Box Office, Bad Habits
The past few years have been rough on Hollywood. Consecutive decline over three years rough. Lowest grossing summer in eight years rough. In Hollywood speak, that’s studio re-structuring rough.
The Hollywood model is this: take built-in brand material, structure vehicle for a star or stars, make big money at the box office domestically, followed by huge money in foreign markets to offset the ballooning marketing expenses. By extension, the monster money then justifies sequels and spinoffs that can theoretically carry that brand momentum forward into bigger box office earnings. The studios needed hits. Big hits.
Then 2015 happened and it swung a big stick. Jurassic World hit a grand slam to $1.65 billion worldwide – the third highest grossing film ever. The Avengers: Age of Ultron compiled its all-star team to $1.4 billion – the sixth highest gross ever. Minions drew $1.04 billion worldwide. Inside Out took $706 mil. Those are impressive numbers for any summer.
Except here’s the rub: two of those films are from Universal. The other two are Disney. Combined, they controlled almost 60% of the market (Universal also hit with Straight Outta Compton and Pitch Perfect 2 while Disney had Ant-Man).
***Ironically — adding to the complexity of the summer — Disney’s hits are sharply in contrast to the narrative they have been writing recently: the massive bomb. Beginning in 2011 with Mars Needs Moms, Disney has lost over $100-mil on three pictures (in consecutive summers): 2012’s John Carter, 2013’s The Lone Ranger and, drum roll, 2015’s Tomorrowland. While three of their properties went big in 2015, Tomorrowland, was such a massive flop that it couldn’t shake the stigma that Disney is exceptional at losing big money. Disney is the Floyd Mayweather Jr. of studios: it can make it then lose it just as quickly with nary a flinch***
The other studios didn’t fare so well outside their hits. Warner Bros showed nicely with Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas, but under-performed on six films (Entourage, Magic Mike XXL, Vacation, Hot Pursuit (huh?), and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). Sony no-showed. They have hackers to thank for that. (not those hackers). 20th Century Fox, meanwhile, made Fantastic Four. It took a lot for me not to fall asleep writing that sentence.
The summer was like a gym monkey who skipped legs for twelve weeks: top heavy. Looking closer, only four movies topped $200 million in North America compared to ten movies last year. For the business to really thrive, the studios need more moderately budgeted projects to hit. Like the America they inhabit, Hollywood needs the middle class healthy. Otherwise, the industry slowly creeps towards being unsustainable. You know, kind of like a bubble.
This is why it is once again worrying (but not surprising) that seven of the big draws this summer are sequels in some way shape or form. Hell, depending on how stringent you are on this thing, Inside Out may as well be a sequel because Pixar films are so uniquely alike, they’re basically fraternal twins. San Andreas falls squarely into the ‘disaster’ film category — about as specific a subgenre as you can get. The only truly original, unbranded film was Straight Outta Compton. Thanks, Dre (not so much you, Cube).
What does this mean? Likely not much. Universal and Disney (which owns Marvel) surely won’t abandon their tentpole models anytime soon (Marvel especially since their plan is all laid out in Phases for the public to consume). The other big studios are inclined to look across the lot and think, “Just a few adjustments and we’re there, too.”
If anything, this summer will likely empower the studios that, yes, the tentpole model continues to show results. A few years of decline can be written off by weak properties, economic downturns, or, I dunno, Biblical plagues.
This is America. If your neighbor has it, you damn sure deserve the same. Keep up with the Joneses.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb #notthepublicbroadcaster