Is the four-quadrant movie hurting blockbuster cinema?

Harry Potter, Pirates Of The Caribbean, even The Exorcist: they're four-quadrant movies. But what does that even mean...?

The summer of 1990 was a good one for blockbuster cinema. Notwithstanding the fact that Dick Tracy and Gremlins 2 didn’t get the expected financial returns – and in the latter case, that’s a scandal – it saw the emergence, for one, of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bona-fide movie star. He finally reached the top off the back of an 18-rated science fiction Philip K Dick adaptation, Total Recall. In a summer laden with hits, it was one of the biggest.

The film was one of the top ten of the year overall too, notable in particular now because it targeted adults, and was a hard science fiction blockbuster. Other films in that top 10? The tense Jack Ryan feature, The Hunt For Red October. There was Pretty Woman, an R-rated romantic comedy with sinister undertones. Die Hard 2, meanwhile, was a straight, R-rated action movie. Family fare was relatively scattergun, and it was said that even Kindergarten Cop had its family appeal lessened by its harder edges.

Bottom line: a real mix of films, catering to a real mix of audiences.

You don’t need this article to tell you that blockbuster cinema has become a radically different beast in the 25 years plus since, though. Now, the emphasis is heavily on making sure films come armed with a PG-13 rating, and a 12A in the UK. That way, the possible audience is maximised. Literally – and it’s very nearly a proper use of the word – anyone can get to see a film rated 12A or PG-13. Furthermore, when a blockbuster film rarely swims against that and is allowed a harder rating – Logan and Deadpool the big recent examples – that in itself becomes part of the sales story.

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The theory underpinning all of this is nothing new, that you make your films appealing to as many people as possible to make the most cash. But it points to Hollywood’s quest to make what it likes to call a ‘four quadrant movie’. It’s a phrase that’s quietly dominated box office cinema for the past decade or so.

Universal attraction

The working definition of a four quadrant film is it’s one that appeals to the four key areas of the moviegoing audience. That is women under 25, men under 25, women over 25 and men over 25. There’s a little more to it than that, too, as four quadrant films often have a family appeal too. Get an adult or two and a bunch of kids into the cinema, and you’re going to shift a fair amount of popcorn.

It’s a not a new thing, either. Whilst the terminology may not have been so liberally applied, the likes of Jurassic Park, Titanic, The Wizard Of Oz, Toy Story, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars all fit the definition. There’s an interesting piece too at Screenplay Scripts, where it argues that The Exorcist is a four-quadrant movie. It’s a rare example in that it doesn’t attract a family crowd – here, kids! You’re going to love this one! – but its audience was nonetheless compromised from the four key sectors of the cinema audience.

As things stand now, once a studio is spending at least $100m to make a film, it wants to be hitting as many of those quadrants as possible. Spend north of $150m, it wants to be hitting them all. Again, go back to Logan and Deadpool a minute: both of those had lower budgets (in the case of Logan because Hugh Jackman cut his fee, for one reason) to allow the movies concerned to be targeted at a smaller subset of the audience. In turn, likely limiting the box office returns.

Which it did. As big a success as Logan has been, then, its $600m worldwide gross is still less than the far-more criticised Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Suicide Squad, both of which had friendlier ratings (in the US at least: Suicide Squad was a 15 in the UK in the end). I like Logan an awful lot, but its commercial ceiling – at least in its cinema run – was curtailed a little by shutting out a younger audience.

The book Blockbuster: Why Hits – And Big Risks – Are The Future Of The Entertainment Business is a dense dissection of big budget films, and the decisions behind them. It talks about how Alan Horn – now chairman of Walt Disney Pictures – transformed Warner Bros in the 2000s by changing the studio to focus on four quadrant movies. A perfect example? The Harry Potter series, a collection of films with near-universal appeal. It became the most lucrative movie franchise of all time, and every other studio was taking notes.

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Not every four-quadrant film that Horn greenlit did the business – Speed Racer struggled, for instance – but his run at Warner Bros saw it become the biggest and most successful of the Hollywood Studios. He gambled – and his gamble paid off – that prioritising five or six huge films a year made more sense than 20 smaller ones. That one or two big hits would cover everything. And Horn, financially at least, was correct.

So right, in fact, that he went to Disney, and the same policy is being deployed there, if anything in an even more lean way. Disney’s theatrical movie output is less than 20% of what it was in the early 1990s, barely hitting double figures a year. Those films are now mapped out fairy rigidly, divided into familiar categories: Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, live action fairytale, Walt Disney Animation Studios, legacy sequel to long-running franchise (such as Pirates Of The Caribbean 5). There’s scope in there for one or two films around the sides – Queen Of Katwe last year, A Wrinkle In Time next – but these are very much the exception.

The problem is that now, studio after studio is eyeing the same model. There are fewer films being made for the same money (if not more), and they need as broad an appeal to get a return. It’s why we have so many cinematic universes too: if you can group all the films together in one boxset, all the better, and easier to sell.

The further problem, then, is that with every major studio – and in turn, every maker of big blockbuster films – following the same strategy, the summer release window is predictable. Every week or two, along will come a big blockbuster, with a loud ending, special effects, franchise potential and a PG-13 rating. And whilst the films themselves differ, they all work within the same bracket. Most of the time, I’d strongly argue you can tell. That a structural formula is in place, that edges are often blunted, and that there needs to be some action, some comedy, some effects stuff, and it’ll all make a nice-ish trailer.

It affects the films that are being pitched into studios, too. How many films for adult audiences, that cost $100m or more to make, are in development right now? It’s impossible to put a number on, but it’s unlikely to be a high one.

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However, there are slight suggestions that things may change. The fact that blockbuster cinema – aside from a few films at the very top end – is in a bit of a rut for one. This summer’s films are already expected to make less money than last, and 2016 don’t forget was the summer when big franchises such as Independence Day, Alice In Wonderland and Ice Age, to name but a few, spluttered out. On the basis of this year’s summer releases already, The Mummy 2 and Pirates Of The Caribbean 6 are looking unlikely. 

But then there’s Deadpool and Logan. They may have been cheaper films to make, but the $600m take of Logan (and near $800m that Deadpool pulled in) is still more than X-Men: Apocalypse, Star Trek Beyond, Mad Max: Fury Road, Terminator Genisys, and many other recent high profile blockbusters, good and bad. There are murmurings as a result that, for instance, Sony may go with an R-rating for Venom, which would likely be a four quadrant movie but without the family angle.

It’s small steps, but with studios finding that spending more money isn’t working the way it once did, the strategy may have to slightly change. And instead of trying to please everybody all of the time with every film, one of the logical options is to narrow the target audience just a little. To focus the films just a little more, and try and impress a smaller part of the audience more. I’m not utterly convinced that’ll happen, and certainly if it does it won’t happen quickly. But the drive for exclusively four-quadrant blockbuster movies isn’t working. And something, eventually, has to give…