2016’s Summer Blockbuster Wasteland

Now that Labor Day has past, we’re officially out of Summer, those who are wont to assess how the film industry did during its summer blockbuster season don’t need to wait to write what many were already musing about in early August: this year has been terrible.

Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff details this in the site’s Winners/Losers style in a method that’s very focused on the facts of what did well and what didn’t (many articles analyzing Hollywood’s fortunes at the box office tend to have some prescriptive scolding sneak in). I take solace in the fact that lower budgeted features have proven to have some great returns-on-investment. For filmmakers making films designed to be acquired (versus commissioned by the studios), this is hopeful news.

On the other hand is Peter Suderman’s assessment of Hollywoods’s woes, also in Vox. Suderman is a bit more scolding as he feels Hollywood is being lazy and formulaic (a common gripe). However, he does go further with the premise that, with the ballooning of “blockbuster” budgets from $100 million into the $200-$300 million realm, studios are, by necessity, so risk averse that their cinematic concoctions lack the idiosyncratic vitality that made their legendary predecessors shine. The idea is that by trying to please everyone on the planet, these decidedly average films –despite star power and impressive production values– lack some must-see quality that prevents them from being anything other than blockbusters-in-waiting.

Of course, he hedges on his premise noting that several of these films such as the latest installments of Captain America and Star Trek did a good job critically. That makes the abysmal box office all the more maddening. Equally maddening, at least to me, is the continued hollowing out of the mid-range film (as I talked about back in July).

The one bright spot seems to be –and this is not an original observation– is that the creative energy and financial backing that used to be going into the mid-range films is now going into TV shows. That may well be true — and in the Suderman article above, he mentions that TV shows seems to be haven for idiosyncratic –and successful– innovation these days. Stranger Things is cited as an example of summer success.

I still think there’d be a place to have a subsidiary studio or “imprint” that tried to make films in the $10 – 30 million range. You’re trying to have all those films earn $80 to $200 million at the box office. It’s not the same as the $500 to $700 million (to fanciful notions of over $1 billion) that they want the $180 – $250 million blockbusters, but the goal would be to have an overall better ROI.

In addition to the ROI, the “mid-range” budgeted movie provides something else to the studio ecosystem: a project that is neither as expensive and high-stakes as their current beloved blockbuster model, nor as protracted time-wise as a season of TV.

Maybe this is immaterial and studios feel that TV series offer more return on investment or more of a chance at franchises and longevity (what they now obsess with given the blockbuster model). This “mid-range” films also don’t currently appear to have a place in the ever-lengthening “summer blockbuster season.” However, underlying the love of franchises and IP that can be mined for Internet centuries is an overall aversion to risk. Why else would we be seeing movie versions of Battleship (and presumably, one day, Risk)?

There’s a saying that making a movie is a marathon, but making a TV show is running until you drop dead. Lower budgeted movies give you a chance to test writers, directors, cast, and crew in something where the stakes aren’t do-or-die like a blockbuster and isn’t at a pace like a TV show. My premise is that this is a valuable place in a studio’s ecosystem: a place where one might cultivate the cast and crew graduating from the indie darlings and on to the blockbusters and TV shows of the future. They also might provide counter-programming to all the blockbusters.

I will be interested to see how the rest of the year shakes out box office wise. In terms of production slates, I imagine the release schedule for Summer 2017 is already written by and large, but I wouldn’t be surprise if even now, some adjustments are in the works.

Update, 2016-09-09: Todd VanDerWerff follows up in Vox about some of the films that have done well this summer — mainly some of the smaller ones.

The article delves into how there are multiple audiences for films, and posits that studios may well succeed by targeting other audiences than just the purported blockbuster audience.

I tend to agree — and it seems like there’s always some counter-programming during the ever lengthening summer blockbuster season, but unfortunately it seems that it’s not a concerted effort much of the time. Perhaps they think of calculated counter-programming like Cinderella Man, a perfectly enjoyable period drama by Ron Howard & co. that underperformed at the box office. I wonder if this wouldn’t be where the $10 – 30 million budget studio films might do well (Cinderella Man came in at a weight of $88 million). The other part of counter-programming would be making even otherwise normal films part of an event, as Fathom has done (them and how movie theaters might re-invent themselves as 21st century movie palaces would be something for another post).

 

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