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Summer Blockbusted 2011: Studios Still Sinking Too Much into Sequels

So how does this “toss money at the problem” phenomenon stack up to last year? Back on an eve of August
in 2010, as the summer movie season was nearing its annual stage of hibernation,
I felt a burning necessity – more than any year before – to delve deep into the
often perplexing machine that is Hollywood and why, perpetually, they expect
bundles of cash tossed at the silver screen will not only yield a product that
audiences will adore, but will line the pockets of executives in turn.

It was becoming clear that
the surges in summer sequels was beginning to wear on the average moviegoer. Returns dipped sharply from their predecessors in almost every instance and
reviews were consistently middling. Now in 2011, adding another level of
intrigue to the collective performance of the films across the hottest months of
the year was the rapidly expanding importance of the international market and
the gargantuan surge in 3-D offerings.

A year ago, as Iron Man 2 blasted its way to number one
at the box office with a sizzling $128-million opening, many were nevertheless
feeling the effects of a lackluster first four months at the cinema, and as
August rolled around studios twiddled their thumbs nervously as they witnessed
attendance plummeting to new lows.

This summer the gap has only widened. May seemed to offer a revival, posting the best month of all time with
$1.037 billion in combined revenues, above 2010`s which ranked seventh.  June, however, saw its grosses dive to fifth; July a solid bump thanks to Harry Potter
and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
 and Transformers:
Dark of the Moon
and August was met with atrocious returns not even registering
in the top 10 (even 1999’s proceeds rank seventh).

As I iterated in last
year’s piece, which you can read here,
it is this ebb in profit that spurs studios to search for a way to fill seats
and excite the masses, which, sadly, equates to injecting pictures with larger
doses of cash, slapping on an extra dimension and watering down ideas with
effects and flashy action. But I do digress, as FX and money do not by any
means have to equate to an inferior product, evidenced by Inception last year and “Harry Potter,” Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: First Class this summer. GCI can enhance a strong script — a
filmmaking staple all too rare in this modern blockbuster age.

The budget of a film is
spread throughout a number of principle expenses including the story rights,
the screenplay, producers, directors, actors, visual effects, music and the
actual production costs. Higher profile filmmakers and thespians can demand upwards
of $20 million plus a percentage of final receipts. Depending on the type of
film being produced, the visual effects allocation can balloon towards $100
million alone.

Without delving into the drier
technical aspects regarding tax breaks, co-productions between studios and
joint distribution projects, the rule of thumb is that if a film’s gross equals
its negative cost it has shown a profit. Meaning, that after the sum of the
production budget is tallied, a film must double that amount to become
profitable; $100 million total budget, $200 million final gross, etc. This
equates to the big name production houses such as Fox and
Paramount, to name a few, receiving roughly
half of the ultimate sum and after having potentially sunk years into a film,
receiving $100 million on a budget of the same (a.k.a. breaking even) does not
look good when it comes to the annual report.

So how does this “toss
money at the problem” phenomenon stack up to last year? Well, a small miracle
to be found is that we have had the same number of films costing $100 million-plus in
2011 as we did last summer, 14, but with one more movie exceeding the
whooping $200-million cost mark. Taking inflation out of the equation to keep
things simpler, as we rounded into the aughties we had less than one third as
many flicks carrying monster budgets and all of those became thundering
successes. The “re” craze (remake, reimagining, reboot) coupled with sequel
fever also maintained its stranglehold on the industry, seeing those phenomena
rise from a combined two in summer 2000 and 2001, to 13 in each 2009 and 2010 up
to a whopping 17 over just four months this year.

Following the success – I
use the word success as the English language has not yet invented a word to
justifiably express the James Cameron phenomenon – of Avatar, 3D has run rampant over
Hollywood as a means to curb these ballooning
costs and lack of audience interest. But as irony would have it, those crafty
viewers quickly caught on to the game.

As the first weekend of
May usually would demand it, things debuted with a bang as Marvel’s Thor took number one with $65.7 million;
a gross achieved thanks to a 60 percent share in 3-D screens. From then on,
audiences clung to their money for dear life as only 45 percent came from the
extra dimension for “Pirates 4,” Kung Fu
Panda 2
, and Green Lantern. Cars 2 sank to 40 percent, but things peaked
with “Transformers 3” before sinking to summer low of 38 percent with Captain America: The First Avenger. I
could mention a late summer surge from Final
Destination 5
, Conan the Barbarian
and Fright Night, but that would be
ever the moot point as they all ranged from disappointments to mammoth flops

This attempt to traverse
the chasm left by greatly shrinking attendance was met with failure in North
America as two sequels, “Potter” and Fast Five, saw their grosses rise above that of their predecessor
and only one, all summer, witnessed a
gain in attendance and that is the aforementioned oddball smash Fast Five. To date this year, the U.S.
have only produced five $200 million-plus grossers and but two exceeding $300
million. Even the poor showing of 2010 had 10 of the former by the end of
January and four of the latter; I would say Christmas season had better be a
strong one. Oh, and did I mention we have only a sole $100 million-plus opener thus
far when last year had four to its name by New Years?

Glancing worldwide, however, reveals a vastly different tale ripe with hints at how the global film
industry will be shaped over the next decade. Three movies (“Potter,” “Dark of
the Moon” and “Pirates 4”) have broken the billion-dollar threshold, but
garnered a respective 71 percent, 68 percent and 77 percent from international
markets, which leaves the stateside receipts in their proverbial dust. Expanding to
the top 10 worldwide grosses of 2011 thus far, even the lowest share from overseas is still
56 percent from The Hangover: Part II
and stretching further yet, the 23 of the top 50 films of the year that
premiered in summer averaged 51.5 percent overseas take, and without American
comedies, the share widened to 59 percent.

Numbers may be the
foundation of
but I will retreat with my barrage for now. Down to the simple and true point:
the movies are dying and ironically it is the season of big-budget fun. What
once was the time of year that used to regularly invigorate, is now ultimately
leading us down a black hole of rehashed ideas, money-grubbing gimmicks and soulless,
empty shells of what used to be considered fun. As much as it may seem
contradictory to the way things have been progressing over the past 10-20 years, cinema enthusiasts and average Joe movie-goer will turn out for a
superior product even if you pocket that extra $50 million for a few smaller
films at another date. I do not want the remaining energy of blockbuster season
drained and replaced by the serious and oft pretentious nature of awards season
by any means; that already has its place on the cinematic landscape. All I want
and all we need is “progress” kept in check and the focal point of the summer
months to be balanced between the desire to turn out a quality project and
stuff one’s mattress with green.

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