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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