News Column

St. Joseph News-Press, Mo., Shea Conner column

September 6, 2013


Sept. 06--Earlier this summer, Steven Spielberg predicted an inevitable "implosion" in the film industry in which a handful of big-budget blockbusters would flop at the box office and alter the business forever. Perhaps, he said, these failures would teach movie studios to take more chances on nuanced original films rather than mega-franchise starters and more sequels.

Or, perhaps, they'll learn nothing.

In 2013, we've already seen a number of "tentpole" movies come crashing down. At Sony alone, three incredibly expensive blockbusters went belly up: "After Earth" ($60 million earned in domestic box office; $130 million budget); "White House Down" ($72 million; $150 million); and "Elysium" ($80 million; $115 million). All three fell well short of $100 million at the box office. So did Disney's "The Lone Ranger" ($88 million; $215 million) and Universal's bomb-tastic "R.I.P.D" ($33 million; $130 million).

Yet, no sweeping change is on the horizon. In fact, the studio execs are probably just pushing themselves further into denial.

"We should've made more sequels!" they'll think.

And why not? This summer's box office failures were based either on original ideas or, in the cases of "The Lone Ranger" (1930s radio show) and "R.I.P.D." (obscure comic book), derived from properties that are largely unfamiliar to movie-goers these days. Compare those bombs to the flicks that topped this summer's charts: "Iron Man 3," "Man of Steel," "Fast & Furious 6" and "Star Trek Into Darkness." All four grossed more than $200 million each, and "Iron Man 3" even surpassed the $400 million mark.

In that context, there's little reward for studios to green-light another risky, expensive project like "After Earth" when that money could be spent on improving the established superhero movies and sequels that clearly continue to roll -- whether they're good or not.

Besides, even with those box-office bombs, it's not like Hollywood is direly plummeting into the red. According to Box Office Mojo, the domestic box office has hauled in $4.57 billion during this summer movie season alone. That's more than $250 million more than the record-setting summer movie season of 2011. While Sony won't get to share in those spoils, those numbers won't force other studios to do any realistic soul-searching. Record-breaking hits like "Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel" more than make up for the studios' shortcomings. When the rewards are that big, there's no reason to change the formula for success.

And guess what? The risks aren't nearly as big as the rewards anymore. You can thank foreign movie audiences for that.

The overseas box office has given a nice, plushy cushion for these studios to land on when they flop. "After Earth," for example, didn't do very well here in the States, but it earned more than three times its $60 million domestic take abroad, with almost $250 million as its worldwide total. Meanwhile,"Pacific Rim" struggled to reach $100 million in the U.S., but the overseas box office is robust enough that Warner Bros. has started developing a sequel.

In the past, movie studios would have never given the green light to a sequel to a movie that lost money in the U.S. That changed this summer when "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" was released. The first "Percy Jackson" movie only conjured up $88 million here at home, but it made a surprising $220 million worldwide. The numbers look similar for the sequel, which has drawn only $56 million in the U.S., but an additional $82 million overseas, more than justifying its $90 million budget.

Last year, "Battleship" was mocked in the U.S. for being a box-office disaster just as much as a critical one. But thanks to strong openings in China, "Battleship" was the No. 1 movie overseas for multiple weeks.

I wrote in The Shuffle in May that China has now edged out Japan to become the second-largest film market in the world, and some insiders project that China could surpass the United States as the world's top film territory within five years. Lately, studios have been cashing in on what they know about Asian audiences -- that they generally love visually spectacular, special-effects-laden action films based on globally recognized properties. Anything involving superhero films or giant robots has exploded in China, which explains why Paramount Pictures recently announced that "Transformers 4" will be co-produced by two Chinese companies and will star several Chinese actors.

Spielberg can crow all he wants about box-office bombs sparking a creative revolution, but he doesn't seem to fully grasp Hollywood's current desires. The major studios have largely stopped making films for cinephiles. They're making them for the people they know they'll always get their money from: devoted superhero fans and a booming overseas audience captivated by big-screen spectacles.

If that "implosion" is coming, it's not coming anytime soon.

Shea Conner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.


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