What was the last summer blockbuster you saw that really got your heart racing, that made you want to tell all your friends, that made you experience the world in a whole new way? Was it this summer? 2016, on the whole, has yet to be a great year for cinema, with many popular entities being criticised for lacking the true status of "event" cinema. Ask yourself, has anything really stood out these past three months?
Let's take a look at some reasons why this was arguably the worst summer ever:
Lack Of Original Content
Just take a look at top ten grossing films of the summer (domestic box office between June and August):
- 1. Finding Dory
- 2. The Secret Life of Pets
- 3. Suicide Squad
- 4. Star Trek Beyond
- 5. Central Intelligence
- 6. The Legend of Tarzan
- 7. Ghostbusters
- 8. Jason Bourne
- 9. Independence Day: Resurgence
- 10. The Conjuring 2
Of these ten movies, only two (The Secret Life of Pets, Central Intelligence) are based on original screenplays, whilst the others are either sequels, comic book adaptations and/or reboots. Star Trek and Tarzan have been around forever, Star Trek Beyond being the thirteenth incarnation of the team, and The Legend Of Tarzan being one of over fifty representations of John Clayton on screen. Some of these properties are highly beloved, and rightly so, the original Finding Nemo, Jason Bourne trilogy, and Independence Day all considered to be fine summer films. Yet surely this continual summer glut of big, unoriginal movies has led to:
Are we getting bored of franchises? Are there simply too many "big" products for us to care about them all? With so many tentpoles in so short a time, we are seeing films with huge opening weekends taking drastic drops in their next weekend. Take for example Ghosbusters which took a 63% drop in its second week, largely due to the introduction of Star Trek Beyond, which in its turn dropped 59% in its second weekend with the introduction of Jason Bourne. Jason Bourne then dropped a momentous 71% as Suicide Squad was finally rolled out to cinemas. With so much money being spent on production and marketing, these large drop-offs mean that a lot of these films profit margins aren't looking as good as initially expected.
The movie economy can be seen to work like the real economy. With too many "sure things" being backed for financial success this can create a bubble, and we all know what happens to bubbles: they burst. An article in Cracked has predicted this will happen in 2018. It has a truly exhaustive slate, including Avengers: Infinity War, Pacific Rim 2, Aquaman, Toy Story 4, Deadpool 2, Black Panther, The Flash, How To Train Your Dragon 3, Ant-Man And The Wasp, Jurassic World 2, The Predator, Fifty Shades Freed, Jungle Book: Origins, Mary Poppins Returns, Tomb Raider, Alita: Battle Angel, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them 2, The Secret Life Of Pets 2.
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As the article mentions:
"2018 will see the release over 40 massive, tentpole movies. There are nearly 20 releases that happen exactly a week apart."
Some of these films might be good, some (such as Black Panther) have the potential to be great, but the depressing fact is that we basically know exactly what to expect. Additionally, with so much on offer, how will anything possibly stand out and become a bonafide blockbuster smash?
If we contrast our current list with 1996, we see that even when there were adaptations such as the original Mission: Impossible and 101 Dalmations, these were balanced out by excellent original screenplays such as Independence Day, The Rock and Twister - which delivered blockbuster thrills without having to rely on audience nostalgia. Producers of these films took risks making original products that paid off in a huge way, whilst introducing us to new characters and new ideas. Are studios these days, simply:
Playing It Safe?
The basic theory behind delivering a franchise product is the fact that it makes a shed-ton of money. People are huge fans of the original film/TV series/comic book and so want to see that brought-to-life/extended on the big screen for perpetuity. This is the safe option, leading studios (most notably Marvel and DC) to draft up endless release schedules extending right into 2020. This approach didn't even exist ten years ago, where Hollywood prided itself on being able to adapt with the times. We live in an unstable world, both politically and economically, yet Hollywood seems to have it planned out within an inch of its life.
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The sane argument is to try and gauge public mood, and create films that reflect the world we actually live in. The 70s - credited with creating the summer blockbuster with Jaws - was a dark time, yet it produced some of the best blockbusters ever made, arguably in response to such an era. Where are the equivalent blockbusters now? Are we merely retreating into fantastical stability to block out the real, highly unstable world?
