This summer has been pretty brutal for huge-budget movies. Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim, R.I.P.D., After Earth and White House Down all fizzled in the United States, while several other movies underperformed. Steven Spielberg has predicted an "implosion" of the movie business — could it be coming sooner than you expect?
As recently as 2000, it was considered unusual for a film to have a budget over $100 million, and only seven movies that year had such big budgets. Now, it's considered typical for films to have budgets of $130 million and up (or roughly $100 million in 2000 dollars.) Movies with reported budgets of $130 million and up include not just Man of Steel-sized blockbusters but also The Croods, Jack the Giant Slayer, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, After Earth, Turbo, and several others.
And meanwhile, it seems to be increasingly common for Hollywood types to say that midsize movies are an endangered species — films either have to be tiny or huge, to get funding. (Although then you'll notice that a lot of the year's most profitable films are small-to-medium budget movies like The Purge.)
So in June, Steven Spielberg caused a bit of a splash when he predicted an "implosion" of the film business, where five or six $250 million movies flop in a row and this unsustainable business model of cranking out massive blockbusters fails. (Spielberg also predicted you'd see a variable ticket pricing model, with tickets to a film like Iron Man 3 costing $25 and tickets to a smaller movie like his Lincoln costing $7, which doesn't seem very likely to me.)
Since then, the large number of box-office bombs with huge budgets has lent some credence to Spielberg's prediction — but at the same time, today Rope of Silicon points out that 2015 will be the biggest year ever year for movies. Including Avengers 2, Jurassic Park IV, a new Pirates of the Caribbean, a new James Bond, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Warcraft, Finding Dory, Fantastic Four, Star Wars: Episode VII, and... oh yeah, Batman Vs. Superman. So will 2015 be the year our heads finally explode, so we can't find our way to the movie theater?
In retrospect, it feels somewhat quaint that everybody was freaking out about summer 2011 having too many blockbuster movies. That was when Jon Favreau complained the summer schedule was "brutal," because there was a Harry Potter movie, a Transformers movie, Green Lantern and an X-Men film. And indeed, Favreau's own summer 2011 film, Cowboys and Aliens, failed miserably.
Back in 2010, we counted and figured that there were 14 "tentpole" genre films coming in summer 2011, up from 10 "tentpoles" in summer 2010.
By contrast, summer 2014 has: Captain America 2, Transcendence, Stretch Armstrong (?), Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Good Dinosaur, Rio 2, Edge of Tomorrow, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Transformers 4, Maleficent, Fast & Furious 7, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Hercules, Dracula, Guardians of the Galaxy and Jupiter Ascending.
Or, arguably, around 19 tentpoles. And yes, summer 2015 is probably going to be way more intense.
So is the recent flop-ageddon a sign that Spielberg was right, and this business model of gambling hundreds of millions on massive films is doomed? A few stray thoughts suggest themselves:
1) Big well-known franchises still have a pretty good success rate.
Sure, Superman Returns only made $200 million domestically, but that's not horrible, and it would have made a lot more money overseas if it was released today. And both the Star Trek and Batman films managed to run their respective series into the ground, before being rebooted. But you'll notice the list of 2013's big-budget flops doesn't include any major franchise films. The movies that flopped were all trying to start a franchise from scratch, or adapt source material that nobody cared about. (Lone Ranger, the obscure R.I.P.D. comic book.) Put it another way: Does anybody think Avengers 2 is going to flop? Batman Vs. Superman? Star Wars VII? Those are all pretty much guaranteed hits. Which brings us to...
2) Some films just don't deserve a $200 million budget.
I wrote about this when Sucker Punch bombed at the box office. Films like Pacific Rim and Scott Pilgrim that don't trade on a known quantity (and don't star a huge marquee actor like World War Z's Brad Pitt) probably ought to have lower budgets, and then they can break the bank for the inevitable sequels. Kick-Ass proved that you can make a fun superhero film for $30 million and make enough money to make a sequel worthwhile. (Hell, Super was one of the best superhero films of the past five years, for $5 million. Also, Chronicle.) Yes, we desperately need more movies that aren't sequels, remakes, reboots or prequels — but film-makers need to figure out how to make those films for less. We pretty much know the size of the core nerd audience, the Comic-Con constituency, and it's just enough to help a film like Kick-Ass make $48 million domestically.
3) A lot of "box office flops" probably do wind up making a profit.
This ought to go without saying, but it's worth repeating — a lot of flops will end up making money, thanks to overseas box office, DVD sales, video-on-demand sales, or a bunch of other avenues. They just won't make crazy Scrooge McDuck roll-around money. Meanwhile, though, an increasing number of Hollywood movies count on Chinese box office profits — and many studios haven't been paid by China in months.
4) Eventually, television, movie theaters and the internet will converge.
Even a few years ago, it was unusual for films to be released via Video On Demand the same day as they were in theaters, and now smaller films routinely hit VOD before they come out in theaters. At this year's CinemaCon in Las Vegas, studios broached the idea with theater chain owners of allowing more big movies to hit VOD while they're still playing in theaters. Theater owners, in turn, asked for a bigger cut of box office receipts. It seems inevitable that as home theater setups get nicer, more people will get used to watching huge Hollywood blockbusters in the comfort of their own homes. Which leads us to a final thought...
5) Television and movie universes could start crossing over.
If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a success, then it'll mark a huge step forward in transmedia storytelling. In the 1980s and 1990s, you had The X-Files and Star Trek crossing over between the big screen and the small screen, but neither of those movie franchises did as big business as The Avengers, particularly during their television heydays. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe can achieve success on television, in addition to putting out two or three movies a year, then it could provide a new model: big movie franchises could outsource a lot of their world-building to television (or other media), and reserve the big screen for the occasional "big event" within those worlds. A couple years ago, Ron Howard was trying to make a Dark Tower series, which would have been mostly on television plus a few big-screen movies — and if that had succeeded, it would have shown the way forward. The biggest problem facing a lot of the most expensive tentpole movies is their formulaic nature: you can only retell the same "superhero origin" story so many times before it gets old, and you can only have the same basic storytelling structure so often before it starts to pall. But maybe studios can use the convergence of television and movies to their advantage, by creating the kind of richer backstory that allows these narratives to reach greater heights of boldness on the big screen? Let's hope, anyway.