The State of the Summer So Far
Written by Sarah
We’re halfway through Summer Movie Season 2010. With two weeks of June releases and July left to go, it’s a good time to take the temperature of the box office so far (I don’t count August as a summer movie month, but rather consider it a limbo-time, like April, in which movies that weren’t expected to stand up among the strong competition of May-July are sent to play in a softer sandbox). It’s very popular right now to bemoan the weak box office of summer 2010. There was much gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes in Hollywood when the Memorial Day weekend experienced its worst box office in seventeen years. Studio executives and market forecasters have been lamenting the weak box office for what feels like years at this point. But what if you stopped thinking about box office as a constant? What if it was judged on the same sliding scale as the housing market? Then the box office of summer 2010, while weaker than it was five years ago, is actually the norm for a new reality.
And that’s what this whole summer is about. The movie business is changing and filmmakers aren’t keeping up. It isn’t even about saying, “Oh, people are tired of all these remakes and sequels,” because that isn’t true. The Karate Kid just knocked out $56 million in its opening, non-holiday, weekend. Iron Man 2 has the top weekend box office of 2010 with over $128 million. Of the top ten highest grosses of 2010 so far, five are remakes and two are sequels. And we haven’t even gotten to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, both franchise entries guaranteed to rake in the dough. Nor is this change about “good movies always earn money”. Clash of the Titans and Valentine’s Day are in the top ten, too, and those movies sucked. And looking at this weekend just past, I wouldn’t say The Karate Kid was substantially better than The A-Team. Both are ’80’s retreads coasting on nostalgia and the charm of their leads. So what’s new about the box office in 2010?
It’s about managing expectations.
Between escalating ticket prices (it can cost a family of four around $50 for a night at the movies, and forget it if you’re going to see something in 3D) and the advancement in technology, theatrical release isn’t all it used to be. Audiences simply don’t have the resources to spend at the movies like they did ten years ago. Hundred-million-dollar-earners are fewer and further in between. The new reality isn’t going to support gargantuan filmmaking forever. Will there be exceptions? Of course. But the idea of a movie “bombing” simply because it comes in at #2 with $40 million is ridiculous. That’s not a bomb--that’s the new average. It’s time to rein in the expectations. Disney put $200 million into Prince of Persia…why? In 2005 Joss Whedon released a movie called Serenity, a sci-fi space action flick that looked as good as any of the Star Wars prequels and was made for $39 million. THIRTY-NINE MILLION. Seriously, check out Serenity and see exactly what a clever director can get out of $40 million. You don’t NEED $200 million to make your action movie, you just want that much. To date, Prince has pulled in over $262 million worldwide, but only $72 million of that comes from domestic American box office. That’s a lot of money, to be sure, but against that $200 million budget, it doesn’t look so impressive. Still, Prince will hit $300 million before it’s done with its theatrical run, which brings us to the next question: how important is domestic box office these days? Prince was supposed to launch a franchise for Disney, but the American box office—so long the standard fueling boardroom decisions—was mediocre at best. Overseas, however, Prince has been one of the biggest hits of the summer. Does that justify a sequel? Does Disney go ahead with a movie they know won’t play well in the US, betting instead on overseas box office? It would be a paradigm shift in American filmmaking.
The same thinking plagued The A-Team. “We’ve thrown $100 million into this movie, it will make $100 million back.” That’s flawed logic today. There’s not that much money going around anymore. Just because you spent a bunch of money and threw a slick marketing campaign at me doesn’t equal de facto box office success. Regular readers of this site have seen Lainey go on about the stars selling their movies so hard these days—everyone has to come with their most charming A game in hopes of winning their opening weekend box office. Just look at Tom Cruise. The man famous for controlling his image to nth degree has resorted to selling his new movie as Tom Cruise, that crazy guy who overacts. The tagline on the poster might as well read, Tom Cruise: Now more Tom Cruisier than ever. And now, shilling for Knight and Day, Cruise is owning his nuttiness, using it to try and make us laugh, dressing up as uber-producer Les Grossman and reminding us that yes, Tom Cruise is crazy, but he also makes you laugh. (For the record, Knight and Day looks revolting but the trailer ran in front of my showing of The A-Team and the packed theater laughed a lot--it’ll make bank.) Meanwhile, The Karate Kid was made on a comparatively modest $40 million, was expected to be a moderate success, so by opening at $56 million it looks like a huge success. It’s easier to beat modest expectations than blockbustery ones. Studio executives, underwriters, and filmmakers have got to learn to scale it back, all of it, from budgets to box office expectations. Stop wasting your breath on crying about how people just don’t go to the movies anymore. We want to go to the movies, and we do go, just not in the droves of years past. Those were the halcyon times, probably never to be seen again. Get over it. Get clever, relearn working on modest means, manage your expectations, and sell us something worth seeing.
Written by Sarah
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