Movie studios are struggling with getting big upstart tentpole films off the ground.
Last year, there was a lot of hype and anticipation built up around Brad Bird’s movie, Tomorrowland. In the end the movie grossly underperformed, both with critics and especially in box office revenue. Looking at the list of big budget movies this summer and it’s hard to find one that is a wholly original property. Every big release is based off of something, be it a video game, a TV show, a previously released movie, or—of course—a comic book property. Many of the big tentpoles that studios are counting on are movies that few have been clamoring for. How many people spent the past twenty (!) years begging for sequel to Independence Day? Very few, and yet here we are with the next movie set for release this June. The long-running Ghostbusters sequel is finally happening, albeit without the core cast (at least not in starring roles) and there’s even an Angry Birds movie, coming a good five years too late to be relevant in any way.
Look at the schedule for movies this year and try to find a big budget movie based on an original story. They simply aren’t there. Sure you can find some original properties: There’s a movie called Hardcore Henry that looks pretty fresh, but it’s a small-to-medium budgeted release. I think it’s very telling that a movie like 10 Cloverfield Lane has nothing to do with the original Cloverfield movie (supposedly), yet the studio had so little faith in the movie getting traction with ticketbuyers that they felt the need to slap a franchise name onto it.
There’s a reason why movies like Terminator Genisys, Mad Max Fury Road and Pan are being greenlit. Hollywood is afraid to launch a 100mm+ property without SOMETHING attached to it. And even when results are very mixed (Terminator was hit and miss depending on the region, Mad Max soared everywhere, and Pan bombed everywhere), they still show an unwillingness on the part of the studio to take a chance on something new. No one saw the success of Mad Max as an invitation to do something like that with a new property. No one was deterred from making more reboots and quasi-sequels when Pan failed to generate any money. Hollywood just keeps churning out the same movies and keeps getting the same results. Again, Hollywood is afraid to launch a movie without something of pre-established value attached to it.
It used to be you’d attach an actor. In the old days sequels were taboo (Godfather part II was a RISK because of the “part II” under the title). it was not “franchises” but “actors” that buoyed movies. Of course those were the days when actors were contracted to specific studios too. Times have changed. Now the big ticket seller isn’t an actor, it’s a franchise name. Hollywood loves franchises because they have a built in audience. They can figure the budget and predict the box office easier by looking at past films in a series, even if the next movie is only loosely based on the existing series.
Such a mindset is good for studios’ bottom dollar, but bad creatively.
On the other hand, there’s a movie like Tomorrowland. It gets made, with a big name attached to it and the promise of sci-fi adventure thrills over memorial day weekend. It had everything needed to find success, but instead it flopped. It grossed only 200mm worldwide, on a 190mm budget (which doesn’t account for how much was spent on the big marketing campaign).
Granted, the movie isn’t perfect but it deserved better than its its poor performance. How many more of those movies will Disney try before they give up entirely? And when that happens, Hollywood will truly become creatively bankrupt. When that happens Hollywood will become a factory churning out niche films, targeting a specific audience, with small budgets, instead of big budget, two hour passion projects that have a chance to transcend the medium.
Both viewers and producers have a part to play. They have to take the chance to make original movies; and we have to take the chance to see them. Tomorrowland wasn’t great, but Ex Machina was a masterpiece. Granted, that movie only cost 15 million dollars to make, but it only grossed 25 million. The reason? The studio refused to spend money advertising it, for fear and spending too much to get a return on its investment.
It makes me wonder if E.T. have gotten made today. And if it would have, would it too have been shafted with a limited marketing budget on the expectation that people wouldn’t want to see a movie about a boy who befriends an abandoned alien child. A more worrisome question is: Would E.T. have been a success today? It held the box office record from 1982 until the release of Titanic in 1997. It also came out in an era when sequels were around, but weren’t dominant like they are today. Could it have caught on with viewers the way it did back then? I’d like to think so, but it’s hard to say.
These days Hollywood seems gunshy to commit a lot of money producing a big budget summer movie that doesn’t have something familiar attached to it. The new Ghostbusters movie just saw its trailer release to a collective “meh” from viewers. Criticism focused on its obnoxious stereotypes to its bland cg-look. With a few tweaks it might be an okay movie, but because the studio was afraid to make it a new property they slapped an iconic brand onto it, and now it has to compete with the Ghostbusters franchise that many of us grew up watching and loving. That’s an impossible standard to meet. And because of that the movie will probably underperform, and the studio will probably think the fault lies in the Ghostbuster name, instead of on their own over-reliance of a beloved property.
How sad is it that one of the most original ideas I’ve seen lately is actually an amalgam of two existing franchises. Sony seems to be going forward with their idea to mesh the Men in Black franchise with their 21 Jump Street movies. It’s technically not an original idea, since it’s two established properties, and yet the idea of blending them is at least quasi-original, and that may be the best we can hope for in Hollywood going forward.
Because right now Hollywood is just a franchise factory, without the creative ambition or the nerve to try something really new.