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Is the Era of the Blockbuster Coming to an End?

2013 Summer Movies Review
Sony/Sony/Warner Bros.

There was definitely something apocalyptic about the 2013 summer movie season, and we’re not just talking about the movies themselves.

While major releases, like ‘This Is the End,’ ‘Oblivion,’ ‘Pacific Rim‘ and ‘Elysium,’ dealt with the end of the world, Hollywood appeared to be on the verge of collapse out in the real world. Films that looked like surefire hits flopped; surefire disasters proved to be more disastrous than everyone predicted; the handful of films without numbers in their titles stumbled; and, from the sidelines, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas smirked, shrugged and predicted the end of the moviegoing experience as we know it.

So, what exactly happened here? More importantly, what does this mean for the future of studio filmmaking? It’s easy to imagine Hollywood looking at what happened this summer and learning plenty of lessons; but, maybe, not always the right ones.

The age of the blockbuster isn’t coming to an end, but it is evolving. (Depending on your perspective and taste, it could even be devolving.) The highest grossing films of the summer are the usual suspects (superheroes, sequels and reboots), so let’s take a closer look at the highest grossing films of the summer: ‘Iron Man 3‘ ($408 million), ‘Despicable Me 2‘ ($355 million), ‘Man of Steel‘ ($290 million), ‘Monsters University‘ ($264 million) and ‘Fast and Furious 6‘ ($238 million); each film a sequel or reboot.

Now among the summer’s biggest disappointments were ‘White House Down’ ($72 million), ‘Elysium‘ ($85 million), ‘After Earth‘ ($60 million) and ‘R.I.P.D.’ ($33 million); all original films that audiences rejected.

These numbers don’t necessarily reflect the quality of the films (there are stinkers and winners on both sides), but it does paint a picture of a troubling divide: in the summer of 2013, audiences made a bunch of sequels and reboots smash hits and shrugged their shoulders at a lot of new franchises and original films.

Why would crowds stay away from a crowd-pleasing action movie with a popular movie star like ‘White House Down’? Why does a movie as kid-friendly and imaginative as ‘Pacific Rim’ do one quarter of the business of a ‘Transformers’ movie? The failure of original films this expensive will only encourage studios to continue throwing all of their money at sequels and reboots. The most expensive and widest released films will no longer cover a wide range of genres and appeals, but will narrow their focus.

In 2014 we have a seventh ‘X-Men’ movie, a fifth ‘Spider-Man’ movie, an eighth ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie, another ‘Godzilla’ reboot, a seventh ‘Fast and Furious,’ the fourth ‘Transformers,’ a ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ reboot, and on and on. 2015 is just as guilty with ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ ‘Finding Dory,’ ‘Batman vs. Superman,’ the fourth ‘Hunger Games,’ ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 5,’ ‘Terminator 5’ and ‘Star Wars: Episode 7.’

Some of these movies may be good, and a few will surely be excellent, but there’s a definite shortage of variety and a whole lot of playing it safe. The next two years of the summer movie season cater to the same niche over and over again. When you only make movies for a certain group, you’re bound to have more misses than hits. A bunch of those movies will make money, but just even more will flop and everyone will wonder why.

So the age of the blockbuster isn’t coming to an end yet, but it is changing and heading in a direction that could eventually strike it dead.

But, here’s the good news. If we are tiptoeing toward the conclusion of the blockbuster era, we’re also preparing to enter the age of the modestly budgeted sleeper hit.

In 2013, ‘The Conjuring’ and ‘The Purge’ did extraordinary business for R-rated horror films. ‘Now You See Me’ stood toe-to-toe with various superhero movies and lived to break $100 million. While ‘The Hangover Part III’ sputtered, ‘This Is the End,’ ‘The Heat’ and ‘We’re the Millers’ proved that there’s plenty of life to be found in oddball, R-rated comedy fare. And, adults longing for something without explosions have made ‘Blue Jasmine’ an indie smash and ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ a surprise blockbuster.

We will eventually see a greater divide between budgets, and we will see more expensive films get more derivative than ever, but we’re also going to see the continued rise of films that are allowed to take chances and try something new. A lower budget means more freedom for risk, and more freedom for risk can lead to better movies. And, in the end, that’s all we ever really wanted.

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