Maybe the idea is to have less franchises and to spend more time curating original content that researches the kind of films audiences would like to see and delivers fresh and exciting thrills. There are precedents for this, such as Avatar in 2009 (the highest grossing film ever) and American Sniper, which (although not a summer film and based on a memoir) was the highest grossing film of 2014 despite a) having an R-rating and b) delivering a morally ambiguous and highly controversial subject matter. Those films got people who usually only go to the cinema once a year out of the house, truly being 'event" films. Hollywood needs to do better to get these types of (usually lower-income, non-fan) people out of the house, especially when:
Going To The Cinema Costs More
As films get bigger and bigger, so do the price of cinema tickets. The price of the average American cinema ticket has risen this year to $8.61 from $8.12 last year. This may not seem like a huge increase, but when you realise this is an average cinema ticket, and the price at the multiplex for 3D is twice is much, and when you factor in the obscenely priced drinks and snacks, this makes going to the cinema a lot more costly. And anyway, why go to the cinema when:
Television Does It Better
The Summer Blockbuster has suffered somewhat this year, but television, and binge-watching culture, is on the rise. We are now in the Golden Age of Television, with over 400 scripted shows being written and pitched each year. Additionally, whilst franchises are seen to be suffering from burnout, series such as Bojack Horseman, Broad City, Better Call Saul, UnReal, and Empire are going from strength to strength as they move into their later seasons. 'Netflix and chill' culture, and the rise of video on demand, allow the big "events" to take place in your own house, thus leaving the Summer Blockbuster to be a relatively more infantile industry in comparison. As one empire falls, another rises...
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Can It Get Much Bigger?
Films these days are not so much billed as "the film of the year" or "the film of the summer" but usually the "biggest film ever" which is also merely another episode in an ongoing franchise. This paradoxical element, it appears, is not lost on the audience. The marketing strategies for films can end up being almost as much as production costs, plastering every billboard, bus stop and sidewalk with endless promos for the latest instalment in whatever saga that has already been going on forever.
Superhero movies are special examples of this, which build a vast majority of their hype upon showdowns years and years in the making. Earlier in the year we had Batman vs Superman and Iron Man vs Captain America, then the X-Men vs Apocalypse. Yet none of these films have had the same financial success as the original Avengers movie, which at the time, bringing the whole team together, felt fresh and event-worthy. When this will happen for basically the fourth time in Infinity War, will the average cinema-goer actually care any more?
Last year was a big one for the franchise model, with films such as Jurassic World and Fast 7 becoming mega-hits, and Mad Max: Fury Road breaking out to become a huge critical success, thus temporarily silencing the critics who slammed Hollywood for its lack of originality. 2016 looked to repeat that success, but failed due to a combination of too many big properties and not enough originality, thus seeing an overall drop-off in profits. If we are to contrast Finding Dory with Jurassic World we see that there is a huge $200 million dollar disparity between the two, suggesting that such a large amount of franchises prevents others from having enough space to breathe. Yet Finding Dory's success does show there is:
Hope in Animation
Animation seems to be one outlier. 2015 scored a bonafide original summer hit with Inside Out, an original concept that was truly mesmerising in the exploration of the human consciousness. 2016 is following in its footsteps with the less critically acclaimed but still a box office smash The Secret Life of Pets which has made half a billion off a $75 million dollar budget. It used an obvious conceit (what do animals do when adults aren't at home) to pull in its audience, and it worked without having to rely on any kind of existing property.
It goes without saying that these types of films (including chart topper and sequel Finding Dory) are the most family-friendly on the list, but shows that when you take your children to something, they aren't quite as bothered about whether or not it will honor the original. However, there might also be...
Hope in Comedy and Horror
Comedies and horror movies represent some hope for large turnovers from much smaller budgets. Kevin Hart is a huge comic talent, and The Rock is a huge action star, so the combination of the two for Central Intelligence made absolute sense from an economic perspective, delivering an action/comedy that has made $206 million off a $50 million dollar budget. Additionally, surprise success and original franchise hit The Conjuring 2 made $317 million of a $40 million budget, showing that there is also a large market for horror. By making films (relatively) cheaper with compelling premises, these studios can still deploy original ideas to turn over tidy profits. This shows that original ideas still have draw for large audiences, and could point the way to curing franchise fatigue and in turn creating real "event cinema".