What Should We Expect if the Summer 2017 Box Office Implodes?
Analysts have recently predicted that this summer will see a drop in box office from 4.45 billion domestically last year, to 4 billion domestically this year. Although the difference may seem small, the result of this decrease could have disastrous implications for the film industry. If the worst does come to pass, the entire industry may see drastic change. I believe we reached this point through an overabundance of sequels that are unable to draw the attention of an audience, an audience who can easily pull out their phones and watch Stranger Things on Netflix. This summer could be a major turning point for the modern film industry, and if turns out to be, we may witness a very different cinematic landscape.
How We Got Here
I would argue that the period from 2007 to 2012 guaranteed that the film industry would eventually reach this point. In that time, the first Transformers film came out, The Dark Knight became the first comic book film to gross over a billion dollars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was created, the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean grossed over a billion dollars, The Dark Knight trilogy would end, and The Avengers grossed over 1.5 billion dollars worldwide.
Allow me to explain the key significance of these events.
First, both Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers have sequels coming out this summer. These sequels are the fifth entries in their franchises, franchises which have been poorly reviewed by critics and audiences.
While some audience members tend to complain about these films’ existence, studios (as I stated in my evaluation of sequels) follow the money, and those two films made plenty of it. The last Pirates film grossed 1.045 billion dollars, and Age of Extinction grossed 1.1 billion dollars.
In 2011, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides would be the third highest grossing film and Transformers: Dark of the Moon would be the second highest grossing. In 2014 Transformers: Age of Extinction would claim the top spot as the highest grossing film of the year, while sporting a Rotten Tomatoes score of 18%.
And this became Hollywood’s strategy: find a franchise that makes money, and churn out a sequel every two-three years. One might argue that this has been Hollywood’s strategy for a long time given the abundance of sequels in the past few decades. But a big difference between Hollywood’s current strategy and their past strategy is the quality of these sequels. For example, Alien (which also has a sequel coming out this summer) is hailed as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It took three sequels and eighteen years for that franchise to reach Alien: Resurrection, which is now considered one of the worst films ever made. In contrast, it took one sequel and two years for the Transformers franchise to reach Revenge of the Fallen, which has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 19%.
However, I would argue that looking only at the number and quality of sequels misses a key change that has taken place. Because a few other things happened during that five-year span that have drastically changed the world of blockbusters.
First, in 2008 The Dark Knight became the first superhero film to gross over a billion dollars. This film propelled the comic book genre to new heights, and cemented its popularity for years to come. That very same year, a smaller film premiered, but it would prove to have far more dramtic consequences. Iron Man opened a few months before The Dark Knight and grossed 585 million dollars, just a little under 60% of what its competitor would earn later in the year. Iron Man was a critical and commercial success, but compared to the thunderous approval and box office heights that The Dark Knight would earn, the film seemed somewhat insignificant.
Looking back, I would argue that this assumption was completely wrong. Iron Man created something that not only outlasted The Dark Knight trilogy, but changed the entire landscape of blockbusters: the now famous Marvel Cinematic Universe.
From 2008 to 2011, Marvel Studios released five films, each of which starred a different character. What made them different was that they were all connected through references hidden after the credits. This was a new strategy, and at the time not everyone was sure that the culmination of this effort, The Avengers, would lead to box office success. Especially considering that The Avengers would be placed in the same summer as The Dark Knight Rises, which would cap off the Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
When all was said and done, The Dark Knight Rises would gross roughly the same as its predecessor. The Avengers on the other hand, would nearly triple its most successful predecessor’s box office haul.
The Dark Knight trilogy is considered by many to be one of the greatest trilogies ever made. But in the end, it did not change Hollywood in the way the MCU has, for better or worse.
Since The Avengers grossed 1.5 billion dollars, and became (at the time) the third most successful film in history, almost every studio has attempted to craft their own cinematic universe.
Warner Bros. began the DCEU a year later with Man of Steel. In 2014, Godzilla would begin the MonsterVerse, a cinematic universe which as of now contains both King Kong and Godzilla. Universal plans to begin a separate monster cinematic universe this summer with their reboot of The Mummy. Cloverfield, which was released in 2008, had a loosely connected sequel last year titled 10 Cloverfield Lane, and there are plans to turn this franchise into a cinematic universe as well.
Even Star Wars, which has long been the standard of an episodic franchise, is taking on the form of a cinematic universe. Last year Rogue One was released, and next year a Han Solo spin off will enter theaters. Both are not tied to the central episodes, and are instead part of an anthology series which will expand the depth of the Star Wars universe.
The problem is, with so many sequels and universes it can be difficult for audiences to keep up. At the same time, as we discovered last year, audiences can grow tired of sequels. In 2016, the term ‘sequelitis’ was created in response to the disappointing box office hauls of films such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Independence Day: Resurgence. I have argued that these films flopped because they were low in quality, not just because they were sequels. I still stand by that, and I predict that there will be a strong correlation between which blockbuster films flop and their IMDb score.
