by Joshua Coonrod
So far, 2014’s highest grossing “summer movie” (in what now seems like a four-and-a-half-month “summer”) was Captain America: The Winter Soldier with about $260m. That’s the lowest domestic gross for the summer’s biggest hit since Mission: Impossible II in 2000, and it was reached with the addition of inflation, 3D and IMAX. I’m not about to make a sky-is-falling claim here; there were a lot of factors and coincidences that went into having a crop of blockbusters that didn’t reach the heights of any of the past 13 years.
But when the equation used to be $300–400m = blockbuster franchise, it’s worth stopping to ponder what these shifting numbers mean for the future of the biggest of Hollywood business. The endless franchises are running thin, not imploding. Last summer, every film nerd with an IP address was reposting Spielberg’s comments about the inevitable demise of Hollywood’s current mega-budget system. All fingers pointed to The Lone Ranger as the most obvious canary in the projection booth.
But as Scott Beggs pointed out, the reality is that every trend in film, and even the most standard modes of productions, eventually change. This summer, we got a sense of what that shift might actually look like. As opposed to bomb after bomb, we saw slowly declining receipts, making for the lowest domestic grosses for Spider-Man and Transformers movies to date. Despite the critical raves for X-Men: Days of Future Past and Hugh Jackman’s boasts about how much it cost, it couldn’t even reach the heights that the much maligned X-Men: The Last Stand did in 2005 (again, minus inflation and 3D.) Even arguably the most beloved on the summer entries, the next-level technological wonder Dawn of the Planet of the Apes won’t push too far past $200m at home.
True, these franchises do better overseas, yet even in the ever-expanding foreign market, numbers eventually tend to follow U.S. trends. In short, despite most of these projects being at least decently received by their audiences, and many given the highest applause, they couldn’t get past a certain ceiling. The question becomes – as audiences get accustomed to seeing their favorite characters in cinemas on a regular basis, formerly new properties get drained of their original charms, and the latest technology rarely takes us anywhere new onscreen – how low can that ceiling go? At what point is the guaranteed box office left in a formerly great Saturday morning cartoon just not enough?
The money’s not just in the box office
The damnedest thing is, we don’t know what’s happening. Sure, we’ve seen franchises peter out in the last few years. $132m and bad word-of-mouth was as far as Fantastic Four could drop until we had to wait six year to give it another go. But as every article on Transformers: Age of Extinction’s box office pointed out this summer, when it comes to spectacle, the biggest numbers are overseas. As theaters are built across the world everyday, and film-going cultures like China’s surpass the U.S.’s in size, films production decisions are made with a global box office in mind. But even those numbers can’t be considered steady. $644m worldwide gets Thor an indefinite sequel, but $713m gets Captain America 3 promoted ahead of it to the plum post-Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3-slot. Is the choice entirely based on those numbers, or does it have to do with ole’ Cap boosting the ratings and ad dollars for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and selling more merch (because who doesn’t own that shirt with Captain America’s shield on it by now?)
Two Hulk duds in the past make a third movie into a risky proposition, but how much more is it worth after the audience’s embrace of Mark Ruffalo and their response to Thor: The Dark World? The domestic ceiling might be $260m this summer, but increasingly, that can mean a lot of things.
Schedules are getting too packed
It used to be that every studio had a tentpole – because that was the point. You only need one to ensure your survival, but as studios quadruple down, it seems we’re seeing The Biggest, Most Important Film Ever hit theaters every damn weekend. There’s only so much room for that bombastic rhetoric before audience are exhausted and immune to it. Who cares if Spider-Man is facing his Greatest Challenge Ever if Godzilla is going to be literally laying waste to the entire west coast in two weeks? How much does the Transformer (re-)invasion matter if the entire world is going to be an apocalyptic, ape-run landscape a few days later? The specialness of these grand spectacles fades week after week, and suddenly the most realistic CGI ape isn’t worth half what it could have been.
The biggest spectacles aren’t guaranteed to be the biggest blockbusters
What’s the biggest franchise right now? Marvel might be churning the most consistent string of hits, but only one of those films has managed to top either of The Hunger Games films.(Okay, Iron Man 3 – with every resource on the face of the earth – squeaked past the first one by a million bucks.)
What’s interesting is that as Hollywood goes into massive-budget, special effects overdrive to keep people coming into the theaters, a series of films that largely avoids grandiose spectacle is connecting with people the most. Why? Various factors: Jennifer Lawrence’s good old-fashioned star power, connecting with female audience in a way that terrifies most major studios, adapting a story with a lot of cultural cache that hasn’t been filmed a million times already. Hate ‘tween lit all you want, but it seems to be one of the few things proving people will show up for something other than superheroes and urban destruction. And it’s proving you can snag the masses without the choking risk of trying to swallow your effects budget.
Don’t bank on those dates in 2020
It might seem like we can see miles into the future because Marvel, DC, and Sony have been reserving dates like the world’s about to end. But as Scott pointed out, those dates were planted at the very same time DC moved the date of arguably their biggest film. Another way of looking at it, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 made $200m in America this year, and another $500m overseas – and that amount still had Sony stomping the brakes. In short, while X-Men: DOFP’s $741m might be celebrated by Fox, it’s only because they know the X-Men franchise has yet to be proven to be worth much more. If a single entry in a top-tier franchise like Batman, Superman, or Spidey doesn’t yield significant enough returns, it’s enough to throw a whole decades-long plan out of whack. Hell, one might even argue that it reveals these decades-long plans mainly exist to the sell the most current movie in the franchise. Doesn’t seem much crazier than DC and WB sending us into Batman v. Superman information-overload for the thirteen months, despite the film not coming out for two more years.
So while studios try to hammer the long-term film schedule into an ever more concrete state, the actual numbers point to an industry mutating in ways that directly undermine those attempts. Don’t get me wrong; the business of blockbuster franchises isn’t dying out anytime soon. But with Untitled DC Film scheduled for almost every year through November 2020, “soon” isn’t what we’re talking about anymore. When the most expensive of franchise films keep costing more and making less than the films that came before, maybe it’s time to stop planning to steer the course for six years into the future and realize the model is changing faster than we’re comprehending.
“Josh is currently a PhD student in communications at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he researches horror and independent film. He hails from Rolla, Missouri, works with the Dark Carnival Film Festival (not ICP-related) and writes on occasion for Into The Dark.”