"Studios want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want all the merchandising, video games, and spin-offs that can come with a hot property. It’s not just about box office. It’s about total pop culture domination.” This was Jeff Bock, talking to Variety about the globalised-value of film properties considered to be popcorn blockbusters, ‘considered’ being the key word here.
This summer is one of hopeless surrender and fake hurrahs. Tent pole motion pictures, the kind that elicit the notion of packed cinema houses, failed to bring in audiences this year. Studios – the word generalises every major film corporation in America – have been reliant on big-budget motion pictures to deliver the goods for a better part of the decade now, throwing in every known audience-proven formula into the concoction (3D and IMAX are mandatory now, as are the product placements and badly-cut trailers).
The results, though, have been lacklustre, and yet outwardly great.
In a world of conundrums, this is hardly new territory.
Let me explain: The total box office of North America (until August this year) is at $4.5 billion. The number is up 10% from last year. The reason for the rise is the hike in ticket price. Total admissions America-wide are 31 million less than last year – that is, 500 million versus 531 million from last year. From May to July, the prime slot for big motion pictures, releases have been playing a game of hopscotch, with each new title briefly jumping to and over the last release. Most delivered unsatisfactory financial gains.
At the day of September 6, 2016, overall American domestic box office from January is at $8.132 billion. 2015 capped $11.495 billion. Audience interest has been fluctuating; the first quarter of the year saw overall box office up by 12.7%, by the second quarter it slid down 9.25%, and July and August proved bumper months with a rise of 16.25%.
As of now, Disney owns the biggest piece of the pie, holding a 26% market share, with nine releases so far (last year the studio had the second spot with 19.8% market share and 11 releases).
Finding Dory, the year's biggest domestic grosser so far, is at $483 million; globally the movie has grossed $945 million. Captain America: Civil War (or as I call it, nearly-Avengers 3), holds the second spot domestically at $408 million, while topping the charts worldwide at $1.152 billion; in contrast, Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) made $714 million and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) stopped at $1.4 billion. Disney’s acquisition of Pixar and Marvel (and Lucas Films) has its advantages – business wise. The two titles are also ones made with a thorough quality control oversight by their individual creative heads (John Lasseter for Pixar and Kevin Feige for Marvel).
Mr. Lasseter also exerts creative control at Disney Animation. Their product, Zootopia, brought in $341 million in the US and worldwide outgrossed Finding Dory at over $1 billion.
Furry animals are still good to go, regardless of their backing. The Secret Life of Pets (a Universal release, not Disney, which I am sure will lead to a sequel soon), stands at $767 million globally. Produced at $75 million, that is 1025% profit right there. The live action/animation hybrid Jungle Book, again a Disney title, released in April, is at a $964 million grossing.
These successes don’t mean that everything Disney touches turns to gold. Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, topped out globally at $295 million; Pete's Dragon at $95 million, and Steven Spielberg's The BFG made $165 million (domestically it is stuck at $54 million). Every one of these is a costly misfire – Alice, Pete’s Dragon and BFG's budget were $170, $65 and $140 million respectively – and Disney stands to lose in tens of millions with each title.
Warner Bros., number two in the list at 16.5% stake, released 14 titles and made $1.3 billion America-wide. WB's DC comics push helped quite a bit globally with Batman v Superman at $872 million and Suicide Squad at $678 million, regardless of mixed reviews.
WB's in-house sub-studio Newline was, quietly, a substantial support. Central Intelligence, with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, made at $50 million grossed $214 million, while horror titles The Conjuring 2 and Lights Out grossed $319 and $138 million worldwide respectively. Given that both titles were produced at $40 million and $4.9 million, this is a win-win situation.
Familiarity in horror (like familiarity with franchises and superheroes) seems to be the trick here. The Conjuring 2 serves as a prequel and brings back the original cast. Lights Out was a short film with some fan-following. Purge: Election Year (Universal, earned $109 million worldwide of a $10 million budget), wraps up the franchise and The Shallows (Sony), which starred Blake Lively as a surfer stranded against a shark, has, well, Blake Lively fighting off a shark.
The Shallows, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Run All Night, Non-Stop), is tricky territory. Sharks have a sketchy history at the box office. The last one that did more than good business was Spielberg's Jaws, which started the summer blockbuster craze in the late 70s.
Some major franchises and tent poles folded in the US, though not worldwide. Warcraft, Jason Bourne, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Star Trek Beyond, X-Men: Apocalypse, Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters, The Legend of Tarzan and Ice Age: Collision Course, each with a heavy price tag, proved to be financially inferior, costing their studios tens of millions, regardless of grossing from $200 to $500 million. For price tags well into $170 million plus, one wonders where the money is going.
Certainly not in the screenplay, or originality of concept.
As much as I loathe the average entertainer, I can't fault their tendency or, the studio's to play safe. With the global box office on the rise, the word flop becomes, strangely, a nonentity.
Notwithstanding piracy concerns, Ice Age: Collision Course made $327 million internationally, and tanked at $62 million in the US; Warcraft folded in the US at $47 million but still managed to make $386 million internationally – its total gross $433 million, is helped by China's $220 million worth of ticket sales.
In fact, China is helping out Hollywood quite a bit (and one wonders why America hates China). Star Trek Beyond is at $30 million (it released on the 2nd of September there), Jason Bourne is $63 million, Ice Age: Collision Course at $59 million, The Secret Life of Pets and Ninja Turtles 2 at $58 million, Now You See Me 2 at $97 million and Independence Day: Resurgence at $75 million.
The world loves Hollywood – as does Pakistan. While straightforward box-office numbers are hard to come by here, (because there is no singular authority charting the ticket window), we get simultaneous release of every major title. Pecuniary gains, and emotions, are roughly the same. If a film resonates, it does so globally.
Whether they are good, bad, or pedestrian (mostly pedestrian), is another, far tiring, mostly worn-out debate.