And given how expensive blockbuster films are to produce (often upwards or around 200 million), whenever one of them flops it costs the studio dearly.
But regardless of which films flop, this year analysts are expecting a decrease of 450 million, a far more disastrous figure than what we saw last year, as the drop in domestic box office from 2015 to 2016 was only 8 million.
In addition to the fact that sequels and cinematic universes can wear thin with audiences, television and streaming services had become far more competitive in the past few years. Television is now producing one critically acclaimed series after another, from Better Call Saul, to Game of Thrones, to Legion, to the newly released American Gods.
On top of that, Netflix is debuting their own smash hits like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Stranger Things, and even Fuller House.
And not only can you view all these programs from your home, but most of us own a handheld device that can access near unlimited hours of entertainment through websites such as YouTube.
The entertainment landscape has changed drastically in the past ten years, and the film industry’s response, so far, has been to copy the success of The Avengers and other traditional sequels. Not only do most studios not understand what made The Avengers a breakout hit (the fact that it was great and that it brought together characters who we were familiar with), but the conventional strategy of releasing poorly made sequel after poorly made sequel finally seems to be nearing its expiration date.
I predicted that the film industry was reaching this point back in March, when I wrote my editorial on sequels. But I did not expect the industry to reach this point so quickly. I expected the world of cinematic universes and sequels to come crashing down in the next decade, not this summer.
Admittedly, there is a chance that the analysts will be wrong. And even though 450 million dollars is a severe loss, the drop in box office from summer 2013 to 2014 was nearly 800 million. The film industry will survive this summer, but I highly doubt that another disappointing season won’t encourage studios to change their strategy.
What Happens Next?
There are many new directions for Hollywood to go in if this summer proves to be disastrous. Even if this summer performs as poorly as projected, there may not be massive structural change in the film industry. But if studios do not change their ways quickly there will be more summers like this, and eventually, summers that are much worse.
So what can Hollywood do?
Reducing the number of poorly made sequels would be a first step, and reducing the cost of blockbusters would be another. But there is a more fundamental problem a play here: studios do not seem to realize why certain films have succeed in the digital age while others have failed.
Batman v. Superman is a perfect example of this. It brought the three most popular DC characters together in the same film, in an attempt to recreate the magic and financial success of The Avengers. And even though the film performed well, it grossed south of 900 million, a far cry from the 1.5 billion dollars that its inspiration grossed.
Iron Man and Captain America, two superheroes who no one had heard of ten years ago, managed to out-gross Batman v. Superman last year by hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is because Marvel created a reputation of quality that audiences could rely on, and quality is beginning to matter now more than it used to.
With so many avenues to choose from when consuming entertainment, paying to drive to and enter a theater is a much harder sell in 2017 than it was in 2000. Because of this, audiences are skipping out on films like Independence Day: Resurgence and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Even Wonder Woman, a film that many expected to do well, is positioned to open at 65 million dollars. It is true that some are claiming that Wonder Woman will open near 100 million, but the more credible sources such as The Hollywood Reporter are standing by the 65 million figure.
Admittedly, Wonder Woman’s box office gross also relates to the historically low success of female-led action films (which I do not have time to get into here), but I find it very difficult to deny that the DCEU’s low standards have made an impact on Wonder Woman’s prospects.
I argued a few weeks ago that movie theaters need to die off, and I stand by that. But I realize that changing the format of the film industry is a massive effort that probably won’t occur anytime soon.
Instead, if studios want to turn their fate around, they need to understand at least two things.
First, in order to compete with other forms of entertainment, blockbusters need to excite audiences. The easiest way to do this is by making a good film with engaging advertisements. But regardless of how studios plan to excite audiences, films like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and fail to intrigue audiences, can no longer exist. The days of poorly made blockbusters grossing huge figures, at least in the United States, seem to be ending.
That is why the MCU is defeating the DCEU at nearly every turn: at the end of the day, audiences just think it’s better.
The second is that films should not require homework. It is a massive turn off for a casual film-goer to walk into a film and have no idea what is happening. With so many cinematic universes swirling around in the cinemas, it may be tempting for studios to begin treating them as television shows. I argued in February that since cinematic universes are similar to television shows, Hollywood could learn a few things by examining which shows have found success and which ones have not.
But I left out something very important. Television audiences see episodes weekly, while film audiences may go months or years before seeing another film in a cinematic universe. Because of this, studios cannot and should not expect them to remember everything.
Every film, regardless of how difficult this is to achieve, must be viewable and enjoyable without extensive prior knowledge.
There are more problems in the film industry than the ones I covered here, but the key takeaway is this: audiences are changing, and Hollywood needs to realize what they are changing into before disaster strikes.