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The Potentially Fatal Flaw in Hollywood’s Business Model

Sanda Bullock Gravity close-up
Warner Bros.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking coffee while I read last weekend’s Los Angeles Times article about the summer movie season; I would have done a spit take all over my computer.

The piece, by Ryan Faughnder, is called “Hollywood Braces for a Summer Box Office Sequel It Doesn’t Want – Franchise Fatigue.” If you think you’re sick of all the sequels opening in theaters every week of the year, just wait until you read what the people who make them have to say. Like this “prominent” (but anonymous) producer:

‘Man, this is depressing … It is just entirely sequels and franchises, and something’s got to give.’

Or how about this on-the-record comment from Chris Aronson, who’s in charge of domestic distribution over at Fox?

“Some of the tent poles are just not as strong this year … Pirates [of the Caribbean]? It’s the fifth one. Transformers? It’s the fifth one.”

Aronson can throw all the shade he wants on Disney and Paramount’s pentalogies, but his own company’s summer 2017 slate includes Alien: Covenant, which is the eighth Alien movie, and War for the Planet of the Apes, which is the ninth Apes movie. The fifth Planet of the Apes came out 44 years ago.

Sequels, reboots, and franchises are supposed to be “sure things” at the box office; that’s why Hollywood makes them. But nothing seems quite so guaranteed these days. Faughnder says experts predict a drop of between five and 10 percent for this year’s summer box office. “Barring some surprise hits,” he writes, “that means total revenue could land as low as $4 billion, which would be the worst in a decade.”

These quotes from active members of the film community reveal the extent to which Hollywood has painted itself into a corner. Some of this year’s summer films, including a few of the ones mentioned above, will be big hits. If these projections bear out, though, they’ll confirm a serious flaw in Hollywood’s bigger-is-better business model.

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

This is a tough time for movies. The competition for audience’s time and money has never been higher. Consumers have more entertainment choices, most of which are available on a box connected to their high-definition TV set or on a gadget they carry around in their pocket. It’s not easy to convince someone to leave their house and spend $15 or more for an experience that’s commensurate with one they can have at home for nothing in their underwear. As any math professor can tell you (decent free viewing experience + no pants) > (outstanding pricy viewing experience + pants). That’s just simple algebra.

When television first gained popularity in the early 1950s, movies responded by offering the public something TV couldn’t: Mind-boggling visuals. Screens got bigger, aspect ratios got wider, and a third dimension was added to the experience. Hollywood’s response to the rise of prestige TV has been much the same: Go big or stay home. While television’s storytelling has grown more sophisticated, improvements in its imagery have mostly lagged behind, leaving a relatively untapped market available to cinema. If you want dense, serialized storytelling, you watch TV. If you want jaw-dropping extravaganzas, you go to the movie theater.

At least that’s how it went for a while. Now TV shows are getting more visually sophisticated (See: The Handmaid’s TaleGame of ThronesBosch, and many more.) Meanwhile, for all their supposed superiority in the field of presentation, the movies with truly special effects seem rarer and rarer. What was the last movie that people went out of their way to see in the theater specifically because the visuals were supposed to be so incredible that you had to watch them on the big screen? Maybe the multidimensional tripping of Doctor Strange? How about the last one before that? Maybe the long-takes-in-outer-space of Gravity? That movie came out almost four years ago.

At the same time that Hollywood’s been courting customers with CGI-candy, they’ve been smothering them with brands; see all those rehashes mentioned above. It’s supposedly much easier to sell something audiences already know and like than to educate them about a new product, hence the endless cycle of repetition. The year’s remaining blockbusters include a new Cars, a new Mummy, a new Blade Runner, a new Thor, a new Star Wars, and a new Spider-Man. (Anecdotally, everyone I talk to who isn’t a comic-book nerd is very confused by Spider-Man: Homecoming and why they’re rebooting Spider-Man. One person I spoke with last weekend assumed Andrew Garfield was the star.)

Sony
Sony

Plenty of these movies will make money, a few could even smash box-office records. But by their very nature as remakes and sequels, they’re going to replicate things people have seen onscreen before with minor variations. And therein lies the central contradiction and the central problem with Hollywood’s current strategy: Their big selling point is supposed to be unique spectacle, but most of what they’re peddling is recycled material. For all the hype about IMAX 3D visual splendor, a lot of these movies aren’t visually interesting, and half of them are based on things you probably have sitting on your Blu-ray shelf right now  which returns us to that equation where, again, fine and no pants trumps awesome and pants nine times out of 10.

This issue is compounded by the increase in “cinematic universes,” where many different franchises with different characters are made in concert in order to weave a larger overarching mega-narrative. For many of these cinematic universe movies, visual sameness is baked in by design. Plus, some of these cinematic universes are so concerned with connecting to past films and setting up future ones that they start to look just as serialized as television — except this kind of television isn’t as intricately plotted and doesn’t have enough time to fully develop rich characters, and instead of binging it over the course of a weekend you have to wait two years between episodes. 

That brings us to today, with all that competition, with all the lackluster presentation in certain theater chains, with the persistent threat of people using their phones, with an industry where nothing is singular and everything is familiar, with stories told at a glacial pace in an era of instant gratification. Tack on the pants/no-pants factor and ask yourself: Which version of this storytelling medium sounds more appealing? If movies want to differentiate themselves, they need to be truly different, not television on a larger screen with a mandatory pants requirement.

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