The weekend of July 12-14, 2013 saw the release of two major Hollywood summertime releases: Grown Ups 2 and Pacific Rim. Grown Ups 2 is the sequel to the most successful live-action film of Adam Sandler’s career; it’s also one of the worst-reviewed movies of the year, standing at a putrid 6% on Rotten Tomatoes. Pacific Rim is clearly the more critically recommended of the two films, with a solid 71% Rotten Tomatoes score. It’s an original science-fiction concept co-written and directed by an Academy Award nominated filmmaker. So how did things shake down at the weekend box office? Grown Ups 2 made $41.5 million, and Pacific Rim made $37.2 million. Neither film made as much as Despicable Me 2, which took first place with $43.8 million. Although not the disaster that some analysts were predicting a few weeks ago, the only-middling success of Pacific Rim is the latest example of why Hollywood studios won’t take risks, and aren’t likely to start until audiences show them the money.
It’s the ultimate Hollywood chicken-or-egg question: is the modern box-office landscape dominated by sequels and remakes because these films are successful, or are these films successful because they dominate the landscape?
Summer of 2013 hasn’t had much to offer thus far in terms of originality. The most successful film, by an overwhelming margin, has been Iron Man 3. At the time of this writing, Iron Man 3 has taken in approximately $407 million domestically, with a worldwide total of about $1.2 billion (good for #5 on the list of all-time worldwide grosses without adjusting for inflation). The top 5 domestic releases of 2013 to date are rounded out by Man of Steel, Monsters University, Fast & Furious 6, and Oz the Great and Powerful. All of these films are either sequels, or brazen attempts to start a franchise based on familiar source material. The most successful film of the summer to be based on an original idea has been The Heat, which has made about $114 million domestically – not bad for a film that cost $43 million to make, but ultimately less than 30% of Iron Man 3’s domestic gross.
On one hand, Hollywood represents democratic capitalism at its most essential level – show us the money, and we’ll show you more. We get Iron Man 3 because of nothing other than a perception of demand, and the film’s stratospheric box-office is essentially validation of that perception. By contrast, when audiences don’t show studios the money, studios tend to cut their losses and move on. A box of Van Helsing action figures is languishing in an attic somewhere, and Ryan Reynolds has enough hardly-worn superhero costumes at this point to make some serious cash at a Comic-Con garage sale. It’s difficult to argue that Hollywood gives us what we don’t ask for.
But what if what we ask for is constrained by our perception of our choices? If the question posed to audiences is “do you want more Iron Man, or more Green Lantern?”, the answer may be clear, but it may not be reflective of what audiences genuinely want.
Certain films are destined to make money not because of what they are, but because of when they happen to be released. A recent study has shown that almost half of moviegoers decide what film to see on the day that they purchase their ticket. In other words, a huge number of moviegoers decide to go to the movies first, and then they decide what to see based on the options that are available. Even if everything in the marketplace has been poorly reviewed, the “least bad” option is likely to rise to the top. So a movie like Iron Man 3 ends up becoming a massive hit not necessarily because it’s great, but because it’s Saturday night, it’s time to go to movies, and the only other thing that’s playing is an R-rated bodybuilder heist movie that’s two weeks old. If it’s a well-reviewed movie, and Iron Man 3 certainly is, that’s all the better. But even a lousy movie can overperform with an assist from a great release date.
Studios are acutely aware of the importance of release date real estate, which is why they go through the trouble of claiming release dates upwards of four years in advance. Better clear your schedule for June 10, 2016 if you want to be first in line for The Amazing Spider-Man 3…assuming that you enjoy The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which won’t be out until next May.
The pressure to fill a limited number of available summer weekends with successful content is enormous. We’re now witnessing what amounts to a special effects arms race between studios, as they each try to outdo each other with an ever more impressive level of spectacle. As this arms race has escalated, the budgets of studio tentpoles have gotten absolutely out of control. In 2003, there were 10 wide releases that came in with reported budgets of $100 million or higher. By 2012, there were 23 films with reported budgets at that level. Seven of these films had budgets of $200 million or higher. The most expensive film of 2002 was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines with a reported budget of $170 million. That a $170 million budget should seem quaint in retrospect is the ultimate indictment of a broken business model.
The current environment, in which inevitable release dates are given to films of escalating cost, can be distilled to a simple proposition that helps explain the dearth of originality in the marketplace: major Hollywood studios are no longer in the business of trying to create hits; they are in the business of trying to avoid bombs. The risk mitigation inherent in sequels, remakes and would-be franchises is a defensive reaction to a financial mess of Hollywood’s own making.
If spending over $200 million on a known quantity like Superman is considered “risky”, then spending $200 million on a concept is that is unknown and untested is a whole other category of risk. But every so often, a filmmaker with enough clout is able to convince a studio to take a chance on an original idea. In 2010, Christopher Nolan’s Inception made over $290 million domestically and went on to be nominated for Best Picture. Pacific Rim represents the latest attempt at auteur blockbuster filmmaking, but based on the film’s opening weekend gross, it’s going to have a difficult time reaching the heights of Inception. As anyone who has seen Pacific Rim is likely to tell you, that’s a shame: while by no means a perfect film, by applying cutting-edge special effects to a Japanese B-movie aesthetic, Guillermo del Toro has created something unique and visionary. It’s the kind of larger-than-life cinematic experience that inspires kids to become filmmakers.
If audiences are unwilling to support original concepts, then these cinematic experiences may become all too rare. Original concepts may become relegated to the world of low-to-mid budgeted films like The Purge, The Heat, and Now You See Me, while studios save their big guns for stories and characters that come with a built-in audience. Why shouldn’t they? Why take a chance on another Pacific Rim when you can make Fast & Furious 6 and watch the dollars roll in?
There’s nothing really wrong with Fast & Furious 6, or Iron Man 3. Both films are well-crafted and entertaining. They accomplish what they set out to accomplish. The problem is that, well-crafted though they may be, these films are ultimately inconsequential. No one will be talking about Fast & Furious 6 a year from now, let alone ten years from now. Sequels and remakes may make financial sense, but they diminish our collective imagination. In an era in which fewer and fewer people seem to revere the experience of going to the movies, when the latest release can be downloaded instantly and watched on an iPad, the spectre of a creatively impoverished movie culture is of genuine concern.
As the saying goes, decisions are made by those who show up. Show up for Pacific Rim this weekend. Show up for Elysium on August 9th. Send a signal that great stories are great business. Otherwise, don’t complain in two years when it’s Saturday night, it’s time to go to the movies, and the only thing playing is Grown Ups 3. The high stakes game of blockbuster filmmaking comes down to dollars – make yours count.
– The Sarcastic Squirrel