Desperately Seeking Sanity: The Failing Economics of Summer Cinema

Posted: August 4, 2016 in Uncategorized
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Money Money MoneyThe oft-cited smart ass definition of insanity is the act of doing the exact same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Week in, week out during the summer of 2016, we have seen a vivid illustration of textbook corporate insanity, courtesy of the Hollywood studios. With metronome frequency, a new release  – new being relative as it is most often the case a sequel or reboot – comes out on Friday (Thursday night, actually). It plays wide, underperforms at the box office, is ravaged by critics not on the payroll or motivated to see their name in blurbs, falls off a cliff in its second week in the theaters, and then is forgotten.

Wise men of the moment a few years back predicted that this would be the future of American cinema (minus the staggering failures). The studios would release only a handful of films, strictly would-be blockbusters, consisting of superhero sagas, retreads of reruns, or action features packaging the next Schwarzenegger (or absent that, the old – very old – Schwarzenegger himself). The reason, we were told, is that the movies don’t matter any more. It’s all about the “properties.” The money is in the toys and the amusement park rides. It may be time to do a rethink. The only future for Warcraft action figures is a spot on the shelf of Comic Book Guy’s store on a future episode of The Simpsons. And the line to get on the X-Men:Apocalypse ride at Krustyland is likely to be a short one.

The only sure bets seem to be animated features and the Marvel Universe, and Hollywood will inevitably draw heavily from both those wells until they are dry holes. Summer 2016 has been an abysmal time at the cinema, critically and financially. The template of the 200 million dollar movie is broken, and while no one is ever held accountable for producing crap, heads do roll when the crap doesn’t sell. If you stopped by your neighborhood cineplex this summer and wandered into the IMAX theater for a showing of any film after its opening weekend, you would likely see it at less than 30 percent capacity. In some instances, less than 10. And for Alice Through the Looking Glass, you would have the whole place to yourself. Somebody, or somebodies, gotta go.

In the short run, nothing will change. The summer schedule for the next two-to-three years is largely set. But on the margins and going forward, there is an opportunity for change. One modest proposal is that instead of budgeting 200 million dollars for a single film and gambling a good bit of a studio’s resources and prestige on a single movie, green light 10 movies for 20 million each, or 20 for 10 million each, or some similar increment. This isn’t rocket science. Give yourself more chances for the golden ticket. Don’t put it all on one Wonka bar.

Hey, J.J. Abrams, are you listening? You are at least partly responsible for one of the most horrific films of the summer. You produced Star Trek: Beyond, which might actually kill that beloved franchise. Cost of the execrable exercise was $185 million. Worldwide box office to date has been $169.4 million. Earlier this year, Abrams also held the producer’s credit for 10 Cloverfield Lane. The bottom line there: $108.3 take on a $15 million dollar budget. The technical term for that ratio is Ka-Ching! Oh, and it was a damn fun flick as well.

There are other examples where less is more when it comes to budget and box office. Me Before You cost $20 million and brought in $188 million.The relevant numbers for Miracles from Heaven: $$13 million and $73.6 million; The Shallows: $17 million and $68 million; Lights Out: $4.9 million and $67.5 million; The Purge: Election Year $10 million and $96.1 million.

Yes, genre films can save summer cinema. Crank up the dream factory, sprinkle it with seed money, start with the script, and rely on young talent. Will it happen? Will Hollywood put aside its fixation with bigger numbers and stop risking huge amounts on tired ideas and unlikeable stars? Will we get a wider choice and a broader exposure to new cinematic possibilities?

Nah, not a chance.

(Budget figures courtesy of IMDb and box office numbers from Box Office Mojo – two indispensable web sites.)

 

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