RIP: The Tent-Pole Summer Blockbuster?


I’m one of those rare few individuals who didn’t much care for the whole Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and I still don’t. To me, that kind of big, slick marketing package built solely around a theme park attraction signaled a greater change to the motion picture storytelling scene than did the live-action adaptation of a much-loved cartoon property.

(Did anyone see The Flintstones? Do you still want to admit you saw it?)

I remember thinking at the time: as a people, have we grown so old, so steeped in re-capturing magic we’ve already experienced that we’d sell out our childhood memories so long as they looked like Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley?

I ask that then (and now) cynically not as a critique of the story or the special effects or the acting – how many times did Depp really need to remind us that he was channeling Keith Richards? – but, rather, as an indictment of the creative process, which seemed dead long before Waterworld, the Last Action Hero, and even John Carter failed to impress audiences. After all, 1988 brought us George Lucas’s much-ballyhooed Willow – which everyone promised was going to be the next Star Wars – so you’d think Hollywood might’ve learned its lesson a long time ago.

(And, George, did Howard the Duck teach you nothing?)

What’s the latest?


Well, for what it’s worth, Walt Disney didn’t actually have a lot of faith in a Lone Ranger motion picture ‘event’ from the start.

When director Gore Verbinski and Disney first came together on the project, the studio deservedly balked at the proposed $250 million budget, especially given the fact that big pictures tend to run over-budget more than they run under it. There was a meeting of the minds, pencils were sharpened, and – voila! – everyone agreed $215M to serve as the highwater mark. (FYI: The LA Times reports Ranger was shot for an estimated $225M.)

I’m writing this piece on Thursday night when the best estimates project the film will probably top out anywhere between $50-$60M in its first weekend. That’s certainly not good – box office receipts tend to fall-off pretty significantly for films lacking solid word-of-mouth. Such a strong ‘American’ property may not perform well internationally, though some holdouts are convinced Depp’s global bankability will benefit the picture when it opens in … erm … Bangladesh?

(By comparison, 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger – long considered a commercial failure for many reasons – cost a whopping $18M and earned only $12M in its brief run.)


To follow up on a point I raised in a previous column, Paramount Pictures released some numbers involving their grand experiment in ‘premium pricing’ for World War Z. You may recall: for $50, audience members were treated to an IMAX presentation along with some freebies (and even a digital copy of the film once it’s released to retail). How did it do? Well, you’ll be pleased to learn they earned a whopping $60,000 … all for a production that reportedly cost the studio upwards of $400M. Granted, this experiment only involved five theatres, but Paramount believes this bodes well (???) for the future of the industry.

Recently, I mentioned of how no less than George Lucas and Steven Spielberg warned about the coming implosion of the movie industry at large. (Yes, I’ll bring up that debate once more because it serves my greater point.) Others in the biz have been prognosticating the same for some time, but when George and Steve spoke up more folks took notice. Simply put, studios cannot continue to spend more than they take in, especially when releases have been falling in volume, and the home entertainment market appears to have stagnated.
So are we looking at the proverbial end of the summer blockbuster?


Personally, I don’t think so.

I do agree with George and Steve who warn that theatres will inevitably succumb to the pressures from studios to raise ticket prices or adopt a philosophy to create a more ‘patron-friendly’ experience. Sure, any studio that endures consecutive box office bombs will need to rethink its position on films in the pipeline, so the next time Disney suits think twice about putting Johnny Depp at the forefront of, say, the ‘Cups and Saucers’ movie someone behind the camera might want to listen up.

However, I also think much of this is an ‘apples and oranges’ proposition. For example, a film like Transformers 9 will undoubtedly have to play on ten screens at the same multiplex simultaneously in order for the studio to justify its expense and even have half-a-chance to recoup what it’ll cost to make. The reality is that if Transformers 9 played on, say, two screens and actually stayed in theatres longer, it’d probably eventually gross the same amount in twelve weeks that it does now in four.

Would that be so tragic?


For my tastes, however, the summer of 2002 presented Hollywood with the most promising economics lesson of the last fifty years. (Stay with me, fanboys.) On a budget of $5M, My Big Fat Greek Wedding started small, but, eight months later had amassed domestically almost one-quarter of a billion dollars in ticket sales.

Can’t be done, you say?

Well, The Passion of the Christ cost an estimated $30M when it was released in February, 2004. Almost one year later, reports the film had grossed almost $400M.

Well, it can’t be done three times, you say?

(This one’s for us, fanboys.) 2012’s superhero-themed Chronicle cost a reported $12M, and, four months later, boasted almost $65M in receipts.

