So, we’re halfway through the Summer Movie Season, and, as mentioned last week whilst discussing the virtues and benefits of Edgar Wright’s little slice of cinematic cotton candy, we’re stuck in the doldrums here. The box office is lackluster at best, with major, proven entities coming up lame, and poorly marketed comedies not picking up the slack.
Sure, there are a couple bonafide winners here, like the aforementioned Baby Driver, and the two superhero movies, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Wonder Woman, and Pirates 5 did enough foreign business to potentially lead to a sixth installment, thus carrying on the tradition of letting us see Johnny Depp’s slow, gradual slide into irrelevance played out on a grand scale every third summer or so, but those aside, disappointment abounds.
If this is the midterms section of the season, we’re looking at a D, and that grade is right on the precipice of a D-minus. Maybe even an F. And do you know why?
Because we’re bored. We are bored to tears of the same old, same old. The studios keep shoving these giant tent poles down our throats and, while the foreign audiences still seem to be digging them (especially China), more and more we’re responding with a giant shrug. I wouldn’t say we’re madder than hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore, but we certainly are indifferent as heck, and we’re only going to do this for another little while before we throw up our hands, say, “Meh!” and stop showing up entirely.
It’s why the lesson of Baby Driver is an important one: we do want original content that isn’t necessarily tied to the same old IP’s. Shared Universes are a great idea in theory, but less so in actual practice. That’s one of the reasons why The Mummy failed, because it was so busy building a reality that it didn’t spend enough time telling a cohesive story. Which is why it’s going to lose almost $100 million for Universal.
It’s also why nobody really cares about a Transformers universe and a Bumblebee origin story, or whatever, especially since so few people showed up for the new Transformers flick, which was a solid disappointment. So, too, was Cars 3, as was this past weekend’s Despicable Me 3, both of which came in well under expectations. We’ve got a new Spider-Man movie coming out this weekend which should do some solid business, but if we’re going to make any predictions, I think it’s probably prudent to come in a few million lower than whatever the highest projections might be.
20th Century Fox
It’s worth mentioning again that there are only five movies thus far to clear $100 million domestically this summer, and while Despicable Me 3 will get there next week, and Spidey will do it pretty quickly, too, this summer’s total is going to be less than last summer’s 15. A lot less. We can come back in a couple months and see what the final total is, but taking a peak at the release schedule, I’ll go on a limb and say that War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets all have legitimate shots to join the club, with anything else being something of a shock. That makes 10.
The last time there were that few $100 million films in a summer? That would be 2005. Yikes.
Now, I know what you’re going to say: “But, Neil, Bubby, what about the original studio comedies that have failed, like Snatched, and Rough Night, and The House? All of those were original content films, all studio movies, what happened there, Mr. Smart Guy?”
Well, in order, Amy Schumer is talented, but — as we have previously discussed in this space — not a movie star draw, and there’s no reason to spend $42 million on a comedy starring her and Goldie Hawn. Spend half that amount, and that movie breaks even. Rough Night comes from Columbia Pictures, which has been on a rough spell and has been so focused on launching Spider-Man: Homecoming, that this movie got lost in the marketing shuffle, while The House is a New Line film that — as we have also discussed previously in this space — Warner Bros.’ publicity department had little interest in pushing. (Also, there’s the fact that Will Ferrell is not the draw he used to be, but that’s less important for these purposes than pointing out the failures of the studio which released the movie and, essentially, allowed it to fail.)
Also important, pointing out the success of films like 47 Meters Down, Megan Leavey, and It Comes at Night, not to mention indies like Beatriz at Dinner, The Big Sick, The Lovers, The Hero, and The Beguiled, most of which have not cleared $5 million domestically, but all of which are judged on an entirely different scale than the studio flicks at the top of the box office grosses list.
All of which is to say that the audience on whom the studios have been counting for so much of its overblown tent pole fare just isn’t showing up, because it is suddenly aware that these things being offered as new and exciting are really all stuff that we’ve seen before. Over and over again, in fact, and we’re exhausted. We are suffering from Franchise Fatigue, and it’s not like the prescription is more cowbell.
This isn’t just starting this summer, either. Go back to last year, and there are plenty of lower cost, original content films that came out and did outstanding business, like Central Intelligence, Bad Moms, Sausage Party, Don’t Breathe, Lights Out, and The Shallows.
Yes, last summer’s blockbusters did better business than this year’s, but the trend was at least in sight a year ago, so it’s not like anyone can say this snuck up on us. It didn’t. It’s been coming for a while now. People like me have been talking about this and warning the studios about it for ages, but the studios haven’t been paying attention because they’ve been too busy burying their heads in the sand and saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! It’s not true because I don’t want it to be true because this is the way we’ve been doing it for so long that we don’t know how to do it any other way and don’t want to relearn how even if it kills us and destroys the business we’re in because we’re just that stubborn!”
It’s possible that the second half of the summer could surprise us and come up with enough hits to balance things out, but don’t count on it. Truth be told, it’s just too late to save 2017. It might even be too late to save 2018, in fact, what with release schedules and slates set so far in advance. That’s a shame, but all hope isn’t lost quite yet. There is still 2019, 2020, and beyond, all of which are still redeemable. All the studios have to do is look at what’s happening and adjust course. Rethink a couple of those questionable IP choices and replace them with interesting and engaging original ideas from talented filmmakers who know how to tell entertaining stories. Let the audience know that it is being heard, that its desires to see things it hasn’t actually seen before will be met, that its patronage is not only key, but also the very lifeblood of the industry, and its will is not being ignored.
The question is, are we actually going to learn anything from this? One can hope, of course, but then we remember exactly with whom we are dealing, and that the studios don’t take lessons nearly as well as the rest of us do.
Still, hope does spring eternal. Ideally, it will be rewarded, but I’m not holding my breath.