Hollywood has a new problem, writes Pamela McClintock
at The Hollywood Reporter
: sequels moviegoers don’t want.
It's not unusual for franchise installments to dip, but the declines have become massive, both in terms of opening weekend and ultimate global gross. The canary in the coal mine was Universal's Ride Along 2, the January comedy that grossed $90.9 million in North America, down 33 percent from the 2014 original. February saw Paramount's Zoolander 2 gross 53 percent less domestically, and 32 percent less globally, than the 2001 first film, when accounting for inflation.
Now, sequelitis is damaging the health of the summer box office, but it's too late for studios to inoculate themselves. Over the weekend, Out of the Shadows became the latest follow-up to lag, opening to $35.3 million, compared to $65.6 million for the 2014 reboot.
The underlying causes of sequelitis are still up for debate, though it’s clear that not every box office behemoth has been affected—Captain America: Civil War
has had no problem earning more than a billion dollars internationally, for one. Yet the slump seems worse than just a handful of exceptionally bad sequels. One explanation, from Derek Thompson
at The Atlantic
, may be that it has simply become too expensive to attract audiences to more than a handful of major tentpoles each year:
In this environment, where Americans buy only four movie tickets a year, it’s more expensive to create an audience for a film. In 1980, Hollywood spent less than 20 cents on advertising for every $1 it earned at the box office. Now it spends 60 cents
to get that buck. In a market where it costs $60 million just to earn $100 million, movie makers are spending an enormous amount of money on fewer blockbusters and advertising the bejesus out of them. (This strategy will also inevitably yield historic flops, since the cost of getting the American moviegoers’ attention is just so high.) […]
The problem for Hollywood isn’t that audiences are ignoring sequels. The problem for Hollywood is that audiences are ignoring everything that isn’t a sequel, adaptation, or reboot. The market for films based on stories that aren’t already famous is threadbare. These sort of stories exist in entertainment, but consumers, and particularly young consumers, are looking for them outside of darkened theaters.
This line of thinking might explain why Warner Brothers, in the wake of the disappointing release of Batman v Superman
earlier this year, was reported
to be considering a shift to make even fewer movies each year, in order to spend more energy—and presumably, more money—on franchise blockbusters. As Jason Bailey
notes at Flavorwire, such a consolidation would be disappointing even if you think the world needs more superhero films:
It’s also upsetting because for decades – all the way back to the fruitful New Hollywood era of the 1970s, when John Calley presided over the studio and oversaw the release of films like Dog Day Afternoon, Night Moves, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, All The President’s Men, Mean Streets, and Badlands – Warner Brothers has cultivated a reputation for mid-budget, adult-oriented filmmaking. And it’s a strategy that’s continued to reap rewards; their recent hits have included Magic Mike ($167 million worldwide box office on a $7 million budget), Magic Mike XXL ($122 million on $14.8 million), Argo ($232 million on $44.5 million), 42 ($95 million on $40 million), Her ($47 million on $23 million), American Sniper ($547 million on $58.8 million), The Intern ($194 million on $35 million), and Creed ($137 million on $35 million).
This mid-budget category—films costing between twenty and eighty million—accounts for most of the original material Hollywood still produces, and for many of its critical successes. If it dries up, the gap between films with artistic merit and those garnering mainstream attention would effectively become a chasm. There is one ray of hope, of sorts: as the major Hollywood studios are circling wagons around their franchises, at least one upstart—STX Entertainment, chaired by former Universal chief Adam Fogelson—is betting instead on mid-budget films. Tad Friend
’s profile of STX in The New Yorker
explains the origins of the strategy during Fogelson’s tenure at Universal:
At the end of 2011, Fogelson told his team that he was no longer going to make big-budget, non-sequel, non-I.P. films. Instead, he made expensive sequels—another “Bourne” film and another “Fast and Furious”—and lots of mid-budget films. “There was a concern there that that was too conservative,” Fogelson told me. It wasn’t. He approved fifty-three films at Universal; of them, thirty-nine cost less than eighty million dollars, and they grossed $7.3 billion worldwide, for a return on investment of a hundred and fifty-three per cent. He was particularly proud of “Bridesmaids,” “Lone Survivor,” and “Pitch Perfect,” movies with heart that proved a lot of doubters wrong. Universal’s market share rose to third, and Comcast extended his contract a year ahead of schedule.
STX’s first release, The Gift, did well both critically and financially, and their next film, Free State of Jones, which opens later this month, looks at least notably different from the likes of Independence Day: Resurgence and Suicide Squad. That’s not to say that STX—or mid-budget investment in general—will save Hollywood from churning out mostly mediocre films, but even a middling mid-budget Hollywood film, given a wide release, can sometimes push the envelope in more interesting ways than a politically and socially conservative billion-dollar franchise entry.
One current example is Warner Brothers’s Me Before You
, a very average adaptation of a best-selling romance novel, which has done unusually well at the domestic box office. In turn, it has almost unwittingly drawn attention to the ethically complicated issue of physician-assisted suicide, as Owen Gleiberman
argues at Variety:
We’ve been engineered, through many decades of movies like this one, to expect the story of a hunk in a wheelchair to go a certain way. The saintly Lou isn’t just taking care of Will, or falling for him; she’s trying, quite consciously, to inspire him to embrace life again. And since Claflin makes Will a broken man with a powerful life force inside him, we can see where this is heading…except that it isn’t. Will is so in thrall to the life he used to have that he can neither abide nor accept his present state. He wants to go to Switzerland to die by assisted suicide. Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Hollywood youth romance to feature this not just as a story hook, but as a justified desire. But times change, and so do heartthrob movie heroes. In “Me Before You,” the audience wants Lou to save Will, to show him that life is worth living, but the originality of the movie is that it makes an absolute case that Will’s desire to stop living is an expression of his life force.
Surprisingly, most reviews of the film don’t even mention assisted suicide, but it might be the only part that doesn’t deserve to be ignored, even if it’s notable mostly because it’s there at all. In any case, it’s an example of the flexibility afforded to the kind of mid-budget Hollywood film that may not be an event, but still plays on more than 2,700 screens in the United States—far more than any indie film. Even while television may have surpassed film as a means of reflecting rapidly changing social attitudes, a film like this will still reach a wider audience than most niche-marketed TV shows.
There’s long been a lot of hand-wringing over the collateral damage within superhero movies, but the lasting damage wrought by these juggernauts might, in the end, be to the mid-budget Hollywood films beneath them.
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.