Friday, December 4, 2015

The Return of Blockbuster Fatigue

The 2015 box office has been a year of monumental highs and dispiriting lows, the year that "Jurassic World" massively exceeded expectations, and "Fantastic Four" crashed and burned.  This was predicted to be a big year long in advance, with so many big franchise titles on the schedule.  Summer went as expected, with the major tentpoles like "Avengers" and "Furious 7" drawing the expected crowds.  Fall, however, has been a different matter.  Attendance has been off, leading to the worst October since 2007.  Prestige pictures have been noticeably sluggish, with few daring to expand after the high profile failure of "Steve Jobs."  What's really been worrying is that the two big November tentpoles, "Spectre" and "Mocking Jay Part 2" have both been underperforming.  They'll both certainly make money, but not nearly as much money as the studios were hoping for.

Some industry watchers have been pointing to "blockbuster fatigue" as a potential culprit.  Remember blockbuster fatigue?  The summer of 2013 was besieged by costly flops like "The Lone Ranger," "After Earth," "White House Down," and "R.I.P.D," leading some to conclude that the summer movie slate was overcrowded with too many big event pictures.  Critics have been warning since at least 2008 that there aren't enough audience dollars to go around, including Steven Spielberg, who speculated that the whole industry might implode if too many flops happened in the same season.  There have been enough hits to allay those fears over the last two years, but the hits appear to be cannibalizing the business for the more modest performers, leading to more disappointments.  "The Martian," a sizable but not exceptional hit, made almost three times what anything else released in October did.  Another possible factor is the industry's insistence that all prestige pictures be released in the fall, resulting in a log jam of well-reviewed Oscar contenders all going after the same audience.

And that's a continuing worry with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" still ahead of us, which is already breaking presale records and may lead to the biggest box office take of all time.  I worry that filmgoers won't come out for anything else, meaning more Oscar hopefuls and modest midrange films like "Room" and "Brooklyn" go unseen.  And  that counterprogramming choices like the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy "Sisters" simply won't get greenlighted the next time around.  Moreover, I'm concerned that the "Star Wars" juggernaut will end up negatively impacting the 2016 box office, which is already predicted to be a slower one with fewer highly anticipated sequel films and more like "Warcraft" and "Deadpool," which studios are hoping will start franchises.  These are the riskier pictures that tend to become the biggest flops.  If the business of movies is about creating anticipation for these big blockbusters, it's going to be rough going for a while after "Star Wars."

Honestly, thinking back on Spielberg's remarks, 2016 looks like a pretty good candidate for the potential industry implosion. It's absolutely rife with iffy-looking projects like David Yates' "Tarzan," and Guy Ritchie's "King Arthur," plus some really desperate sequels like "The Huntsman: Winter's War," "Alice Through the Looking Glass" and the incredibly late "Independence Day: Resurgence."  I have no idea if audiences are going to be receptive to a "Harry Potter" spinoff or the female-led "Ghostbusters."  Sure, the big superhero films are all going to make money, but I'm betting that we're going to see a few of the smaller ones stumble this year.  And even if the industry manages to weather a bad 2016, can they weather multiple years like it?  

Finally, though it's not going to happen in 2016 or 2017, I now think that it's inevitable that we're going to see the lucrative Disney film franchises slow down.  A "Star Wars" film every year isn't going to be sustainable in the long run.  The Marvel Phase Two movies made gobs of money, but I only thought two of the six were really worth the price of admission.  I doubt that Phase Three is going to be much better, and Marvel is going to have to negotiate some tricky waters after that, with many of their original sub-franchises hitting their logical endpoints.  Frankly, I'm not going to be too sad to see it all end - I'm starting to get awfully tired of the same old superhero schtick.

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