This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Do you remember during 2014, where lots of fans stubbornly declared Captain America: The Winter Soldier the best film of that summer despite its opening in March/April? It was joined by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in trying to steal a march on the competition, but clearly when you think big blockbusters, they’re associated with a certain time of year. And given how for the studios, summer season occupies a full third of the year from May to August, and Christmas the sweet period from November all the way through to New Year, that should be plenty of room for the Avengers, Star Wars, and Jurassic Parks of the world, right?
Except that there are plenty more ‘tentpoles’ (big releases to prop up the studio’s bottom line) being made and they can’t all open in summer or Christmas, especially in a world where budgets aren’t close to equal. While the $200 million The Force Awakens blasts through the all-time US and UK box office records, Victor Frankenstein and In The Heart Of The Sea barely even registered last December. It also means we see a lot of smaller blockbusters in the quieter months, unable to compete when released in prime slots alongside mega franchises so they get shafted into less lucrative parts of the year.
So now almost all fifty-two weeks of the year can see at least one new blockbuster open for popcorn consideration. Coming up in January to April alone I count: The 5th Wave, Finest Hours, 13 Hours, Deadpool, Goosebumps, Zoolander 2, Point Break, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, Alvin And The Chipmunks 4, London Has Fallen, Allegiant, Kung Fu Panda 3, Batman V Superman, Zootopia, Jungle Book, Gods Of Egypt, Huntsman: Winter’s War…
You can rightly argue that these aren’t blockbusters on the same scale as an Avengers or Star Wars (with the exception of Batman V Superman), but that’s still no small roster of high-profile releases, not to mention sequels, in the first third of this year.
So is this just a problem of perception? Maybe, when you add in today’s myriad internet coverage which means a wealth of reviews and news about every major release means more gets recorded in geek consciousness, whereas before costly rubbish would be quickly forgotten (there was a Rollerball remake in 2002?). And it’s not like years past didn’t have lots of action flicks. Still, the studios are undeniably chasing the franchise money like never before, regardless of whether their budgets are bigger or lower than most. It’s not about just the one movie anymore, it’s about that movie providing sequels, spin-offs and reliable revenue for years to come.
Which is great, if you like gorging on this feast of spectacle. But cheaper stuff without the prospect of sequels or reboots is harder to come by these days. And there’s so much of it, we’ve got to the point where several months in advance we’re picking and choosing which ones are likeliest to kick-start those inevitable sequels and those doomed for costly failure. Gods Of Egypt has quickly proved the easiest target, with its trailer and marketing materials providing uninspired designs and mish-mashes of oversaturated cartoonish action which might make 2010’s Clash Of The Titans look judicious by comparison.
So year-round blockbusters don’t mean we have a year-round summer season either. Summer and Christmas, the biggest holiday periods of the year, will naturally remain the times of year when people most want to see a film or two, and it means those franchises that want to hit big at other times need to be super appealing. Enter The Hunger Games.
When the young-adult adaptation hit huge in March 2012, it came shortly after the much more expensive, much less successful John Carter. Even if I’ll defend that film to a point, I won’t pretend it genuinely didn’t catch audiences like kids being forced to kill each other, based on a book only four years old at that point compared to books about a century old in John Carter’s case. Money can’t buy interest, and audiences won’t see all the big films out. They have to choose, and thus not everything can hit.
Simply put, the risk is that studios are producing a lot of expensive movies which audiences aren’t interested in seeing, regardless of what time of year they’re opening. Hence situations like last autumn, where a fairly original slate faltered in a big winner’s wake. Only one blockbuster, The Martian, was a true hit, and a big one for a straight science-fiction, having grossed almost $600 million at time of writing. Everest was overwhelmed by it and other competition, but its more modest $50m budget means it basically broke even. The already-delayed Pan was buried by poor reception and audience apathy towards another Peter Pan film; not even overseas box office came close to plugging the gap.
