The Box Office is Fine, It’s the Movies That Got Small

The summer box office is going downward. But the moviegoers aren't the problem in this case...

This article was originally published in the Den of Geek magazine SDCC special edition. Click here to view the full issue.

The American box office is fine this year. Don’t panic. Feel better? You should, because it’s the truth. In recent months, a familiar narrative has taken hold of Hollywood trade publications and industry gossip: audience attendance and ticket receipts are down this season. Again. Could moviegoing possibly be dying?

It’s an enticing rationalization for this seemingly annual quagmire. With the advent of peak television, social media mobilization, video games, and a myriad of other distractions for younger audiences, going to a multiplex appears increasingly antiquated. This rationale, and the scapegoating of low Rotten Tomatoes review scores, is often used to explain away uncomfortably soft opening weekends. For instance, these were the familiar rationalizations when The Mummy debuted with a deadly $31.7 million, a number that could haunt Universal’s Dark Universe for the rest of its franchised life. Yet during that same timeframe, Wonder Woman proved a boffo miracle, dropping a mere 41.8 percent in its second weekend and showing the kind of legs that were thought to be a thing of the distant past. By comparison, almost everything else in the early summer seemed to be doom and gloom.

Take comScore’s grim prognosis last month, lamenting that May (a summer month in Tinstletown) saw box office revenues drop 10 percent from what they were in May 2016, and a total of 20 percent from what they were during the early beach season in 2015. It’s a disheartening trend for moviemakers and one that should be studied and learned from. But perhaps the solution was already gift-wrapped for studio decision-makers in 2017.

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Indeed, just a few short months ago, exhibitors were crowing about how brazenly successful early spring and late winter were. Often known as the dumping ground months for movies with little wide or critical appeal, studios are traditionally happy if a few of the more prestigious efforts that bowed in limited release over Christmas might overperform during the months of January or February due to an Oscar nomination bump. But the first three months of 2017 saw a staggering increase in movie attendance, up 5.5 percent from 2016 and with more tickets sold than at any point in the same timeframe since 2004.

In other words, the beginning of 2017 saw movie theaters’ best American run in over a decade, and with tickets being purchased like the 1990s never went out of style. Buzzfeed noted the trend in March and openly wondered if it were merely a political backlash—flocks of liberals rushing to a movie theater so as to quell their anxiety over the events of Jan. 20. Maybe that is the case for a few of the films that blew up with audiences, as moviegoing has always been a preferred form of escapism since the Great Depression. But considering things are just as dire now as they were six months ago, a more likely explanation for a sunny springtime and the currently hellish heatwave is the actual movies themselves.

As per tradition, the beginning of the year is a time for holiday blockbusters to finish mopping up while smaller fare struggles for mainstream credibility, and schlock sinks after its first weekend. All of these elements were in play too—Rogue One: A Star Wars Story earned a total of $532.2 million in the U.S. while Resident Evil and Underworld both failed to clear $35 million (or even $30 million in what hopefully is the actual “Final Chapter” of Milla Jovovich’s zombie series).

And yet, an interesting thing happened in the margins. Original, medium-budgeted films that had as much appeal for adults, if not more so, opened strong and then played even better while reaching a variety of different audiences. Whereas the summer movie season tends to target “four-quadrant” audiences (i.e. everyone), the underlying reality is that they need to be most accessible to young moviegoers, preferably teenagers. Teens are the ones who have the most free-time after Memorial Day, and disposable income to burn without a bar in sight to distract them. Nevertheless, this spring saw movies that might have that appeal without being specifically engineered for a chosen audience.

Watch Get Out on Amazon

On the Oscar season side, more than being critical or highbrow industry darlings, both La La Land and Hidden Figures were genuine crowd-pleasers that pursued a creative vision first and foremost. They also were given enough money that only studios, namely Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox, could pay for them. For their efforts, they were rewarded not only with Oscar love but a massive embrace by the public.

If any movie’s success was a reaction to a disappointing political season, it was likely these life-affirming events, one a musical fantasy in the mold of 1930s hits from yesteryear, and the other the most aspirational of biopics about three women of color overcoming institutional racism to help NASA succeed in the space race. La La Land made $151 million and Hidden Figures earned $169 million domestically. Neither cost more than $30 million to produce. That’s a budget out of reach for most independent efforts, but something Hollywood has likewise been too recalcitrant with in recent years.

