These days I find it difficult writing about Hollywood, and the summer movie season in particular, without sounding like an old fart. Nonetheless, it is my belief that blockbuster moviemaking is no longer what it once was, and that the end of the movie-verse is in sight.
Of course people have been saying this sort of thing for decades. Since I was a kid, in fact, pundits have been carrying on about how Hollywood’s output is the worst it’s ever been and that the entire industry is on the brink of collapse. See Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Why Are Movies so Bad? Or, the Numbers,” which appeared back in 1980 but reads like it was written yesterday (specifically in lines like “because the studios have discovered how to take the risk out of moviemaking, they don’t want to make any movies they can’t protect themselves on”). Somehow the industry has held on through the years (Kael again: “There’s one God for all creation, but there must be a separate God for the movies…how else can you explain their survival?”), though I’ll have to agree with those who claim the movies Hollywood puts out–which these days always seem to have a 2, 3 or 4 in the title–have grown increasingly uninteresting.
For an object lesson in just how dire the situation has become, check out the 2013 publication SLEEPLESS IN HOLLYWOOD: TALES FROM THE NEW ABNORMAL IN THE MOVIE BUSINESS by producer Lynda Obst, who reports on Hollywood’s current state from an insider’s perspective. According to Obst the collapse of the DVD market and the Writers Guild Strike of 2008 led to our current movie quagmire; the loss of DVD revenue, she claims, led to a much greater concentration on foreign box office (which now accounts for 70 percent of a movie’s profitability), while the WGA strike inspired studio executives to generate material themselves (rendering the pitch meetings so integral to producers like Obst a thing of the past). The net result in both cases is an over reliance on sequels, reboots, rip-offs and those obnoxious fairy tale revamps of which Hollywood can’t seem to get enough.
The summer of 2013 provided ample evidence of Obst’s claims, with its overabundance of $200 million “tentpole” releases. The majority of those releases, unsurprisingly, were sequels, which were constant whether a demand existed or not (I didn’t hear anyone calling for RED 2, KICK-ASS 2 or THE SMURFS 2), if not shameless copies of previous successes (see the TWILIGHT wannabe THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, and also PLANES, a.k.a. CARS IN THE SKY). The fact that many of the summer’s biggest flops were originals (AFTER EARTH, THE LONE RANGER, WHITE HOUSE DOWN, R.I.P.D.) only underlines the point: it seems Hollywood is no longer capable of selling (much less creating) anything that isn’t a sequel. Obviously this is bad news for those of us who value originality, and also for the industry’s future prospects–it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there has to be an original product for a sequel or rip-off to exist.
All this bad news offsets the fact that this past summer is allegedly on track to be the most profitable of all time, with a projected $4.15 billion domestic take. That, however, doesn’t obscure the inflated budgets, overcrowded release dates and lackluster moviemaking that appear destined to be the true hallmarks of the summer of 2013.
The only real bright spots, unexpectedly enough, were the horror movie releases. WORLD WAR Z was one of the few non-sequel tentpoles that actually delivered box office-wise, while THE PURGE and THE CONJURING amassed impressive profits due largely to the fact that their respective budgets were on the low side–a feat rendered all the more striking in the case of THE PURGE because it was such a rotten movie. We can add to this category the SyFy Channel’s craptastic SHARKNADO, which became an immediate social media phenomenon upon its initial July 11 telecast and received nationwide midnight screenings on August 2. I’ve heard competing reports on how lucrative those screenings were, but I say the mere fact that a SyFy movie made it to theaters is a milestone. (Of course there were also HATCHET 3, V/H/S 2, MANIAC and BYZANTIUM, whose theatrical performances were more in line with peoples’ standard expectations for horror flicks, as well as YOU’RE NEXT, for which its studio had high hopes but wound up disappointed.)
Will mainstream Hollywood learn anything from these cost-effective successes? I wouldn’t count on it, as the summers of 2014 and ‘15 are already overloaded with the now-familiar slew of expensive sequels: THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 5, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN 2 (really?), CAPTAIN AMERICA 2, FAST & FURIOUS 7, THE AVENGERS 2, JURASSIC PARK 4, INDEPENDENCE DAY 2, etc, etc, etc. There’s even a new MUMMY on the horizon, rebooting a franchise that was itself a reboot.
Some of those movies will connect, but as the stakes (and costs) get higher so will the consequences of failure. As Stanley Kubick once cautioned, “nothing is as dangerous as a sure thing,” and I predict it won’t be long before one of those “sure things” takes down a studio.
Hence my original point: the end of moviemaking, or at least big budget Hollywood moviemaking, is neigh, and I can’t say I’m too broken up about it.