When you’re a smaller studio without the resources of one of the Big Six (and these days, even they vary in the kinds and sizes of films they can make on their own), your attitude and strategy has to be a bit different from the norm. There are too many other factors to consider when putting together a slate, especially when the same resources just don’t exist for you. One facet of this plan is to target and develop popular literary properties that can be turned into successful, year-defining franchises.
And since Lionsgate is now in the crosshairs, it’s time to talk about that strategy, as well as what happens when it doesn’t work out so well, because after eight years of what can only be defined as smashing success with the Twilight, Hunger Games and Divergent series, the first misstep occurred in March. That’s when Allegiant, the third Divergent movie (out of a planned four), went right in the tank, and as a result, the budget for the final film, Ascendant, was slashed, and the question was asked yet again about the wisdom of splitting the final book of a literary series into two parts.
Of course, this had worked rather well with both the previous series, though, to be fair, the first four movies in the Twilight saga were released under the auspices of Summit Releasing, before it merged with Lionsgate in 2012. Still, the top five grossers in the mini-major’s history are that fifth Twilight movie and all four Hunger Games joints.
Numbers six and seven on the list? Yup. Divergent and Insurgent, with $150 million and $130 million in domestic grosses, respectively (as well as $297 million and $288 million worldwide), so it’s not like the strategy hadn’t been working pretty well, up to now.
That final Divergent movie is still on the schedule, set to hit theaters 11 months from now, but there’s a lot on the slate between now and then. As in, 30 films scheduled for release from the mini-major, which, now that I’m writing it a second time, does seem like something of an oxymoron, doesn’t it?
So, yeah, 30 movies between now and next June, with Woody Allen’s latest the first up. But before we get into too much detail about what that stretch holds, let’s look at the first half of this year, which hasn’t exactly been one for the record books.
Allegiant’s disappointing box office — $66 million domestic/$179 million worldwide on a budget in the $110-120 million range — still ranks it as the highest domestic grosser on the company’s slate, though Now You See Me 2, another attempt at a new franchise that appears to have hit a dead end, has cleared $215 million worldwide, in spite of just $51 million domestic, less than half the total of its predecessor. Of the other eight new releases that hit screens in 2016, only the poorly reviewed Dirty Grandpa (with $35 million) and the controversial #whitewashing lightning rod Gods of Egypt ($31 million) have cleared the $30 million mark in domestic grosses (though, full disclosure, both did much better globally, with Grandpa ending with $94 million and Gods with $144 million, and Lionsgate had minimal financial exposure to the latter, anyway).
Essentially, the 10 movies the studio has thus far released have averaged about $25 million domestically, which isn’t great. That average jumps to just shy of $70 million global, which is certainly a lot better, but it’s still not exactly the stuff that dreams are made of.
Or, at least, that would be the case for a distributor which focused on big budget tentpoles to carry the day. Luckily, that’s not how Lionsgate rolls, which means that, even as its most recent major franchise stumbled, there are enough other projects on the horizon — including at least one that could challenge the Hunger Games franchise’s dominance at the top of the company’s box office list — to pick up the slack.
The thing about most studios is that, if a major release fails, it sets everything back and there is at least a small sense of panic for the stretch of time (maybe a few weeks, maybe a couple months) until the next film hits theaters. If that happens with Lionsgate, however, all they have to do is wait a week or two for the next one to show up. Literally. As in, there are 25 movies on the 2016 schedule, and while there are so far only eight set for next year, that number will increase dramatically. Doubt it? The company put out 24 movies in 2015, 18 in 2014 and 21 in 2013, for a total of 63, more than any other distributor in Hollywood other than Warner Bros.
With a few exceptions, the movies on the slate are the same medium-budgeted films that the other studios don’t necessarily make anymore, which allows Lionsgate to go after an audience that is otherwise being ignored. Yes, there is a lot of genre fare in there, but when you look at the rather impressive slate of films set for year’s end, there is also a lot of potential Oscar bait.
Speaking of that, it begins next week with Cafe Society, Woody’s new movie, but his stuff doesn’t exactly set the box office on fire. More likely to score at least a small win is the millennial adrenaline rush Nerve, followed by the period heist film Hell or High Water (with Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges), as well as the fourth installment in the increasingly lucrative Mechanic series (each new film has outperformed the last one), which hit theaters, in order, July 27th, August 12th and August 26th. All are relatively smaller films, slipped into the second half of a summer season that has been something of a disappointment across the board.
After that, there are three movies scheduled for September and four for October, with a mix of highbrow awards hopefuls (Deepwater Horizon and American Pastoral), genre pictures (The Woods, an untitled horror film and a new flick in the ever audience-shedding Madea series), animation (The Wild Life) and both a Spanish language film (No Manches Frida) and the adaptation of a bestselling YA novel (Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life).
The last three movies on the slate are Mel Gibson’s directorial comeback, the World War II epic Hacksaw Ridge (already getting spectacular buzz), Damien Chazelle’s musical followup to his Oscar-winning Whiplash, La La Land, with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and the second Peter Berg-Mark Wahlberg film to come out after Labor Day, Patriots Day, a film the company is so excited about, it moved the release date up to Christmas weekend to make sure it qualifies for awards season.
Moving into 2017, things get especially interesting again, with the February arrival of John Wick: Chapter Two, and then six weeks later comes that other potential franchise I mentioned above, the rebooted Power Rangers, which is being planned for a six-movie series.
There are a couple other movies set for the first half of next year, including the new film from The Perks of Being a Wallflower director Stephen Chbosky, Wonder, starring Julia Roberts, and the comedy from actor-director Ken Marino, How to be a Latin Lover, and later in the year are the firefighter thriller Granite Mountain (with an extremely impressive cast that includes Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, Taylor Kitsch and James Badge Dale) and the animated My Little Pony feature. Looks like a pretty solid base to me.
For most of the studios, total grosses and market share are important numbers. Lionsgate currently sits seventh, not far behind sixth place Sony, and every now and again, it will sneak past one or two of the others to crack the top five (it happened in 2012 and 2013), but it’s far less important to them for a couple reasons. Aside from the fact that it’s just a smaller company than the studios, there’s also that business model. Whereas the studios need a bunch of big hits and home runs to stay relevant, Lionsgate only needs to hit a few singles and doubles, and hope that one big grand slam will give it an especially good year.
Those hits haven’t really landed yet in 2016, but with half the year left and so many films still on the release slate, a few shots are bound to fall in. A home run isn’t so likely, but then again, it’s not necessarily needed, either.
P.S. — You might notice that I have ignored the elephant in the room, that being the company’s purchase last week of the Starz network. I haven’t ignored it, it just doesn’t quite fit here. Come back on Friday. I’ll talk about it then.
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Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN Insider.