The Summer That Broke Hollywood

July 26, 2013

Everyone knew this day would come. That Hollywood’s reliance on bloated, expensive, CGI superhero tentpole films couldn’t last forever.

And yet, year after year, blockbusters that cost $200 million or more to make dominated summers that now stretched from April to September. Dozens of gigantic blockbusters released each year with stories consisting of mostly undifferentiated destruction porn, each in an arms race to be the biggest, loudest, most over-the-top spectacle.

But audiences got worn out, the studios got greedy, and this summer, more than others certainly, it all went to hell.

One analyst called the summer of 2013 “the most crowded release slate in recent memory,” with nearly 20 movies with budgets over $100 million entering the fray. But with only so much oxygen in the room, the analyst predicted that “at most nine of these are likely to achieve a level of box office success justifying their cost.”

That was in the beginning of May. Now, as the summer days wind down, we’re able to see he was spot on. And actually, probably being overly conservative. Because while there have been successes, “Iron Man 3” made more than $1.2 billion worldwide on a budget of nearly $220 million, there has also been bomb, after bomb, after money-losing bomb.

the-lone-rangerTake for instance “The Lone Ranger,” by no means the worst performing movie of the summer. The budget was an idiotic $215 million, not to mention the nearly $200 million on advertising worldwide to open it, and it has so far grossed a paltry $150 million worldwide. When all is said and done, it could easily have cost Disney more than $150 million.

But it gets worse. “R.I.P.D”, the Jeff Bridges/Ryan Reynolds “Ghostbusters”-meets-“Men in Black” amalgam opened last week in seventh place at the box office, grossing only $24 million worldwide, with Universal spending nearly $155 million (!!) to make the movie and probably at least $100M to market it. And the list goes on.

Sony succumbed to hubris by thinking their “Died Hard in the White House” film would be so much better than the Gerard Butler vehicle “Olympus Has Fallen” released not three months sooner. The verdict? Just $95 million worldwide on a budget north of $150 million.

“Pacific Rim” is sitting at $185M worldwide on a budget of more than $220 million, which means at best it will be a financial wash. Will Smith’s “After Earth” crash landed at $235 million off a budget of more than $150 million, and while that may look like success, the accepted back-of-the-envelope math states that a movie should gross more than double it’s production budget worldwide to break even.

The-ConjuringTo add insult to injury, this “movies have to be expensive to be successful” mantra is dashed even further by the success of the little guys. Just last weekend, James Wan’s fantastic horror flick “The Conjuring” opened No. 1 ahead of typically successful Dreamworks Animation’s “Turbo” and the aforementioned cadaver “R.I.P.D”, grossing more than $60 million worldwide on its “expensive” (by horror standards) budget of $20 million.

“The Purge,” a $3 million horror flick, has so far grossed $77 million worldwide. It’s not just genre films though, as audiences are (shocker!) seeking out movies that are just good. “This is the End” a lewd, and hilarious, end-of-the-world comedy has made more than $100 million off its $30 million budget. Even a comic like Kevin Hart is sticking it to the studios, with his self-funded $3 million stand-up film grossing an amazing $30 million or more.

It’s not just the numbers that matter, however, it’s that audiences have thrown up their hands in disgust, growing tired of being force-fed the same big-budget pap disguised in brand new CGI wrapping. They have rejected the notion that everyone will want to pay $14 to go see movies clearly reverse engineered for the ids of boys and men aged 13 to 25.

Hollywood is shocked to see that there are other audiences that may pay to go see movies, like (gasp!!) women. “The Heat,” the action/comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, has so far grossed more than $155M off its budget of just $40 million. Audiences are voting with their money by either staying away from the box office or paying to see smaller, art house gems like Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” and Richard Linklater’s brilliant “Before Midnight”. Both wildly successful.

At its core, what this summer has proven is that Hollywood is fundamentally broken. A recent Esquire piece has dubbed this “the rise of the Moviecoaster” and it couldn’t be more spot on.

Movies designed to be clangorous spectacles but also reverse engineered to be theme park rides, video games, action figures, and comic book tie-ins. No longer do movies have to be “good”, do stories have to be “well told. Rather, in the eyes of studios, they simply have to be the biggest gorilla in the room. They are made to be seen by 100M people and therefore must cater to 100M varying tastes. Yet by doing so they cater to no taste at all. They exist for their own existence. Solely to be packaged, merchandised, and added to a portfolio of a corporations exploitable IP.

But it has to change. Studios can’t keep playing Russian roulette on “sure fire” hits that cost $500 million or more to make and market.

And just think, if Disney did something as radical as taking the $215 million it spent to lose money on “The Lone Ranger” and instead made 10 movies that each cost $20 million, what would happen? Their risk would be dispersed, some may lose a small amount of money, most would break even or make a reasonable profit, but one or two would be very successful.

What’s even crazier? They could actual make movies based upon whether or not they were good. Investing in the visions of writers and directors to make movies that audiences would actual want to pay to see. If audiences started going back to the movie theaters, then there’s no reason why big, summer movies can’t exist. There just can’t, and shouldn’t, be 15-20 $100M+ films every summer.

So what’s next? Hollywood will lick its wounds, count its small victories as larger ones, and continue doing what it’s doing. The lesson they’ll learn from “The Loan Ranger” — “Don’t make westerns.” Right? It has to be the genre and not the fact that it was a bloated, terrible film that no one wanted, based on a property that their target demographic had probably never heard of. Instead they’ll retreat even further into superhero movies, comic book properties, and beating the life out of every possible franchise they can.

Hopefully though, at some point, they’ll realize that there is a diverse audience that wants to see a diverse slate of movies. That what most audiences want are movies that are simply good. Not everyone wants to see cities get turned to rubble. Hopefully, Hollywood will learn there is money to be made on quality films. But, then again, they probably won’t.