Starting 10 years ago, a series of quotes by Steven Spielberg about the emerging ecosystem of 21st century Hollywood went viral when they hit social media. The first came when Spielberg, along with George Lucas, addressed students at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. On a sunny June day, the filmmaker behind blockbusters like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park, told an audience, “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four, or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”
He put a finer point on it a few years later when he said, “We were around when the Western died, and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western.”
As both of these comments reached other members of the industry, as well as fans of popular blockbusters, they were subjected to skepticism and, in some quarters, ridicule. After all, Spielberg by his own admission had become focused on movies that were increasingly a tougher sell to mainstream audiences in the 2010s. But while he was personally making historical dramas like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, he still happily produced mega-budget blockbusters of questionable quality that fed off his own legacy, such as the Jurassic World films. Some saw this as hypocrisy while others painted him as a bit of a “Cassandra type,” which always seemed like a strange metaphor to me. Didn’t Cassandra correctly predict the fall of Troy?
Even Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige rather diplomatically dismissed Spielberg’s comments in 2015 when he said, “The Western lasted 40 to 50 years, and they still pop up occasionally. It’s been, what, eight years since Iron Man 1 if we count that, which I do, as the beginning of our MCU? Maybe [the superhero genre] will only last another 42 years.”
Well, it’s been 15 years since Iron Man 1, but also 23 years since X-Men 1 (if you want to begin when superhero movies really became hegemonic in pop culture), and perhaps more importantly, about a quarter century since an increasingly corporatized Hollywood, which is beholden to Wall Street instincts to minimize risk, pivoted to managing the same blockbuster brands in perpetuity—superhero and otherwise. While I’d hesitate to say we’ve reached Spielberg’s implosion—a la the type of disaster that killed the Western and Golden Age Hollywood musical in 1969 with flops like Hello, Dolly! and Paint Your Wagon—I would suggest it’s starting to feel quite a bit like the years leading up to that implosion when the old Hollywood system whistled past the graveyard of Doctor Doolittle flopping in 1967, or when the gaudy historical epic of Cleopatra nearly sank 20th Century Fox in 1963. Spielberg’s comments seemed plausible to us in 2015. In 2023, they look prophetic.
Hence why they went viral again this weekend after Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opened to a disappointing box office tally of $56.2 million in its first three days in the U.S. For the record, this is actually quite in line with how the franchise has historically performed, only slightly down from Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s $61.2 million debut in 2018. Additionally, Dead Reckoning actually grossed $80 million over its first five days (which I’d argue should count as its real opening).
Nonetheless, it’s quite a bit below expectations for a movie that not only was supposed to beat Fallout in the three-day, but also perform closer to Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise’s previous sequel for Paramount (and the first in 36 years for that franchise), which opened at $160.5 million across its four-day weekend last year. Instead Dead Reckoning’s box office follows a familiar pattern over the last month: exceedingly expensive blockbusters in aging franchises starring even older movie stars are not justifying their $250 million to $300 million budgets. And because of the glut of their costs, openings like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s $60 million (and $83 million over the Fourth of July weekend) and The Flash’s $55 million are considered deadly.
Each of these movies were marketed around an anticipated nostalgia for actors like Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, and Michael Keaton reprising roles they originally played in either the 1980s or ‘90s. And each has become an albatross around its studio’s neck—although we should note Dead Reckoning has a strong likelihood to outperform Indy and the Flash both globally and domestically due to its enthusiastic word-of-mouth, as demonstrated by its “A” CinemaScore. However, it seems somewhat unlikely a leggy run (also in the shadow of Barbie and Oppenheimer) can make up the difference of a $300 million budget.
So should Hollywood take heed that the real implosion is imminent? Quite possibly. There is of course evidence to the contrary, which again suggests we’re not quite in the 1969 death rattle for any one genre or current studio system. However, it is worth noting that the only major blockbuster successes this summer have been Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. They’re both superhero movies, both part of larger intellectual properties that their studios have been mining for better than a decade, and both were well-received by audiences. However, I’d contend Guardians was viewed by audiences (and marketed by Disney) as the end of a beloved story: one last ride with James Gunn’s version of this team, who we’ll never see like this again.
Meanwhile Across the Spider-Verse was a successful Spider-Man movie, but it also looks little like the Spider-Man movies released 20 years ago. As voiced by Shameik Moore, the character of Miles Morales is a new protagonist with a visually striking and distinct aesthetic in those films’ kinetic animation style, and whose popularity arose out of what ostensibly felt like a “new” franchise from the last few years thanks to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018).
And if you take a look at the 2023 franchise movies that have really been delivering beyond this current summer, most of them were also from relatively recent brands. The first John Wick movie came out less than a decade ago and looked nothing like anything else at the multiplex; Creed III might be an offshoot of the Rocky franchise, but to a generation of younger moviegoers, this is the series where Michael B. Jordan punches people with his shirt off; and The Super Mario Bros. Movie is based on a video game popular with kids who’ve never seen anything like that on the big screen. Most of the other big successes with Gen-Z have been horror movies, both part of franchises like Insidious and Scream, and new standalones, such as M3GAN and Cocaine Bear.
Additionally, beyond the biggest shocks of the summer, other older franchises are continuing to struggle. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts was supposed to be a return to glory for the Autobots series, and to date it has failed to gross $450 million. By comparison the Transformers movie that ended Michael Bay’s previously billion-dollar-an-entry-grossing run with the IP, Transformers: The Last Knight, still was able to collect $605 million in 2017. Meanwhile Fast & Furious continues to make money, but Fast X tapped out at $704 million when just two installments earlier, the franchise was grossing $1.2 billion for The Fate of the Furious (also 2017). This, unlike the marketing, is what really suggests the end of the road really is nigh.
For the last 20-plus years, studios have bet on IP-familiarity and repetition to fuel their quarterly reports. Yet in the process, they’ve generally failed to create new franchises or pursue risks with new filmmakers who could reshape the industry. Even Spielberg produced the $295 million-budgeted Dial of Destiny (which like Dead Reckoning saw its already pricy costs balloon due to COVID shutdowns and safety procedures). Some might suggest audiences are just accustomed now to stay home after the pandemic, however the massive success of films like Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, and The Super Mario Bros. Movie suggest otherwise.
Hence why studio CEOs are beginning to obliquely acknowledge the rules of the game are changing. Last week, the once and future Disney CEO Bob Iger suggested Marvel’s current troubles outside of Guardians is because of corporate insistence that they produce Disney+ TV shows in addition to an increased output of films. “Frankly, it diluted focus and attention.” He’s not wrong. Although he failed to mention the same is true for Star Wars after he publicly announced Disney would release “one Star Wars movie a year” forever beginning in 2015, and while also pushing Lucasfilm to begin producing Star Wars-related content for Disney+, beginning in 2019 and ahead of his first retirement.
It would seem the old formula is no longer working, and there is a noticeable lack of innovation or attempts to create new characters that younger audiences might love as well as an aging one does Indy and Ethan Hunt. At the very least, spending $300 million on these type of movies and anticipating a billion-dollar gross is no longer a sustainable model.
Spielberg’s implosion is not quite here, but this summer is alerting the industry to some very loud cracks in the hull. So it may be to the industry’s peril if they keep plumbing the depths of their IP libraries and assume everything is going to be fine.