In a Vulture interview earlier this summer, movie producer Lynda Obst suggested a doomsday scenario at the box office that would potentially curb Hollywood’s addiction to ever-bigger blockbusters. “If, say, four huge tentpoles were to go down at the same time in the same season,” Obst posited, “it would be catastrophic.” Call Obst a Cassandra, because the first part of her prophecy has come true: At Sony alone, four incredibly expensive tentpoles have gone bust this summer — After Earth, White House Down, The Smurfs 2, and Elysium will all fall far short of $100 million at the box office — and that’s not even counting the belly-flops from other studios, like Disney’s The Lone Ranger and Universal’s R.I.P.D. But will all those writedowns force Hollywood executives to revamp their business for the better, like Obst had hoped, or will it drive them even further into denial? I fear it’s the latter, and that we’ll still be feeling the sting from this season’s bombs for several summers to come. Here are the four lessons Hollywood has most likely learned from this summer, and word of warning: They're not pretty.
They should have stuck with sequels.
Aside from Smurfs 2, this summer's other underperforming blockbusters were either based on original ideas or, in the cases of The Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D., derived from preexisting properties that are unfamiliar to most modern-day moviegoers. Compare those bombs to the action tentpoles that topped this summer's charts: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Fast & Furious 6, and Star Trek Into Darkness all grossed well over $200 million each. With that in mind, why would studios green-light another risky, expensive proposition like Elysium or After Earth when that money could be spent on the established superheroes and sequels that clearly continue to rule the roost? Even World War Z, which might as well be an original property for all it has in common with the Max Brooks novel it takes its title from, stands as an outlier: Though the would-be franchise-starter grossed a surprising $197 million, the production was so costly and tortured (the last third of the movie was completely reshot after filmmaker Marc Forster lost the plot) that it won't inspire much in the way of studio emulation.
U.S. audiences no longer make or break a movie.
The overseas box office will cushion Hollywood’s losses on some of these flops, making it all the more unlikely that executives will learn a valuable lesson from their mistakes. After Earth didn’t do very well here, taking in only $60 million, but it earned triple that abroad; with almost $250 million worldwide in the till, it’s not quite the fiasco for Sony that it first appeared to be. Meanwhile, Pacific Rim has struggled to reach $100 million in the U.S., but the overseas box office is robust enough that Warner Bros. has begun floating the idea of a sequel. Would movie studios really green-light a follow-up to something that lost money domestically? They already have: The only reason we got Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters this summer is because the first Percy Jackson movie made $220 million worldwide, earning a sequel despite its so-so $88.7 million tally back home. (So far, Sea of Monsters is unlikely to make even half that domestic cumulatively.) Red 2 is another example of a summer sequel we didn’t really need: It won’t be a patch on the first Red’s U.S. box office, but Summit is more focused on an overseas recoup anyway. That’s how much Hollywood is in the thrall of sequels: Even when Stateside audiences sour on these franchises, Hollywood would still rather throw out another sequel than finance a blockbuster based on an original idea, which is why you’ll be getting The Smurfs 3 in two years’ time.
When all else fails, blame the release date — not the movie.
I also suspect that after this summer, executives will have second thoughts about releasing big action films in late July or August, a notion that could turn the end of the summer into a box-office wasteland. The highest grossing action movies this summer were all released in May or June; meanwhile, most of July’s would-be blockbusters hit the skids, including Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., and White House Down. James Mangold's The Wolverine came out at the end of July and is certain to be the lowest-grossing X-Men film yet; Elysium came out last Friday and couldn’t even make as much as director Neill Blomkamp’s last film, District 9, despite bigger stars and a bigger budget. Instead of turning their scrutiny inward, executives have begun blaming those failures on “blockbuster fatigue,” claiming that audiences are simply too exhausted to keep coming to the movies after months of building-battering tentpoles. Expect more summer movies, then, to relocate to pre-summer months like March and April, where audiences will hopefully be fresher and more eager; there’s already a precedent for that sort of move, since March's release Oz the Great and Powerful outgrossed most of this year’s summer movies, and next year’s highly anticipated Captain America sequel will land not in June or July but on April 4. (And if you think blockbuster fatigue is a real thing right now, just wait until summer 2015, when we get The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars: Episode 7, the Batman-infused Man of Steel sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Independence Day 2, and countless more cinematic behemoths all at once.)
Even when Hollywood screws up, they still break records.
Though you'd think from all these flops that Hollywood is bleeding red ink, that's just not so. Variety reported the other day that this summer is on pace to break the record set in 2011, with its domestic box-office take of $4.15 billion thus far 11 percent above the previous high watermark. It's true that Sony's unlucky box-office streak means they won't get to share in those spoils, but forget about any soul-searching from the other studios: Those record-breaking hits like Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel do more than ameliorate the studio losses ... they effectively wash them away. How can we expect Hollywood executives to change their ways if they keep seeing bigger and bigger rewards each year?
So much as I'd like to believe Obst's claim that all these blockbuster failures will be the "ultimate challenge to the [blockbuster] model," I think the opposite is likely to be true: Hollywood's reliance on the same familiar franchises will only be hastened. A grim thought, to be sure, but at least there was some light in the summer box-office tunnel: This season's original comedies overperformed, while some of the biggest and most cynical comedy sequels sputtered out. For more on the performance of this summer's funny films, check back tomorrow.