Lately, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for summer blockbusters to make a splash at the box office. What used to be three months of memorable blockbuster moviegoing, the modern summer film season hasn’t just become longer (starting in late April and running through August), we’re also seeing an increased number of high profile releases vying for box office dollars week to week. Therefore, it’s more important than ever that any individual film makes a big splash in its opening weekend – or be doomed to obscurity as the next round of contenders come into the multiplex.
2013 has been especially rough – with several tentpole blockbusters failing to gain traction with critics, and worse yet, audiences. Films on the list include Disney’s The Lone Ranger, Columbia Pictures’ After Earth, and Universal Pictures’ R.I.P.D. which will be lucky to make back half of its $100 million+ budget. Considering blockbusters help provide revenue for smaller art-house films and mid-level studio productions, costly box office bombs can have a serious impact on the upcoming film slate.
In order to prevent further costly studio misfires, we’ve put together a list of 5 Reasons Summer Blockbuster Movies Are Failing at the Box Office. Of course the list is not all-inclusive, so once you’ve had a chance to read our reasons, share your thoughts in the comments.
The summer film slate, which used to be bookended within the actual summer season (when kids were out of school), has become bloated and over-stuffed. Beginning in late spring and tapering off throughout August, at least one major release punctuates every single box office week – with many weeks now seeing multiple films battling for box office revenue. As a result, plenty of quality (along with a fair share of not-so-great) films are falling through the cracks, and there’s less incentive for viewers to return for repeat viewings.
Opening weekend has always been a strong indicator of which films are going to turn a profit and which ones are going to have trouble earning back their budgets. However, in a lot of cases, a major factor in box office success is a film’s staying power – fueled by casual moviegoers responding to word of mouth along with second (and third) viewings by established fans. In order to secure over a $1 billion total haul ($500 million domestically), The Dark Knight was number 1 at the box office for four consecutive weeks back in 2008. Iron Man 3 only managed to hold the number 1 crown for two weeks, before another major tentpole film, Star Trek Into Darkness, took the top spot. Fun fact: the following week, Star Trek Into Darkness came in at number 3, bested by both Fast & Furious 6 and The Hangover, Part 3 (Iron Man 3 was number 5 at that point – four weeks after release).
As a result, studios would benefit from spacing out releases – or outright bumping major films that aren’t summer season worthy into the fall, winter, or even spring. As it is, the release slate is cannibalizing – stifling potential longterm successes and outright killing-off films that are more difficult to market.
For many years, summer blockbusters have been synonymous with epic, over-the-top, CGI spectacle – driving films like The Avengers on to over $1.5 billion at the global box office. However, as CGI effects have become increasingly less expensive to produce, many studios have fallen into the habit of relying heavily on eye-popping visuals rather than engaging stories and characters to get people in the seats.
There’s no doubt that memorable action set-pieces and larger-than-life creatures can be a major draw for moviegoers (sometimes it’s just fun to be wowed), but with many competing CGI-heavy films in theaters, epic visual effects aren’t always enough anymore. Much of the marketing for R.I.P.D. attempted to sell the film on its whacky odd couple setup (with a paranormal twist) along with a host of digital monsters. In spite of a $130 million budget, audiences mostly ignored the film, dismissing the premise and the CGI action as a less-inspired version of Men in Black – one that wasn’t worth dishing out money at the box office. Taking the previous page into account, R.I.P.D.‘s heavy reliance on special effects were never going to be enough to compete with RED 2 and The Conjuring, not to mention holdovers like Pacific Rim and Despicable Me 2, in a summer movie spot.
Even after solid reviews, the muddled ticket sales and subsequent second week falloff for Pacific Rim shows that casual audiences are more discerning about which CGI blockbusters they’ll support in theaters – meaning that even giant robots and monsters are not enough to guarantee solid studio profits.
Part of the box office bomb dilemma occurs long before a film is released – when overly anxious executives green light a movie and provide directors with a ridiculously high budget. Admittedly, you’ve got to spend money to make money, so it’s understandable that producers invest outrageous bucks in big name stars and expensive CGI effects to help give their project the best chance at success.
Sometimes it works: last year’s risky Snow White and the Huntsman made almost $400 million globally on a reported $170 million budget; but other times it doesn’t, like with After Earth, which only made $60 million domestically on a $130 million budget. After Earth ultimately earned back its production costs through international ticket sales (bringing in a total of $235 million) but it’s still hard to determine where that original $130 million was even spent in the first place. In spite of a few slick CGI sequences, After Earth wasn’t particularly grand in scale – meaning that, with careful planning, the studio and director M. Night Shyamalan could have probably reined in the spending without negatively impacting the production (since the final film was still panned by critics and most moviegoers).