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Meanwhile seasonal genre offerings both saw two eyebrow raising nine-figure earners in North America. Conventional wisdom would suggest this is unusual, but not when they are of the quality of Split ($138 million earned) and Get Out ($176 million), both of which Blumhouse Productions spent less than $10 million to produce. Even so, each featured topnotch talent in front of and behind the camera, and both offered a compelling screenplay that either gave James McAvoy a feast of scenery to chew or politically challenged audiences (even those supposedly aggrieved liberal ones) on hot button issues in a fun, clever, and entertaining way.

None of these movies cater to the same broad audience, yet all of them found plenty of box office dollars in a moviegoing era that is now drowning in summer tentpole sameness. Even the tentpoles that also crossed over $100 million in the U.S. tended to be a bit different from their peers. The first which wasn’t Star Wars targeted a decidedly older and mostly female demographic—Fifty Shades Darker. Beauty and the Beast, meanwhile, granted Disney another $500 million-earner in the U.S. And like La La Land, it was a musical, and thus purportedly borne from a niche genre. Also similar to La La Land, it sets up no prequels, sequels, or shared universes. But it gives a definitively satisfying story.

Perhaps though the most telling of the traditional blockbusters in 2017 remains Logan. It’s a movie that obviously would be a bit different from its inception, as Den of Geek learned in early 2016 that it was always intended to go for an R-rating. In addition to being extra violent, however, was the realization that this was not necessarily a sequel or part of a larger universe; it was a standalone and hopelessly nihilistic Western about mortality.

James Mangold explicitly explained how his blood-splattered anti-superhero movie was liberated to make something of a higher intelligence and quality simply by not trying to appeal to everyone or by jumping on industry bandwagons. While speaking with Rolling Stone, Mangold said:

“[A rating] also frees you to make a more interesting movie. And the reason is that there’s a marketing machine in every one of these studios that is extremely powerful… And if the film is a four-box film—that is, children, boys and girls, grownups, men and women—then there are avenues that then become exploitable in all directions.

“The second the movie is R, those two boxes for children disappear. They’re off the table. That means you lose pressure about scene length. You lose the worry of, can you talk about that in front of children? Can the scene go on longer than 28 seconds? The demand for the cute character or or the stuffed creature that will become an action figure…. the movie suddenly never gets another note aimed basically at making sure the plot is decipherable for a nine-year-old child.”

Again, this does not mean you cannot make good films that appeal to all ages. Beauty and the Beast is a standalone cultural juggernaut and Wonder Woman has been a runaway success. The latter is also fairly unique for a modern blockbuster,. harkening back to the grand adventure stories in the mold of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even a superhero movie can still be refreshing with the right directorial hand in this age of endless repetition.

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In contrast to Patty Jenkins’ marvelous affection for Wonder Woman, The Mummy appeared to be part of a marketing strategy. It was a finished film that’s as emotionally heartfelt as the Dark Universe press announcement that preceded it; seemingly little more than a studio raiding its ancient IPs to find something that can compete in this modern marketplace of shared universes. Does it matter that the Universal Monsters haven’t been seriously attempted in years or that none were originally conceived as action spectacles? In theory, it wasn’t supposed to. It was supposed to be good business.

If The Mummy is a horror monster, then make Tom Cruise the new face of all Egyptian magic going forward. And do it while introducing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and with plenty of easter egg nods to Dracula, Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and every other familiar icon that can be codified into a new marketing strategy.

These mistakes are not that different from the ones experienced by Warner Bros. last month in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Like Mummy, WB tried to produce a movie that appeals to everyone (or no one) by mismatching a dozen ideas together in the hopes of getting many more sequels and spin-offs. Guy Ritchie did indeed publicly speak of this being the potential first of six movies about Arthur’s journey. After all, this is now a superhero origin story, complete with copious amounts of CGI and PG-13 superpowered smackdowns. That’s what audiences want, right?

Judging by how King Arthur has failed to clear $40 million domestically, I would say not. And when accompanied in a season of franchises in their fifth or sixth installments (Pirates of the Caribbean and Alien, respectively), and without an ounce of resolution or finality among them, it becomes a blur of franchise-building nausea.

Watch Logan on Amazon

This does not mean the box office or moviegoing is in trouble. To the contrary, this past spring showed a cornucopia of options that appealed to horror fans, biopic lovers, musical romantics, erotica enthusiasts, older action fans craving some finality and drama in their superheroism, and even all ages for a tale as old as time. It turns out, the interest in moviegoing is just as enduring. So as the studios’ retreat into the supposed “sure thing” of summer tentpoles, perhaps Steven Spielberg’s warning of an industry implosion for that type of moviemaking has more bite?

Or to paraphrase a different, fictional screen legend, interest in going to the movies is big; it’s the pictures that got small.

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