7 lessons Hollywood should learn from this disappointing summer movie season
Posted September 15, 2016
Movie studios are quick to try to learn whatever lessons they can from recent box office statistics to make sure they don’t get left behind by some new trend.
“People here in Hollywood love to throw out the definitive reasons why (a) movie was a hit,” as “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn wrote in a profanity-laced Facebook post earlier this year after the R-rated superhero comedy “Deadpool” became an overnight hit and was immediately followed by announcements of other R-rated superhero movies.
But, as Gunn points out, studios always seem to learn the wrong lessons. Don’t be surprised, for example, when half a dozen movies are suddenly greenlit featuring talking animals now that “The Jungle Book,” “Finding Dory,” “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Zootopia” all managed to pull in huge audiences.
Taking a look back at this summer movie season — which, despite probably ending up the third-biggest cumulative box office in history according to thewrap.com, is still widely considered a bit of a disappointment — there are definitely some lessons Hollywood should learn. Here are a few:
1. Cleverly edited but misleading trailers do not a happy moviegoer make. The well-crafted trailer has become an art unto itself. Many times, trailers nowadays are actually more fun to watch than the movies they’re trying to sell. That said, it seems like common sense that a trailer should still represent the final product, which has not been true of some of this summer’s releases.
Case in point: “Suicide Squad.” As many critics of the movie have mentioned, the trailers leading up to the Aug. 5 release date promised a very different experience than what moviegoers actually got. Whole scenes glimpsed in the trailers were cut out, and despite the trailers’ emphasis on Jared Leto’s Joker, his actual screen time basically amounted to a cameo.
The discrepancy has even led one fan to sue Warner Bros. and DC for false advertising, according to geek.com.
2. Not everything needs a sequel. For a while now, it’s pretty much been a foregone conclusion that any successful movie will spawn as many sequels as possible until its audience completely loses interest. (Well, unless that movie was produced by Laika, a studio that has a blanket policy to never do any sequels, ever.) There’s even a term for it: franchise fatigue.
But the times might be a-changing — and faster than studios are able to keep up with.
Other than “Captain America: Civil War,” “Finding Dory” and “The Purge: Election Year,” every sequel that came out this summer made less money than its predecessor — and in cases such as “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Ice Age: Collision Course” and “Independence Day: Resurgence,” significantly less — which suggests a frightening question: Has the moviegoing public finally grown tired of sequels?
Unfortunately, it might get a lot worse before it gets better. Next summer is already jam-packed with sequels — at least 12 already scheduled, according to Den of Geek.
3. There is such thing as too much CGI. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but overreliance on CGI can make what otherwise might have been good movies, well … less good. J.J. Abrams certainly got the memo when he wisely decided to use a mixture of computer effects and old-school movie magic for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
However, a lot of this summer’s releases such as “Warcraft,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” and Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” all pushed CGI to crazy new heights — and all arguably suffered for it. Indiewire's review of “Alice,” for example, compared the visuals to “a server full of CG imagery melted onto the screen.” Similarly, in her review of “Warcraft” for RogerEbert.com, Christy Lemire wrote that “the CGI spectacle of it all renders everything with a glossy, detached sameness.”
4. Movies are not TV, for better or worse. Many studios have gone all in on the tent pole strategy of filmmaking (as Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn calls it), largely as a way to differentiate movies from the increasingly cinematic TV shows produced for cable. And just looking at something like “Captain America: Civil War's” $1.15 billion global box office, it’s hard to argue with the “big risk, big reward” mentality.
But the distinction between film and TV isn’t just a matter of scale. The 90- to 120-minute runtime of most theatrical features demands a different kind of story altogether. This could be why one of the big winners this summer was horror movies, which tend to benefit from constraints such as limited runtimes and more economic narratives. As many articles have pointed out, the horror genre is one of the few types of movies that hasn’t succumbed to some of the negative trends afflicting the movie industry right now.
By contrast, the rest of Hollywood is edging closer and closer to basically a TV-style format, telling stories in three or four or six or however many installments, further blurring the line between the two media.
5. Going to war with fans isn’t a good idea. From the minute it was announced, Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” (which just scored itself a brand new subtitle for its forthcoming DVD release: “Answer the Call”) faced an uphill battle. The original movie isn’t just a classic; for a whole generation of movie fans, it’s one of the pillars of geekdom, maybe even above and beyond hallowed genre classics such as “Conan the Barbarian” and “Big Trouble in Little China.”
Which prompts one to question why Sony would greenlight a “Ghostbusters” reboot in the first place. (Simple answer: It’s in desperate need of viable franchises to compete with bigger studios such as Disney and Warner Bros.)
The all-out war that ensued between original “Ghostbusters” fans and Feig’s camp on social media and other platforms was ugly for both sides. At the end of the day, though, Sony’s reboot didn’t manage to win enough people over to make it worthwhile. It grossed an underwhelming $125 million domestically on a $144 million budget, according to boxofficemojo.com.
6. Keep summer movies special. As pointed out by Film School Rejects, part of the problem this year may have been that some of the biggest summer blockbusters actually came out in the spring. Movies such as “Zootopia,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “The Jungle Book” that, in years past, would undoubtedly have been saved for plum weekends in June or July, instead premiered in March and April. This may have had the unforeseen effect of taking the wind out of the sails for actual summer releases.
As the summer movie season gets more and more crowded, Hollywood is trying to expand into other months, but the consequence of that is that it could make the 18-week summer movie season seem like just more of the same.
7. Are recognizable properties really a safer bet? Was this summer’s “Ben-Hur” more or less successful because it was a remake of one of the most famous, critically lauded and lucrative movies of all time? It’s hard to say for sure, although the dismal $11 million opening weekend might be an indicator. As Wall Street analyst Doug Creutz put it (via The Hollywood Reporter), “If I want to see ‘Ben-Hur,’ I'm going to pop in the old movie."
The conventional wisdom in Hollywood that known intellectual properties automatically trump new, unknown intellectual properties just isn’t true. Fresh concepts such as “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Central Intelligence,” “Bad Moms,” “Lights Out” and “The Shallows,” to name just a few, all found audiences this summer despite not having prior name recognition. On the other hand, “Tarzan,” “Ninja Turtles,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Independence Day: Resuregence” and so many more failed to light up the box office in any significant way.
Could it be that audiences are looking for something new? As Creutz said, “I’ve talked to people at these companies, and they all seem to think the problem is they are putting out bad movies, as opposed to the consumers are demanding change. I think they are in denial about what’s going on.”
It’s old hat at this point, but come on, Hollywood — try coming up with some new ideas. Audiences enjoy it. We promise.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.