Many filmmakers and executives put the cart before the horse – assuming that bigger is better. While big-budgeted movies, fueled by an expensive lead and over-the-top visuals set pieces, might make for good pre-release marketing. Once the movie is out, it has to be able stand in the court of public opinion (as mentioned, high production values and recognizable stars aren’t a guaranteed formula for box office success). Taking a more modest approach to pre-production – i.e. not trying to turn every script into a tentpole blockbuster – could lower the cost of certain film budgets and deliver more balanced (and better quality) movie experiences overall.
Brand recognition helps drive viewers to movies: thirteen out of the top fifteen worldwide grossing films of all time (unadjusted for inflation) are either adaptations or sequels. Only two entries are entirely original (Avatar and Titanic), indicating that casual viewers are eager to support new installments in established franchises or big screen adaptations of popular book series, among other familiar properties. In fact, despite strong critical support and positive word of mouth, Inception only comes in at number thirty-six on that list – suggesting that many moviegoers respond to branding and name recognition over original (and as a result unknown) movie experiences.
It’s no wonder that studios are always on the prowl for a new comic book to adapt, a new toy line to resurrect, or a new young adult readership to exploit. That said, for every Iron Man, Transformers, or Twilight, there’s a franchise bomb waiting to happen (Green Hornet, Battleship, or Beautiful Creatures). For that reason, not every established IP is going to mean big box office dollars.
In the last two years, Disney produced two highly publicized bombs based on known characters (John Carter and The Lone Ranger) – both of which cost over $200 million to produce. On paper, adaptations of either property might have sounded like a good idea (John Carter even secured decent reviews) but their flat box office returns indicate that neither brand was as strong as studio heads assumed. Instead of committing a nine-figure budget to a proposed movie, based predominantly on branding and merchandising potential, Hollywood needs to adjust (especially considering that overstuffed summer movie slate) and show a little more restraint. Executives would benefit from becoming more selective (and a little less naive) regarding which properties will compete at the modern movie theater – or, at the very least, which ones can actually make good on a $100 million+ budget.
Ever since Avatar showed how much extra money can be made through added 3D ticket pricing, studios have been pushing unnecessary 3D upgrades onto films that would have been just as good (or even better) in 2D. Previously, we’ve addressed the biggest misconceptions about 3D, and while the quality of 3D post-conversion has improved (The Avengers) along with a filmmaker’s ability to do something interesting with the premium format (Life of Pi), plenty of 3D films do not deliver on the additional investment by consumers. For years, studios have been able to mitigate expected losses on a potential box office underperformer by adding post-conversion 3D – under the assumption that they’ll make more money in 3D surcharges than they will be paying to have the film post-converted (increasing their overall net revenue).
However, duped by a number of underwhelming 3D experiences, coupled with the already high cost of movie tickets (and concessions), moviegoers are becoming more selective about which films are worth the cost of 3D pricing and which ones will be just fine in 2D. As a result, certain movies are actually losing money on 3D production costs (whether post conversion or native 3D filmmaking), making a potential box office bomb even more costly – should moviegoers overwhelmingly opt for 2D viewings of a film that’s already struggling to find an audience (and box office dollars).
It’s unlikely that 3D filmmaking is going anywhere but there’s no doubt that certain moviegoers are beginning to experience 3D fatigue – meaning that, moving forward, there’s a greater burden on studios to make sincere decisions about which movies will deliver worthwhile return on 3D investment for both the studio and the consumer.
Of course, the biggest box office challenge facing movie studios is getting potential viewers to leave the comfort of their home theater in favor of seeing a film on the big screen. As mentioned, a trip to the multiplex is more costly than ever – and most industry insiders expect prices to rise (not fall) in the coming years. Certain theater chains have been able to incentivize audiences with in-theater food service, premium seating (such as D-Box), as well as premiere formats (RPX and IMAX, among others). However, as HD consumer electronics, syncing with at-home services like Netflix and RedBox, are now able to provide a reasonable substitute for certain theater experiences, it’s easy to understand why many film lovers are holding-off on an expensive trip to the theater – and becoming more choosey about which films they will spring to see on the big screen. Needless to say, with an increasing number of box office bombs over the last few years, studios cannot afford to have fewer and fewer people attending films in theaters.
Of course, the primary way that studios can combat the stay-at-home trend is to become more consumer-friendly. Instead of raising ticket prices, slapping on unneeded 3D conversions, or wasting money on nine-figure franchise tentpole flicks (that no one asked for), producers and distributors need to up their game and deliver films that audiences are willing to invest in – and can’t wait to see.
Again, our list is not all-inclusive, so be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.
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