Justice League is already being regarded as a dud, and while its final box office totals are unknown, it's most certainly a symbol of how no movie is too big to fail. It seems like a curious sign of the times in Hollywood that a film making $93.8m on its opening weekend can be considered a failure, but that's the case with Justice League; it is kind of staggering that one of the most expensive and biggest hyped films of 2017 couldn’t land a $100m opening weekend.
However, it says a lot about the major shifts in the film industry of the past decade that billion dollar grosses aren’t just the new normal, they’re a necessary part of business. Reviews weren't great for the DCEU's latest epic but that didn't stop them before from raking in the big bucks. So, the bigger question remains: How did the film industry make it so hard to make money? Surely it was too big to fail?
Questions have swirled for many months over how much Justice League cost to make. The official budget listed across various sources is $300m, which would make it the second most expensive film of all time, tied with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and surpassed only by Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (estimated cost of $378.5m). That alone is a shocking budget, particularly when most reviews note how haphazard and cheap looking many of the special effects seem. Yet some have doubted that number is real, and have theorized if Hollywood’s infamous creative accounting has come into play to help conceal its true cost.
We're talking about a major budget franchise epic with film-altering reshoots that required a change of director, a whole new round of editing to get it under two hours, and extensive other changes. Add to that the cost of marketing (rumored to be around $150m), and Justice League could easily be the most expensive film ever made. Even if we stick with that original number and assume the rule of twice the budget to break even applies, Justice League is still a movie that has to make a minimum of $600m before it can get into profit territory. However you spin it, that’s ridiculous.
Modern blockbuster cinema works on the ethos that these movies are too big to fail. They cost so much to make, their promotional budgets could fund half the indie distributors in Hollywood, and if they don’t make a billion dollars worldwide then they’ve let the team down - but if not they've still justified themselves and broken even. The big budget has become as much a calling card of the franchise as the brand name, and with cinema attendance numbers dwindling over the past year, studios are pulling out every trick in the book to entice potential customers back to the theatre.
2017 saw Hollywood suffer one of its worst years for box office revenue, as attendance hit a 25-year low. This Summer, domestic numbers hit $3.57bn, a large number but a shocking 15.7% decrease from the previous year, making it the largest summer to summer decline of modern industry times. While there were bright spots, the blockbuster landscape took a hit. The reliable franchises and potential big-budget hits failed to excite audiences, with films like Alien: Covenant, The Mummy and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword struggling to break even. In the case of the latter two, the costs were significantly bigger than mere financial loss: The Mummy may have single-handedly killed any chance Universal had of establishing a new Avengers-style expanded universe for their monsters iconography, and King Arthur is estimated to have cost Warner Bros. over $175m, as well as end a potential franchise before it had even begun.
"Too Big To Fail" filmmaking isn’t just about expensive movies: it’s about the desperation to appeal to as many potential customers as possible, even at the expense of the product. These are films that major studios are trying to force hype onto, but even the savviest (and most expensive) advertising campaign can only carry a movie so far if the audiences aren’t into it. True hype is organic, and no amount of marketing can change that, which is a problem for studios trying to start multi-film sagas before they’ve even given the first in the series a release date. Nobody really seemed that interested in the Dark Universe, Universal’s attempt to replicate Marvel’s success by turning the creatures of their golden age horror movies into an interconnected action franchise, yet the studio spent so much money trying to will it into success, even as every warning sign told them that it would probably fail. Universal may have only got one movie made there but the chances are they pumped more unseen money into the system to keep a creative team going with the idea, at least until pre-production was shut down on Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein.
This style of filmmaking makes it difficult to change course from the planned tone and plotting of any given shared universe, but as we’ve seen with the DCEU, sometimes change is necessary. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was lambasted for its humourless grim approach, so it was no surprise when Suicide Squad’s reshoots worked overtime to inject more comedy and a flashier visual style into its story, even if many of those additions were superficial (such as the jokey character bios introducing each member of the squad). Wonder Woman was praised for a lighter approach to the material as well as Gal Gadot’s performance, and so Justice League had to quickly change track.
This is not a problem limited to DC, and as questions fall over the veracity of the Chinese box office’s seemingly untouchable financial clout to make or break hits, it will be a question many studios will be asking themselves in the near future. It’s also an issue that’s become increasingly harder to justify, as smaller budget movies like Get Out and It bring home the biggest profits of the year in comparison to their budgets. How do you explain spending upwards of $300m on one film that may struggle to break even when these low-to-mid films make hundreds of millions over their cost without breaking a sweat? They may not have the franchise appeal of the DC universe but perhaps that’s not a bad thing.
With talks that Batman star Ben Affleck may not want to continue the series and the box office numbers struggling internationally, it may be time for DC to change course dramatically with their plans for the franchise. A quieter, more slowly developed and cost-effective approach may be what helps and, frankly, it's a business model other studios should consider. Audiences will always love their blockbusters but they cannot be forced to swallow obscenely expensive wannabe sagas simply because so much money was spent on them. Like everything else in business, no movie is too big to fail.