What Did Hollywood Learn From This Summer’s Box Office? The Wrong Thing, Probably


Headline from The New York Times magazine, September 3, 2013: “Hollywood’s Tanking Business Model.”

Headline from Box Office Mojo, September 3, 2013: “Summer 2013 Sets New Record with $4.76 Billion.”

Compare, contrast, discuss.

Make no mistake, Catherine Rampell’s Times article is not, in the strictest sense, wrong. It’s well researched and utterly reasonable, and focuses on a phenomenon that we’ve discussed here quite a bit over this long and expensive summer: very pricey movies tanking very loudly at the box office. Let’s make them do the walk of shame one more time: The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., White House Down, After Earth, Turbo, Elysium, and Pacific Rim all cost north of $100 million, and all fell short of recouping that amount domestically (though Pacific Rim has done well enough overseas to make its money back, and even prompt talk of a sequel). Rampbell looks at those numbers and comes up with this thesis: “The summer-blockbuster strategy itself may have tanked.” The argument is nuanced, reasoned and thoughtful — and that’s exactly why Hollywood will blow right past it and focus on that second headline.

Because for all of those high-profile belly flops, America still spent a metric shitload of money at the movies this summer. According to Box Office Mojo’s Ray Subers, summer receipts were up 11 percent from last year and eight percent from 2011, the previous record holder, and even if some of that is inflation and surcharges and the like, the site notes the total tickets sold this summer was 583 million — the most since 2007. “That’s a massive improvement that seems to contradict the narrative that this summer was a disappointing one at the box office,” Subers writes, in what could be politely called a massive understatement.

The reasons for that perception are multifold. It’s not just the handful of loud bombs; even the movies that made big dollars made astonishingly little impact, while few managed to work up a level of viewer enthusiasm that approached their grosses. There was no Avengers or Dark Knight or Harry Potter that unified audiences and critics; indeed, even giant hits like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness polarized viewers, and so many summer movies were outright terrible that the entire season felt sour. (The Dissolve’s Matt Singer penned this excellent analysis and came up with some explanations for that perception.)

But even all of that dissatisfaction didn’t hurt the bottom line, and that — rather than a thoughtful consideration of the summer movie business model — is what Hollywood is going to take away from the summer. And what will they have learned from the season? Probably none of the lessons we offered up back in July: don’t overestimate movie stars, don’t rely on familiarity, and stop over-crowding the summer schedule. And they won’t learn the lessons of The Conjuring: originality, juicy premises, genre exploration, and low budget equals low risk.

Nope, here’s your takeaway, via Box Office Mojo: “As usual, the top of the domestic box office chart was dominated by franchise fare.” The top six consists of four sequels (Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Fast & Furious 6, Star Trek Into Darkess), a prequel (Monsters University), and a reboot (Man of Steel). Meanwhile, everyone continues to insist that the pricey flops were “original” movies, and apologies for having to state this again, but the fact that those movies didn’t have fucking numbers in their titles doesn’t make them original: R.I.P.D. was a barely disguised Men in Black rip-off, White House Down was Die Hard by way of spring’s Olympus Has Fallen, The Lone Ranger was marketed as a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Elysium was District 9 Starring Matt Damon, etc. etc. etc.

But no one’s listening to me, or the Times, or anyone who’s not a dead president on a green piece of paper. Next summer promises new installments of Transformers, Planet of the Apes, How to Train Your Dragon, X-Men, The Amazing Spider-Man, 21 Jump Street, Sin City, The Expendables, Resident Evil, Think Like a Man, and (somehow) Fast & Furious, as well as reboots of Godzilla, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Hercules. But that’s just a warm-up for 2015, where we’ll have a Fantastic Four reboot, a Terminator reboot, Ted 2, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Batman vs. Superman, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, The Smurfs 3, and (God help us) the first of a two-part Independence Day sequel. And, of course, a new Star Wars movie. In other words, look forward to more summers filled with movies you’ve seen many, many times before — and all, somehow, because we couldn’t hold our noses and sit through The Lone Ranger. Hollywood logic, folks.