Universal employed bait-and-switch marketing for Crimson Peak to try and lure in people after a more straightforward horror film, despite Guillermo del Toro declaring the film a Gothic romance. It didn’t work, and a paltry $74 million was the return. Ditto The Last Witch Hunter, a film more content to tell us about its world and mythology than actually show it to us.
Yet all of these box office failures aren’t as shocking as what happened to The Walk. Opening around the same time as The Martian, Ridley Scott’s crowdpleaser continues to play in a few locations while Robert Zemeckis’ acrophobic spectacle based on Philippe Petit was gone from cinemas in a fortnight. Not even a relatively small $35m budget saved this one, grossing less than $10m in the States and less than $2m here.
Only huge or micro budgeted flicks are doing the trick for big profit (The Visit’s $93m box office on a $5m budget is clearly positive math), and even then there have been flops like Jem And The Holograms, despite its own $5m budget. In megabudget terms, the past couple of years have produced a hall of infamy including: Jack The Giant Slayer, 47 Ronin, Jupiter Ascending, or Mars Needs Moms. Even a fair few of the summer blockbusters have really struggled: Green Lantern, The Lone Ranger, Fantastic Four, Tomorrowland, Pixels, and R.I.P.D. It’s not like we haven’t seen big flops before (e.g. 1995’s damp double whammy of Waterworld and Cutthroat Island), it’s just with bigger costs and more franchise hopes pinned on them, they matter more to the studio’s overall health more than ever.
But, I hear you cry, if all these franchise blockbusters keep bombing, surely that should be proof to those Hollywood honchos that more original stuff is the way?
Simply, it’s all about making a cinema trip as safe an option as it can be for the customers, and we’ve seen the industry do it before when its revenue’s been threatened by outside factors. When television slashed cinema attendance in the 1950s, studios introduced super-widescreen epics in order to outdo its square-shaped rival. Now with widescreen TV plus ever more powerful internet and social media, we have so many modes of entertainment available. And with so many different channels of content being added every single day, that we can’t blame people for being drawn away from cinemas. Why pay £10 for a ticket to something you’re not even sure you’ll enjoy when you can watch an Instagram clip or a three minute YouTube video your friends have all recommended to you?
That’s where the franchise reliance comes in. If your film’s a sequel to something which was popular a few years ago, a reboot of a series which was popular a couple of decades ago, based on a bestselling book or a notorious real life event, then you’ve kind of already bought some audience resonance. That doesn’t mean the film will be good, but more that regardless of its quality, they can rely on having some sort of connection to the film in some way. Because, ‘Hey, I liked this thing before! Why not go for it again, I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ And so they go for it.
They’ll generally pick the biggest, most established franchises. Hence why we’re seeing just about every possible film and TV brand being resurrected, or a new literary series optioned with the prospect of multiple instalments for more revenue. And just what if that ’90s movie caught on again, and you could stretch out a sequel or two? See, everything could be a multi-movie franchise! It’s why there’s a Point Break remake and why Robert Zemeckis is forced to bat away talk of more Back To The Future sequels.
Now, it is certainly true that geeks get more excited for some sequels/reboots than others. There’s definitely more enthusiasm for more Star Wars and Mad Max than more Terminators (two previous attempts to resume the franchise probably didn’t help). But even if Terminator: Genisys’ mediocre box office put future instalments in limbo, you can’t deny that attempting to strike rich on what were two highly successful and still much-loved films doesn’t make sense to the people pitching and financing these things. If the sums add up better in the boardroom than spending that money on a wholly original concept, people will take the ‘safe option’.
So despite the chance it could go disastrously wrong, the potential returns from aiming big are too much to ignore. As such, it’s unrealistic to ever expect Hollywood to indulge huge budgets on making something with no pre-existing brand or guaranteed spectacle. Writer Damon Lindelof provided his own take on it when he said ‘Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world.’ It’s honestly why I could never grumble about James Cameron’s Avatar, given how he seemed to will that film to unprecedented success despite being an original creation. Now he’s off doing three Avatar sequels at once, but still.
