Flops won’t lead to better-quality films

Posted: September 6, 2013 at 3:45 a.m.

I pay almost no attention to box-office statistics (and, unless you’re employed by a studio, I don’t think you ought to either) but I couldn’t avoid hearing the news: The summer of 2013 set a record for ticket sales. Hollywood.com estimates that American moviegoers spent $4.71 billionat the box office, up 10 percent over 2012 and surpassing 2011’s all-time high of $4.4 billion.

You might be wondering how this can be, since it seems that every weekend has featureda notable flop. Disney’s Johnny Depp-driven $215 million dollar adaptation of The Lone Ranger hasn’t hit the $100 million mark domestically. And Will Smith’s $130 million After Earth has yet to recoup half its budget domestically. While it’s true that both of these duds have either recovered their production budgets (or come close) when you factor in worldwide ticket sales, you must remember those budgets don’t include marketing costs, which can tack on another $100 million to the ultimate price tag.

The old Hollywood rule of thumb is that to be considered successful, a movie needs to earn back two-and-a-half times its budget to be worth the investment. By this measure, the Ryan Reynolds-Jeff Bridges team-up R.I.P.D. is probably the season’s biggest disaster, though, based on reports from those who have actually seen it, it’s hardly the season’s worst movie. The Internship, the much-hyped, little-seen Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn Google recruiting video, probably suffered because the digi-giant offered its cooperation with the stipulation that the film be released as a PG-13 buddy comedy and not a quasi-sequel to the raunchy Wedding Crashers. And relatively low-budget movies such as Tyler Perry’s Peeples ($15 million budget, $9 million worldwide gross) and Paul Schrader’s The Canyons (which has returned only about $50,000 of its reportedly $250,000 budget) can also be considered major disappointments.

White House Down, Elysium, the animated Turbo all tanked - for different reasons. White House Down had the dubious distinction of being the second Die Hard in the White House movie to come to market this year. Elysium was widely perceived as a political diatribe, and the animated Turbo was released in the wake of Monsters University and Despicable Me 2. It also was about a snail who wanted to enter the Indianapolis 500 and consumed performance-enhancing substances to that end.

Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel are superhero movies that seemed timid to me as they defaulted to familiar commercial tropes rather than pursuing more interesting avenues. Fast & Furious 6 is what it is, and there is another (some say better) Star Trek movie.

And while every week it seemed some putative blockbuster was suffering a disappointing opening, the truth is we probably shouldn’t worry too much about Hollywood. Though there have been a few historic disasters - Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), which made just over $10 million on a $98 million budget and pretty much killed both its production company (Carolco Pictures) and the careers of Matthew Modine and Geena Davis (who happened to be married to the director at the time); Eddie Murphy’s 2002 space comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash - one of Hollywood’s dirty secrets is that, over time, very few movies actually lose money.

Remember Kevin Costner’s Waterworld from 1995? Widely reviled as “Kevin’s Gate” with a budget of $175million, the most expensive film ever up to that time, it is generally considered a prime example of studio wishfulness and celebrity hubris. But after figuring in revenues from foreign box office, rentals, pay-per-view fees, cable outlays, and other revenue streams existing independently of the North American theatrical system, it has made money.

Based on its opening weekend, World War Z looked like it was going to be a commercial misfire, but it has gone on to make more than $500 million worldwide despite being locked out of the world’s second largest movie market (China) by censors.Similarly, The Great Gatsby - which feels like a flop - has earned more than $300 million worldwide, which makes it the ninth-biggest grossing movie of the year so far. Pacific Rim, another $200 million film that seemed to disappear from our collective consciousness awfully quickly, has quietly grossed $400 million worldwide.

What all this means is pretty depressing to me. Record revenues don’t signal Hollywood that their system is broken, though this summer’s feedback loop suggests that we’re going to see more sequels and reboots - movies of the same general scale and block bustery aspirations. (“Original” is an admittedly slippery concept; producer Jerry Bruckheimer recently complained that while critics “keep crying for original movies,” they didn’t like The Lone Ranger.)

Flops make studios more risk-averse, and the likely result is that we’re going to see more and more films engineered to perform in foreign markets. Rather than making smaller films with less financial exposure, it’s likely that we’ll simply see a further blanding of would be tent-pole pictures. Which will mean a less specific cinema of sensation and action, what Pauline Kael said were movies “made for subliterate cultures.”

I think we’re losing sight of cinema’s potential to engage and entertain adult faculties. A great many of us already believe that a movie is something obvious and loud, a form of passive diversion that discourages reflection. That it might be more than that never grazes our minds.

Email: pmartin@arkansasonline.com


MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 09/06/2013