When “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” soared to a $207 million domestic opening weekend, Variety’s Brent Lang cast it as “a devastating rebuke” to the critics who panned it. But as the movie plummeted in its second weekend, becoming a member of what Forbes’ Scott Mendelson called “the $100 million loser’s club,” it seemed that critics’ and moviegoers’ opinions weren’t so far apart after all.
Faced with a significant shortfall on a heavily hyped franchise blockbuster, Warner Bros. made the only possible choice: scaling back on original productions and to concentrate more of its efforts on franchise blockbusters. As the Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters writes:
“Warners long has been known for its commitment to filmmaker- and star-driven projects, but sources see signs of a change in culture, though the studio denies there is one. Several executives and agents say Warners seems to be greenlighting fewer homegrown movies as it focuses on silos that echo those that generate so many hits for Disney (Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar and Disney Animation). In Warners’ case, the silos are DC Comics, Lego and a planned franchise spun off from the Harry Potter series. Tsujihara has touted that trio as the linchpin of his film strategy, and now, much like Disney, has eschewed all but a few original live-action films. Overall, sources say there is an understanding Warners is aiming to release fewer homegrown films than the industry-leading 21 it did in 2015.”
By most people’s logic, this would seem like throwing good money after bad, but that’s often not how the movie industry works. With remarkable consistency, box-office results are spun to confirm what studios already believe. As Mark Harris pointed out at Grantland in a sobering summary of Hollywood’s current status quo, Time Warner chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara has never produced a movie; he is, Harris wrote, “the first studio head to rise in the ranks purely through brand extension and ancillary divisions, and brand extension is what he’s all about.” The questions he’s preoccupied are not whether to concentrate on franchises, but which franchises to concentrate on, and how.
This doesn’t just matter for comic-book movies, or for the original properties that Warner Bros. might have made and now won’t. The closed loop of Hollywood logic is one reason the industry has been so slow to change, even in the fact of hard data suggesting it needs to. The complete exclusion of people of color from this and last year’s acting Oscar nominations is just the tip of a vast, white iceberg. A new study, summarized today in the Huffington Post, provides yet more evidence that racial diversity in casting significantly increases a film’s chances of box-office success: “The researchers found that after controlling for factors like genre, seasonality and the size of its opening release, having one black cast member did not significantly affect revenues, and having two black cast members correlated with earning roughly 60 percent more at the box office than the average film with no black actors. It was when films employed two or more black leads, however, that the real gains were seen: those films outperformed films with no black actors by 149 percent at the box office.” [italics in original]
Based on that information, and the success of movies like “Creed” and the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, it seems like Hollywood ought to be rushing to follow suit — and hey, it only took Disney and Marvel a projected 17 movies to get around to giving Black Panther top billing. But according to the most recent report from UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies, women and people of color remain “underrepresented on every front.” Systemic change always takes time, but it won’t happen as long as Hollywood continues to draw the same lessons they always draw, and learn only what it’s convenient for them to learn.