Even so, the current dearth of originality is worrying. And the most original entries we do get, i.e. those with the least connection to a known property such as Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, tend to bomb badly. Apart from Cameron, Christopher Nolan’s been the only one to successfully buck the trend with Inception and Interstellar, perhaps needing Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy popularity to get made and noticed, but they’re still big, intelligent films which lots of people wanted to see.
Guillermo del Toro has tried the same, but as noted before with Crimson Peak and earlier with Pacific Rim, his bold visions have been slightly too niche to ever do gigantic box office. Which is probably part of why fans love him. Almost three years on, we’re still relying on del Toro’s insistence that the Kaiju-battering sequel isn’t dead yet.
You could point to Pixar and its recent monster hit Inside Out as bucking this trend, but even then I’d argue that, as with Marvel Studios’ consistent success with a variety of heroes big and obscure, the overarching brand is the franchise in those cases. And Pixar won’t be a stranger to sequels these next few years, starting with this summer’s Finding Dory.
Mid-budget original films can’t be easily made now. It just makes more sense to go with something with pre-existing connection to something else – more of a guaranteed audience, more chance of making money. Just ask Steven Spielberg. In Summer 2014, he talked with George Lucas about what they saw as the gradually eroding release model, with the director’s remarks about an imminent implosion with blockbusters the most repeated comments:
“Some ideas from young filmmakers are too fringe-y for the movies. That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”
He also mentioned how eventual multiple Oscar winner Lincoln was “this close – ask HBO – this close” to being on TV instead of in cinemas.
Even if an immediate collapse seems rather unlikely, it does seem to be that the model is shifting more and more towards chasing the franchise dollar, and that means a bigger budget to draw audiences in or a tiny budget so that success is practically guaranteed.
Spielberg’s comments about the industry might seem like sour grapes, but he’s got a point about how smaller films are being shut out of multiplexes. Not only does it mean possibly more interesting films are being denied, but it’s a self-sustaining cycle. More and more need to respond to Internet with more and more big franchise titles charging ever higher ticket prices means we could eventually see a nightmare scenario like Spielberg says, with cinemagoing becoming a luxury privilege than a regular trip. And for those who love cinemas, that’d clearly be a bad thing.
So where does cinema go from here? Does our collective obsession with blockbusters only accelerate further? In Odeon and Vue’s blockbuster premiums, adding on an extra pound or two to the biggest releases’ ticket prices, Spielberg’s prophecy is already being fulfilled somewhat. It’s something we’ve been careful not to reject outright, but as much as Odeon insists it’s a policy meant to shift audiences towards supporting smaller films, it also feels like a convenient method for squeezing more money out of sure things. Take it too far, and people could just stay home.
Plus online film writing hardly needs another pretty please for studios to make more (even vaguely) original stuff, yet it’s worth remembering that all the biggest sure things out there, Marvel Studios, Pixar, Jurassic Park, and Minions, started from a place of risk. No one could be certain that audiences would take to Iron Man, the lesser-known superhero who kicked off the MCU. They also couldn’t have bet that computer animation would have caught on like it did twenty years ago with Toy Story. Heck, most of the people who worked on Star Wars thought it was a strange and silly creation of George Lucas’ overactive imagination, and it’s been just about cinema’s biggest franchise since then.
Hope might come from awards season, hardly ever perfect but still the best incentive to make original, interesting films. Forbes’ Scott Mendelson, the one writer most curious in this ‘all year blockbuster’ trend, has noted that the conventional wisdom that awards contenders need to be released shortly before Oscar nominations in January to ensure they’re still remembered is breaking down. And it starts with the Coen brothers’ latest, Hail, Caesar!, in February. Hurrah for that, we say. After all, if all the studios made were tentpoles, they wouldn’t be using the tent very much.