The American Blockbuster Bubble

The Hollywood Reporter recently published a Todd McCarthy article wondering, basically, about sequel fatigue. The summer, he notes, movies like Transformers: The Last Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Cars 3 have each sputtered at the American box office. This is our fifth Transformers movie since 2007, our fifth Pirates movie since 2003, and the third Cars movie since 2006. McCarthy notes, as others have, that these movies come with massive budgets; the first two cost better than $200 million each, while Cars 3 comes in at about $175 million. The return on investment has not been brilliant, for the most part. The Last Knight has made back about twice its budget. Dead Men Tell No Tales a little more than three times its budget, and Cars 3 has only just exceeded it. (Wonder Woman, a movie with a $150 million budget, has to date made its budget five times over. Beauty and the Beast, with its $160 million budget, has made better than $1.2 billion, which is around eight times what it cost.) McCarthy draws a historical line with these films as well. In the 1950s, “roadshow films” with Biblical and/or swords and sandals motifs were expensive to make and extremely popular: Quo VadisThe RobeThe Greatest Story Ever ToldThe Ten CommandmentsBen-Hur, etc. People also lined up for more recent historical epics in the 1960s like El Cid, Lawrence of ArabiaHow the West Was WonDoctor Zhivago , and of course, big-budget musicals such as West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Oliver!. Those with keen eyes can spot six of the ten Best Picture winners from ’59 to ’68, which McCarthy also believes to be part of the appeal for studios: there’s nothing better than making money and being told you’re a genius for making great movies. The history, however, is not complimentary to the big budget spectacles. People got tired of them after nearly twenty years, and of course the people watching the movies changed for good during those twenty years. Taste changes, which is the greatest reason why I think McCarthy’s article is optimistic, if Panglossian:

So the issue then and now is the old gambler’s problem, of knowing when to quit. When you’re on a winning streak and it looks like there’s pots more money to be made — as seems to be the case with the much-reviled latest Pirates and Transformers editions thanks to overseas and ancillary revenues — it’s hard to resist staying at the table. But there’s another bromide that advises quitting while you’re ahead. There’s little doubt that the bottom-line bean counters will always endorse playing a string out until the till is empty, while artists who care about their reputations might prefer not to keep playing the same hand until the public tires of it.

I think he strongly overstates the “artists” and their scruples, who still have to eat and pay their kids’ college tuition. I also think he’s exactly right about the “bottom-line bean counters,” who, as they did in the 1970s, had to eat just about everything they knew if they wanted to keep making money.

This is a line of thought that just about anyone interested in movies has had in mind for a long while now; it was a topic of conversation late in the last edition of the B&B B&B. I mentioned a few of these things during our talk, but certainly not all of them, and definitely not in detail. Below I discuss five different elements which stand in the way of an American Newer Wave (I hope we’ll call it something else when it actually happens).

-1- We’re still waiting for our first absolute disaster.

I don’t know how many times this will need to happen before studios get gunshy, but these franchise movies are going to have to start losing money domestically; given how many moviegoers there are worldwide and the kind of pull these studios have, I don’t know how a superhero movie or a Transformers could full-stop lose money. However, I think a movie with a giant budget that hemorrhages money domestically is a necessity to stop this tide.

The total gross figures I quoted above for those movies with the long names are international figures; Box Office Mojo, on the other hand, defaults to domestic gross, and on that front it’s a very different story for those flicks. It’s not precisely “early” in the game for any of those movies, especially Dead Men Tell No Tales, which was released in late May, but based entirely on the American box office not one of Transformers ($121.5 million), Pirates ($169.4 million), or Cars ($136 million) has made back their budget this summer. How many summers will studios need to see a domestic loss, and how bad will it have to be? It only took half a decade or so of Paint Your Wagon and Darling Lili before The Exorcist and Jaws and Star Wars were the kings of the castle last time we had to play this game. But then again, Hollywood was not keeping an eye on the global market fifty years ago the way we do now.

-2- China and other international markets are a bailout…for now.

As noted above, the difference between losing money on these enormously risky movies and making money on them is the international box office, especially China. It’s unfair (and honestly a tad xenophobic) to blame China’s cinephiles, as one sometimes sees in articles like this, for the present quality of blockbuster movies. Always remember the blame lies with the tycoons at the top of American studios who would produce The Boss Baby 7: Triumph of the Will if they thought it would produce a strong enough return on investment. But it’s true that imported American movies are a staple of what Chinese theatergoers, and of course many other nations around the world, are interested in seeing.

I read another Hollywood Reporter piece by a writer on the scene in Shanghai named Abid Rahman a couple weeks ago. Rahman makes the case that The Last Knight might have had too keen an eye on the Chinese market, limply and consistently doing fanservice for that audience by dropping in Chinese brands.

The Last Knight, on the other hand, has been pilloried on Chinese social media, particularly for the product placement and the confusing plot, and this audience kiss of death is what is likely to dash any hopes the film had of beating Age of Extinction‘s box-office score.

On Sina Weibo, one of the larger social media platforms, user Lu Lihao RS summed up a general feeling about the confusing nature of the film, writing, “I didn’t understand anything except advertisements for all the brands.”

Another Sina Weibo user named Wang echoed the issue with product placement: “Even though it is normal to add Chinese elements into the Hollywood blockbusters, it still makes the audience uncomfortable when there are too many Chinese brands.”

Rahman’s providing anecdotal evidence, for the most part, but he also notes that from a fiscal perspective The Last Knight just isn’t meeting expectations for Paramount. Chinese audiences aren’t any more dumb or easily led than American audiences; they pay to see a movie, not a commercial. Perhaps cynically the heads of American corporations believe that they can pass off any schlock and get foreign audiences to bite, and they may be right to some extent, for there’s no question that the global market is propping up the worst of American blockbuster cinema. The question is not really what kind of loss will need to happen internationally, but what return on investment is too low for the bigwigs at Paramount or Sony or Universal?

