July 28--Related: 'The Wolverine' claws way to top of box office
Almost three quarters through this summer's movie schedule, Hollywood ought to be celebrating. Overall box office receipts are up about 10 percent in what still could be another record season.
Yet in the midst of this a disturbing trend is developing now. For four weeks in a row, tentpole releases with nine-figure budgets -- "White House Down," "The Lone Ranger," "Pacific Rim," "R.I.P.D." and "Turbo" -- opened to domestic box office that ranged from disappointing to disastrous. The expensive-movie bloodbath was pretty much unprecedented in recent years, especially when you toss in such early-summer failures as "After Earth" and underperformers like "Epic" and "The Hangover Part III."
"What's slowing down the celebration, I think, is it's just due to the high-profile nature of the films and how much they cost," Paul Dergarabedian, president of the Box Office Division at Hollywood.com , said of the month-long panic that gripped the movie business -- and has only been slightly alleviated by this past weekend's debut of "The Wolverine," which made an unimpressive estimated $55 million in North America (the 2009 Wolverine movie opened to $30 million more) but did another, very good $86 million overseas.
The gross numbers look good. Between May 3 and July 21, total North American box office was at $3.3 billion, according to the tracking firm Rentrak Theatrical. That was more than 10 percent ahead of summer 2012's $3 billion at the same point in the season, and this year's more than $300 million increase is about three times larger than any in a five-year upward trend.
However, that 10 percent lead on 2012 had been more like 12 percent through most of May and June, thanks to the front-loading of the schedule with anticipated franchise entries and surprise hits such as "The Great Gatsby" and "Now You See Me."
In addition, if your studio spent around $250 million producing and at least half as much promoting "Lone Ranger," which has made under $100 million domestically and has little hope of recouping the difference overseas, the fact that people are buying tickets to other films is cold comfort.
"A lot of studios have made a point of shifting toward a tentpole schedule. They have openly said that they're producing fewer movies but that many of them have larger budgets," observed Sarah Barry James of the media and communications research and consulting firm SNL Kagan. "Sometimes it works out great. You sometimes have an 'Avengers' or an 'Iron Man 3,' and when you do, it earns a billion dollars and you've got this incredible global franchise that's going to make you money hand over fist. But other times, you've got 'The Lone Ranger' that doesn't hit with audiences and ends up costing you a lot of money."
Though it's not nearly as worrisome as the major bombs, this summer's top films aren't even, well, 2012's. "Iron Man 3" has grossed a mighty $407 million domestically and $1.2 billion worldwide. To no one's surprise, those numbers are well below last summer's Disney/Marvel monster "The Avengers," which has thus far made $623 million here and $1.5 billion everywhere.
Additionally, neither second-place "Despicable Me 2" nor third-ranked "Man of Steel" are likely to end their runs within $100 million of last year's No. 2 film, "The Dark Knight Rises," at $448 million.
Of course, those movies are still reaping millions in profits, as are such solid franchise entries as "Monsters University," "Fast & Furious 6" and "Star Trek Into Darkness." Fresh-approach comedies "The Heat" and "This Is the End," the aforementioned "Gatsby" and "Now You See Me" and low-budget thrillers "The Purge" and "The Conjuring" have all done very nicely for their distributors, though not at the grand scale the massive tentpoles are expected to perform.
And there aren't many more of those big bets in the summer pipeline. "The Wolverine" won't power the August box office like "Dark Knight Rises" did last year. "Smurfs 2," "Planes," "Elysium," "Mortal Instruments" and a Percy Jackson sequel could or could not hit big, but there's still a long way to go to catch 2011's all-time full summer box office record of $4.405 billion by Labor Day.
"Look at the number of original films that came out that were nonsequels that didn't do well," said Dergarabedian. "Every year, we complain that there are too many sequels and people want new movies. Well, Hollywood delivered new movies, and nobody showed up to a lot of them."
Several other factors seem to be contributing to the current rash of tentpole failures.
For one thing, "After Earth," "Lone Ranger" and "R.I.P.D." were widely and accurately perceived as not very good movies. Then there's the simple possibility that, after being hit with large-scale cinematic destruction every weekend for four months, the action-tentpole audience had simply burned out.
Given the continual onslaught of blockbusters in the summer season, reckoned SNL Kagan's James, "there are only so many of those big-budget, big-explosion films moviegoers will pay to see in a short, condensed amount of time before they start choosing to spend their dollars on other things."
She's not alone in that view. In June, before most of this summer's $130 million-$250 million flops were released, the two filmmakers who ignited the blockbuster worldview in the 1970s -- Steven Spielberg and George Lucas -- predicted that a series of costly failures will be the ticket to industry change. Speaking recently at the opening of a new building in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Spielberg said, "There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm" of how Hollywood has been doing business for more than three decades.
Others, however, aren't so alarmist. "One of the real challenges of the business hasn't changed," explained Jason E. Squire, editor of "The Movie Business Book" and an associate professor at the School of Cinematic Arts. "You spend a lot of money, you do as much testing as you can. Management primarily works on intuition, instinct and experience and delivers a movie with every intention to be successful. Sometimes, because of intangible, unforeseen elements, these gambles do not pan out. That's the nature of business.
"The question becomes, How will this impact management decisions going forward?" he posited. "My sense is that these (summer failures) are cautionary events. There are very smart people making these decisions, and they're going to be even more careful."
Nevertheless, no front-and-center failure is going to change a studio suit's quest to have a summer hit. Forty percent of box office business is done from May through August, and the upside potential of that makes lessons about audience limits hard to learn.
"They all still want to open in summer," Dergarabedian said. "Summer is a very dangerous playground for movies, and everyone wants to jump in. But it can be treacherous out there, and I think that this summer has proven that more than ever."
To increase the chances of triumph, perhaps we'll see only big summer movies with familiar names in their titles going forward. Kind of looks that way after the announcements at the recent San Diego Comic-Con: Disney/Marvel's "Avengers" sequel and Warner Bros.' Superman-Batman mashup will join an already long list of superhero and sci-fi sequels slated for 2015.
"I definitely think sequels and reboots have become major moneymakers for studios, because they have that established base," James acknowledged. "But they need to keep coming up with original ideas to make further sequels. They obviously can't just rest on what is already out on the market.
"It would be interesting if there was, at least, more attention paid to the budgets in Hollywood," she added. "It just seems like the budgets keep getting bigger and bigger. Obviously, it's hard to imagine more studio involvement than already exists, but maybe a more definite line drawn in the sand of, you know, 'This is the amount of money you have to work with.' I'm not sure it'll happen, but it would definitely be interesting."
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