Has Fallen and Sony’s White House Down, both weak attempts to erect a Die Hard-like franchise. Olympus’s earnings far exceeded it’s $70 million dollar budget (mostly abroad), while White House Down didn’t do as well. It’s possible that the former’s success impeded the latter’s, but that still does not change the fact that they were both, well, bad movies. And yet they followed a proven business model: people will pay to see a strapping alpha male locked in a stately building, so long as he destroys said building with gunfire and explosions en route to saving hostages trapped inside.

The film business, like any other, operates in a market of supply and demand. So while we critics often complain about the supply side, we ought to consider the demand. After doing so, we’ll see why the blockbuster culture will not change.

Those of us calling for change — film critics and readers of the film critics — are most likely in the 25-65 year old age range and not who the studios are trying to reel in. When the high school year ends, millions of teens are suddenly freed from the burdens of school and homework. They finish up their lifeguard or day camp counselor shifts at 7:00pm and then have nothing else to do but head to the mall and catch a flick. The $15-$18 movie tickets aren’t prohibitive because these teens likely have an allowance from their parents. These lucky youngsters comprise the target audience for studio blockbusters, and that’s why “their” movies air during the summer. Further, those of us who scoff at the Hollywood blockbuster clichés tend to live in metropolitan areas and have metropolitan interests, but do not comprise the bulk of “mass consumers,” whose tastes the studios have in mind when producing these films.

The lesson from this summer is that if Hollywood executives are stressed over Labor Day weekend, it’s because [spoiler alert] such is the lifestyle of Hollywood execs. They’re not desperately searching for ways to change the paradigm and appease critics, but ways to capitalize off of past investments. In fact, comparison between new material and old franchises this summer suggest that studios will rely even more on remakes and sequels down the road. This suggests, of course, that we’ll see even less originality in the coming summers. Even if Hollywood were trying to change, it would take several years, since many of the 2014 and 2015 summer blockbusters are in production and pre-production.

All of this is not to say that weren’t some great movies this summer — among them Short Term 12,20 Feet from Stardom andFruitvale Station. They just happen to cost a fraction of what your average blockbuster budget does and received only limited releases in select theaters. So if you share my interest in trying to change and improve the sorts of movies that get made for wider releases, be a better consumer: support your local art-house theaters, avoid the big studio blockbusters playing at the malls — and cross your fingers that Spielberg was right!

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  • Mike Branson

    Mark, you need to get off your high horse. Every movie is not gong to be critically acclaim. Summer is for fun movies.

  • Donella

    Let’s throw in Immortal Instruments and Turbo 2 as unfortunate miscalculations.

  • Chris

    Here’s the flaw with that interpretation. Hollywood is manufacturing desire from a small set of products that are actively promoted with the full weight of the marketing and distribution system. If I push only huge films and throw all my marketing dollars behind them then put them on 2000 screens, then I can hardly claim I am giving the select demographic what it wants.

    No, I am giving them what I think they want. The lack of choice ensures that those who buy in will buy in to those franchises and films. It’s ass backwards thinking, and it’s wrong.

    The other issue is that the expense of making and promoting these bloated films ensures that the risk averse impulse will keep the execs from trying new things. The safest bet is a proven commodity. When you are dumping 200 million into making and promoting a film, you take the safest bet even if it has the narrowest margin.

    What they ought to do is make more and cheaper films. Especially for the demographic they are going after [which is also a fallacy of logic] they can make cheap hero and teen comedies that, if they hit, make huge profit margins and, if they fail, do not ruin a studio’s year.

    The problem isn’t that they are making decisions based on input and data, the problem is that they are making decisions based on a compulsory addiction to the blockbuster model.

    • TreyLane

      nailed it

      • Chris

        Thanks.