Granted, not all of these examples come from the dog days of summer when box office rivalry is at its zenith, but isn’t that worth noticing? Why release The Lone Ranger against so much stiff competition? Well, again, that’s mostly because the dynamics of Hollywood math almost require the usual summer business to justify the expense of making it.

At the end of it all, I’m suggesting that Hollywood can make money in the current climate if – and only if – it begins delivering stories that more people want to see instead of ‘manufacturing’ events a shrinking percentage of moviegoers want to see three, four, or four times.
But, Hollywood, if you don’t have a summer blockbuster, you’re only fooling yourself when it doesn’t act like one. Stop blaming us (the consumers) if we see through the hype.

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  1. I don’t want to admit I’ve seen the Flintstones any more than Halle Berry wants to admit she was in it. But I groaned at the first preview of The Lone Pirate of Fleet Street in Wonderland (aka the latest Johnny Depp with a bad accent/Helena Bonham with frizzy hair and boots mashup.) I enjoyed the first Pirates since it was fairly reminiscent of the ride and had that same adventurous atmosphere. But I have next to zero confidence in Disney re-boots after the last several and now this. Not appealing at all.

  2. Don’t forget about films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, or pretty much anything Kevin Smith has done. The simple answer to the problem is to cut costs by making GOOD movies instead of BIG movies. And for the love of God, enough with the advertising. I’ve been slammed nonstop with trailers for that stupid Dreamworks snail racing movie for several months already. I was long tired of it before it was even close to being released. And that amount of airtime isn’t cheap so what is the damn point of spending that amount of money just to exhaust your consumers into complete apathy for your film?

  3. @Nick: re: advertising: I couldn’t agree more. I’m all for some measure of advertising — I think there’s some fascinating viral schemes that have served some properties very well, but, yeah, this whole ‘advertise it a year in advance’ has always been for the dogs … and last I knew those dogs didn’t buy tickets.

  4. A problem is that they’re trying to market movies overseas so they’re keeping the story simple with lots of action. I use to live abroad and Americans aren’t the only people who hate to read subtitles, especially if you’re trying to keep up with a complex story line.

    Blockbusters try to reach as many demographics as possible, which, can effect the tone of the movie. (The Hobbit had decapitation, someone losing an arm and an overall dark tone….along with bunnies pulling a sled for a wizard who just saved a hedgehog).

    Spielberg and Lucas were right. They had these random films which suddenly became blockbusters and started this trend. Now it’s snowballed.

  5. @IngridToday: bless you, m’lady. I watch TONS of foreign films, but, somehow, I don’t really have any problem with subtitled pictures. There are many, though, where some of the plot and characterizations just get lost in the translation, but you’re right: studios tend to support stories that’ll bring in the widest demographics. And, actually, I tend to prefer many of these foreign films over the bloated American releases precisely b/c they are a bit rawer, feel more authentic, and don’t always push the same buttons.

  6. So far, we’ve gotten Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and Iron Man 3 among several other big summer movies, and those (especially Iron Man 3), don’t say ANYTHING to me about big summer movies dying. One or two flops is about par for course, and doesn’t signal any kind of death-knell to me.

    Maybe Lone Ranger isn’t doing as stellar as it could be, because, you know, it just doesn’t look that appealing.

  7. “The reality is that if Transformers 9 played on, say, two screens and actually stayed in theatres longer, it’d probably eventually gross the same amount in twelve weeks that it does now in four.”

    Ahhh but here is the rub – the studio’s make their money up front and the theaters later. Meaning – the studios get most of the gross the first few weeks. The theater get a high percentage later on. This link has the studios take 80 % for the first few weeks. Than it drops to 35%.

    Also international take a big part also. So if a film cost 200 million to make, say another 50 million to market and it makes $250 million over it’s life – it’s still a loser.

    My basic understanding was that DVD sales used to be a money maker but not anymore.

    Personally, I think if the movies stopped putting out crap, come up with new ideas, and stop putting down …well half of America (my opinion) – they would be fine. Does Despicable Me II count as a blockbuster btw? (Someone mentioned other ones). While on my soapbox (Getting dizzy here) – like some sporting events are finding out, people would rather relax at home where there is less noise, people aren’t checking cell phones, talking, and popcorn doesn’t cost 10 dollars . (Don’t get me wrong I saw Superman and think you have to see it on the big screen.)

  8. I remember Jackie Chan once commenting on Hollywood budgets. (I think he was filming Rush Hour 3 at the time.) He made the comment, that for the ammount RH3 spent on just the soundtrack, he could make two entire films in Hong Kong.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I would much rather watch those two low budget Jackie Chan films over any $200+ Million dollar Hollywood shiny turd they throw at us every summer.

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