Give Me Blockbusters or Give Me Death: Here’s What’s Really Behind the Box-Office Collapse

And no, the real reasons behind Hollywood's box-office woes have nothing to do with there being too many sequels.
"Spider-Man: Far From Home"
"Spider-Man: Far From Home"

Help is on the way this weekend. Although domestic theaters are down more than 7%, or about $430 million, compared to 2018, this weekend is “Toy Story 4,” which is expected to open to $150 million or more; two weeks later it’s another nine-figure opening with “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” followed by “The Lion King” and “Hobbs & Shaw.”

This is great news, but here’s the catch: Box office still has a problem — actually, several — and they have little to do with sequels.

Sequel problem? What sequel problem?

If you’re “Toy Story 4,” there’s no problem at all: Its history as one of the most beloved animated properties of all time is a feature, not a bug. But if you’re “Men in Black: International,” “Shaft,” “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” or “Dark Phoenix,” it’s a very different story. While these films were hits in their initial iterations, each of these current releases was also preceded by multiple sequels and spinoffs of varying quality and success. A shiny spin isn’t enough to neuralyze audiences, making them think that a worn-out retread is as good as new. The sequel has to woo them all over again.

However, when a film comes from a legacy series with a history of smart oversight like Marvel and Pixar, there’s no need for to overwrite memory. The rich get richer.

"Captain Marvel"
“Captain Marvel”Marvel

Blockbusters aren’t big enough

Between familiarity, a reputation for quality, and a rabid fan base, Marvel holds an enviable patent. This year, Disney proved that formula could be heightened by releasing “Captain Marvel” and “Avengers: Endgame” weeks apart. The move seemed to defy logic — that has to be overkill, right? or at least cannibalization? —  but the films dominated the market for more than two months as the second fed off of the first. It’s poised to happen again with the Sony/Marvel “Spider-Man,” which will draw on the success of “Endgame.” It’s antithetical to 20th-century franchises like the Bond films and the first two “Star Wars” trilogies, which opened years apart.

Then there’s the presales culture, which helps stoke the must-see factor into flames; marketing that exhorts “no spoilers!” throws gasoline on the fire. Even the 12% of the population who see 12-15 movies a year make their choices weeks in advance.

Now, theaters are finding that success has a dark side. Three MCU movies in a year supplies the audience a steady diet of  super-sized viewing experiences, making the garden-variety blockbuster seem like an also-ran. Look at the disappointing performance of “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” which opened to $46.6 million — less than half of its 2016 predecessor. With the combined ticket/concessions price easily approaching $100 for a family, it’s hard not to imagine a lot of parents decided they’d wait a few weeks and see “Toy Story 4” instead.  Similarly, why bother with “Men In Black: International” when “Spider-Man” is around the corner?

Without these event titles provided by Marvel and Pixar, movie theaters would be in critical condition. But if they increasingly become the main reason to go to the movies, that only defers the crisis.

The MoviePass collapse hurt

MoviePass, which provided regular-price tickets to subscribers for a single monthly charge, claimed it was responsible for 6% of ticket sales in the first half of 2018. It was an attractive proposition, and utterly unsustainable. It also inadvertently reinforced the notion that movies are a higher-price form of entertainment — even if their price increase pales compared to theater, concerts, or sporting events.

That reinforces a trend: Most of the public has some interest in going to a certain movie, from time to time. They’re not interested in going to the movies per se. The big events, yes. The average opening? Not so much.

Late Night
“Late Night”Amazon

The streaming future is now

Disney+ launches in November, Apple+ this fall, and the Universal and Warner Bros. equivalents shortly thereafter. However, audiences already are wholly aware that first-run movies will be available at home, possibly as early as three months after release. That reinforces the advantage for must-see movies, and hurts everything else.

Multiple factors impacted the disappointing release of Amazon’s “Late Night,” but with the increasing awareness of streaming it’s likely that even those interested in seeing it were willing to delay and wait for Prime. (Last week, Amazon announced that its other big Sundance acquisition, “The Report,” will be on Prime two weeks after its initial limited release.)

Meanwhile, Netflix claims that 30.9 million subscribers watched the much-derided Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston original  “Murder Mystery,” while social media buzz suggests that its Martin Scorsese-directed Bob Dylan documentary, “Rolling Thunder Revue,” received a lot more attention than most specialized films. These aren’t anomalies; they are the new normal.

TV has earned its own cachet

Want to see Meryl Streep? Watch her on HBO’s second season of “Big Little Lies” (directed by the terrific Andrea Arnold this season). Ava Duvernay is acclaimed for her mini-series “When They See Us.” That’s just this month, and as the tip of the iceberg it threatens to do permanent damage to theaters.

There are now more top directors, writers, and producers making entertainment for cable and streaming venues than for movies (in this country, at least). And why not? The money is there, as are the creative opportunities, the wider breadth of potential subject matter, and no need to appeal to a monolithic global audience. There’s no opening weekend, and stories don’t need to be four quadrant to be a hit.

Steven Spielberg might still believe a feature that debuts on Netflix is no different from the previous century’s concept of a TV movie; he’s in the minority. But this much is true: As TV attracts more top talent, that’s less attention they’re paying to moviemaking.

Watch out for the broken paradigms

For more than a century, movies operated under the presumption that theaters are the sine qua non of filmed storytelling. That idea is now being challenged.

A movie ticket costs as much or more than a month’s worth of a streaming subscription. It demands time and effort. You see the movie once. Watch a movie on a streamer, and you get hundreds or thousands of shows. You don’t move from the couch. If you’re bored you turn it off; interrupted, get back to it later. The possibilities are endless.

People like those options. And in our social media-driven world, they like the ability to join in a worldwide audience and share reactions instantaneously. It’s not the same as being part of a packed theater, but for some (say, those under 25), it’s superior.

Will Smith is the Genie and Mena Massoud is Aladdin in Disney’s live-action ALADDIN, directed by Guy Ritchie.
“Aladdin”Daniel Smith

For movies, real life isn’t good enough

Although Hollywood is often derided for its liberalism, movies are currently ruled by a form of conservatism. Perhaps spurred by the desire for comfort in an uncertain world, audiences aren’t looking for challenge at the movies. We see this in the taste for known quantities like Marvel as much as last year’s top-performing documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

The biggest hits don’t draw from real-life experience; we have superhero movies, science-fiction fantasies, and alternative worlds with their own gods and theologies. The exceptions, like “Green Book,” are risk averse, reassuring, and rooted in attitudes of previous eras.

Movies used to evoke passion other than fights between rival fanboy groups. TV seems to spark more discussion than movies, and controversy is no longer a draw.  The goal is to make audiences content with content, not to disconcert them in any way.

2019 box office might meet last year’s numbers with the surefire hits ahead, but the 2020 titles don’t appear to have the same pedigree. And what happens if the public tires of Marvel? “Dumbo” was weak; how many top live-action remakes can Disney produce on par with “Aladdin”?

To be optimistic, two things need to happen. Not only do the big upcoming films all need to perform as expected or better, but some other titles, particularly among the few original ones ahead this summer, need to show some spark. Otherwise, danger lurks.

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