Five Lessons Hollywood Can Learn From a Crappy Summer at the Movies
I have a dream job. What could be better than watching and talking about movies for a living? Nothing; the answer is nothing. But lately my job has been a lot less fun than normal, because the movies themselves have been a lot less fun. Quite frankly, this summer sucks.
Last Friday, I published an article called “2016: The Worst Summer Movie Season Ever?” and my conclusion was, in a nutshell, “There’s a very real chance it could be the worst in at least a decade.” The feedback I got on the piece almost entirely agreed with my conclusions, which didn’t surprise me; for weeks, everywhere I go, when my job comes up all people want to talk about is how horrible the movies have gotten. There’s still time for the summer of 2016 to redeem itself a little, but even if Ghostbusters, Jason Bourne, and Suicide Squad all hit this will still be one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory.
But why? What went wrong? Filmmakers and executives didn’t set out to make one disaster after another, and sometimes projects made in good faith with good intentions turn out badly. Clearly, though, some of their thinking needs to be adjusted. Here are five lessons studios could (and should) learn from the ongoing train wreck that is the summer of 2016:
1. Studios need to be more selective about sequels.
The top 3 movies of the summer, Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and X-Men: Apocalypse are all sequels, and The Conjuring 2, which is closing in on $100 million at the domestic box office, is another of the year’s few success stories. But those titles pale in comparison to the number of sequels that flopped, including Now You See Me 2 (which has made less than half than NYSM 1), Independence Day: Resurgence (which made less in its opening weekend than the original movie did 20 years ago), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Sequels are thought to be sure things when it comes to box office, but this summer proved that is clearly not the case.
Case in point: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which brought back almost all of its original cast and creators, got decent reviews, and still wound up making a little more than a third of what the first Neighbors grossed. (It’s currently made $55 million in the U.S. and $102 million worldwide, versus the original’s $150 million and $270 million, respectively.) The only thing Neighbors 2 didn’t have was a premise that made a whole lot of sense trotted out for a second time. (The same couple has to deal with another group of rowdy college kids?) Just because a movie is a hit doesn’t mean viewers automatically want another.
2. Movie stars still matter.
$50 million. Reportedly, that’s what Will Smith asked for to return for two Independence Day sequels. It sounds like an absurd, astronomical figure that a studio would have to be insane to pay. But now, 13 days into Independence Day: Resurgence’s release, with the film basically tanking at the U.S. box office, it doesn’t seem quite so absurd or astronomical. The fine film critic at Indiewire, David Ehrlich, wrote a piece earlier this year called “Alden Ehrenreich Playing Han Solo Is Proof That Movie Stardom Is Dead.” He argued that, with very few exceptions (he cites Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise), there are no more movie stars left, only brands. Even with Will Smith, ID:R was not going to be on par with Star Wars. But there’s no doubt the sequel would have made way more money with him than it’s making without him. Not wanting to pay Smith for two sequels might mean that second sequel never happens at all.
3. Speaking of movie stars, The Rock is one of the biggest right now.
The 2016 summer box office to date is a sad list. One of the few bright spots in a depressing crop of films is Central Intelligence, a buddy action comedy featuring Kevin Hart and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. On a $50 million budget, the movie is about to gross $100 million in the United States after just three weeks in theaters; it’s currently the fifth highest-grossing movie of the summer and has outperformed all of the disappointing sequels mentioned above (at least domestically). This is not a new phenomenon; last year, Johnson headlined a rote disaster movie called San Andreas, and it wound up making $155 million domestically and almost $500 million worldwide. A few months before that he played a key role in Furious 7, the biggest movie in the franchise to date. We may have fewer movie stars than we used to, but Johnson is building a reputation as one of the most creatively and financially consistent actors in Hollywood.
4. Superheroes: People still like ’em.
“Superhero fatigue” is a phrase that gets thrown around constantly in moviegoing circles, and it has been for years. (I was recently listening to a podcast from 2011, and it was used then in reference to Green Lantern.) But it’s not really borne out by the evidence. Fatigued or not, the biggest movie of the summer is still Captain America: Civil War, and without Hugh Jackman or any of the original X-Men cast (and in spite of the worst reviews ever garnered by a movie in the main X-Men series) X-Men: Apocalypse still made $150 million in the U.S. months after Deadpool shocked the industry with $363 million domestic.
In fact, three of the top six movies of 2016 are superhero movies (the mediocre Batman v Superman still made $330 million in the U.S. alone). It’s arguable that the reason a relatively star-free The Legend of Tarzan beat expectations at the box office last weekend (when it opened to a surprisingly decent $46.5 million July 4th holiday) was because it was sold as a superheroification of the old pulp hero, with trailers and ads playing up Tarzan swinging through the jungle like Spider-Man. And all this has happened before August’s Suicide Squad, which looks poised to own the end of summer in an otherwise weak marketplace.
5. Blockbusters are really all that matters in the summer.
One thing that surprised me in my research into last week’s “Worst Summer Ever” piece was the fact that every summer is basically the same, at least from an average Rotten Tomatoes score perspective. But the average RT scores of just the $100 million budget movies fluctuates a lot, and it’s those scores that reflect the years we look at as disasters. It really only takes one or two tentpoles that people love to turn the whole thing around. It’s too late for 2016. But it’s not too late to save next summer and the summer after that with a few key changes.