-3- Secondary markets such as clothes, toys, video games, etc. are also bailouts.

What will make Cars 3 profitable, above all else, is the toys that go with the movie. Ever since George Lucas got the rights to Star Wars toys (which should make us wonder if Lucas could literally see, like, ten years into the future), no one has underestimated the power of selling toys or t-shirts or whatever else people will buy. As neither a parent nor an elementary school kid in 2006, I don’t understand this on a personal level, but Cars makes more money off its toys than its rentals. (I’m sure this is, if not true, pretty close to it for Transformers as well.) I won’t go into this because I don’t pretend to have a deep knowledge of retail, but those of us looking for something different and exciting to happen at the box office need to remember that Finian’s Rainbow and Cleopatra were not going to sell action figures anyway.

-4- American needs someone else’s New Wave to surf, even if it’s an Old one.

The American New Wave of the 1970s was the result of a score of different impulses and stimulants and changes and prods, some of which we cannot recreate and wouldn’t want to even if we could. From a perspective of talent, and not of the socio-cultural or business environments, there are two essential lessons to take from the American New Wave.

  1. The talent for a New(er) Wave is everywhere. Dennis Hopper and Hal Ashby were already in Hollywood, acting and editing, respectively, before directing. Roger Corman gave early directing opportunities to Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. University film programs gave a leg up to Coppola, Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader, and George Lucas. William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Altman loaded up on experience through directing TV; Michael Cimino got his directing commercials. John Boorman, Roman Polanski, and Milos Forman were imported. It sounds almost impious to say that there’s much more talent than that in American film schools, TV sets, and Hollywood back lots right now, but it’s almost certainly true. There are more people in those fields than ever before, and while breaking out is in some ways much harder than before, there are also more ways to break out than there were fifty years ago. Who knows that the next Spielberg isn’t on YouTube?
  2. Every one of those New Hollywood types was influenced by Citizen Kane and some combination of the French New Wave and contemporary Italian movies. Bonnie and Clyde, the first American New Wave movie, is a Yankee interpretation of Godard. The mood of a Breathless or L’avventura or 400 Blows was essential to what American directors, too often fashioning themselves auteurs, were trying to do. I’m less convinced that there’s another New Wave to copy – here’s a longer and very fine analysis of why “New Waves” don’t happen anymore from Film School Rejects – than I am that the talent to do so is out there. In the ’90s, cutting edge American directors were influenced by ’70s American movies. What are cutting edge American directors in the ’10s influenced by, and how will they make the old new again? Who will bring overtly feminist readings to a visual style influenced by John Ford? Who will steal Carl Theodor Dreyer’s penchant for slow, long takes and adapt it to the BLM movement’s politics? Who will combine Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic choices and the spirit of the Corbyn-Sanders left? Who will bring the galvanic happenings of a Howard Hawks movie to environmental drama? Remember that even in the 1970s, the top five grossing movies of the decade were a simplistic space opera, a thriller about a giant shark, a gross horror movie, a high school musical, and a star-driven heist flick. In other words, it’s not like ’70s audiences were carrying copies of Notes of the Cinematographer into the theater with them. Audiences will always come back for certain elements, but what stuck out about Star Wars or Jaws or The Exorcist (or The Godfather or M*A*S*H* or Coming Home) was that they weren’t stale. They were socially relevant, visually dazzling, and, at their best, skeptically moral. Any quality tailspin that the American film biz extricates itself from has to start there. Fortunately, this seems to me like the easy part.

-5- Get Out needs to be Easy Rider and/or win Best Picture.

The American public ingested Easy Rider the way that Dennis Hopper ingested booze in 1969. Against a budget of $360,000, the film grossed $42 million domestically. (In our money, $2.4 million to $280 million or so.) It was a critical and commercial dynamo, rightly received as a landmark picture. Earlier in 2017 – released in January, when most studios release their chaff – Get Out did something very similar. Universally feted by critics, Get Out took a budget of about $2.5 million and has pulled in about $175.5 million in this country. Like Hopper, Jordan Peele is an actor turned director making his first feature. Like Easy Rider, Get Out takes a familiar, traditionally low-rent genre (road movie, horror) and turns it into a searing meditation on bourgeois American culture. And like Easy RiderGet Out has gotten the kind of buzz among the younger crowd that a studio simply can’t pay for. All of that is what Raybert, later BBS Productions, dreamed of when they tossed spare change at Hopper and Peter Fonda; Blumhouse, which specializes in low-budget, high-yield horror, must have felt much the same about Get Out.

Could Get Out be the Easy Rider of an American Newer Wave? Very possibly. But one thing that I know I’m rooting for already is for Get Out to win Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards in March 2018. It would be a perfect storm, a catalyst for studios to take calculated risks on movies they make for pennies (relatively speaking) and turn them into colossal payouts. Perhaps it would open the door for studios to take longer looks on stories which actively, aggressively discuss the world that people are interested in seeing discussed just so. (One hopes that it opens the door for directors, actors, and other creatives who are not just middle-class honkies to tell their stories via Hollywood, too.)

No trend lasts forever in pop culture, even when it seems insuperable. Could the people at Shea Stadium screaming for The Beatles have believed that something called “hip-hop” would be the world’s most powerful musical force in their own lifetime? Surely those people could not have seen The Godfather coming, much less Jurassic Park or Avatar. Markets change so rapidly, and to be frank things change faster since the turn of the century than they ever have before. McCarthy says studios will string out their franchises until there’s no more blood to be squeezed from them; the wise studio has already figured out that Get Out shows which vein to tap next.

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