It’s been a while since I’ve done any blogging. I’ve had my hands full caring for a baby daughter who turned one over the summer, all the while trying not to miss too many deadlines for my corporate video clients. To add to that, my seven-year-old son and I decided to make a short film together. We shot it on my GH2s over a weekend in June, and then I spent many a late night editing it down to five minutes over the following two months. It was a truly amazing experience, and I’ll post the short soon on YouTube, once it’s gone out to a handful of festivals.
There were a few times during the summer when I felt the urge to blog, but responsibilities intervened and the urges passed. The story I most wanted to cover was the theater shooting in Aurora. In fact, I started writing about it a few days after the tragedy, but hesitated. What could I have added? It was so awful, on so many different levels. In the end, I just didn’t see the point of writing about how awful it was. I continue to be horrified, months later, that a person could commit such a despicable crime.
There were other stories — major and minor — that I would have written about if I’d had the time. A minor story: why are some (mostly indie) films available on VOD a month before they’re released in theaters? And, for that matter, why are some films only available on VOD to purchase instead of rent for several weeks until the much cheaper rental option finally becomes available? Is there any rhyme or reason to how these decisions are made, or is it left up to each individual studio to set its own rules?
A major story: The death of Tony Scott was an enormous loss to his family and friends, and to the entire Hollywood community.
How important was Tony Scott to Hollywood? The man directed The Hunger, Top Gun, True Romance, Crimson Tide (terrific movie), Enemy of the State (even better), and Man on Fire, among countless other hits. He collaborated with Denzel Washington on five memorable films, including the underrated Deja Vu, and helped establish Mr. Washington as perhaps the most durable and well regarded movie star of his generation.
Tony Scott’s death also had a metaphoric component that I hope it’s not too soon to discuss. The last few years of his professional life were fraught with a new kind of tension within the film industry that in many ways has come to define this period of heightened uncertainty in Hollywood. Projects such as Unstoppable made more headlines for the delays and studio-mandated budget cuts that preceded their releases than for the disappointing box office revenues that followed. The big budget, commercial, stylish, action-oriented Hollywood blockbuster that Tony Scott was known for is now a genre in decline. Unstoppable never earned back its $100 million budget, even after overseas box office was factored in — confirming the initial jitters of its studio, Fox. The year prior, in 2009, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, with an identical $100 million budget, fared even worse, ending its theatrical run around $25 million in the hole.
I hope bringing up these numbers doesn’t seem tasteless in light of Mr. Scott’s death. I’m pointing them out because the kind of professional, robust filmmaking and, beyond that, the kind of $100 million studio film that Tony Scott’s body of work epitomized is disappearing before our very eyes. Hollywood is playing the numbers, and the best odds are currently found in producing mega-budgeted, $200 million-plus, CGI-heavy blockbusters with global appeal, along with dirt cheap $30 million mid-level pictures targeted at domestic audiences. The films in the middle — the solidly crafted, stylishly directed entertainments that were Mr. Scott’s bread and butter — are quickly falling by the wayside.
If current projections hold true, 2012 will extend this alarming period of domestic box office decline. Don’t be fooled by the success of The Avengers or The Hunger Games — the vast majority of mainstream American movies in 2012 have not made money. The top ten money earners so far this year include the usual suspects of superheroes, a young adult novel, and computer animated movies for kids, but the lion’s share of net profits went to the top three movies (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hunger Games).
Every other movie on the current top ten list list — except Ted, which came out of nowhere — had weaker than expected domestic returns. There was simply no appetite in the U.S. for another Spider-Man or Men in Black, two films that managed to excite audiences overseas but here at home were perceived as disposable and stale.
Ted was this year’s answer to The Hangover, and cashed in accordingly, but the number of Hollywood “sure things” that stumbled in 2012 has got to be worrisome to the studios. Snow White and the Huntsman was an international hit of sorts, if, by hit, we mean it somehow made its money back in spite of the fact that you probably don’t know a single human being who’s actually seen it.
Prometheus, directed by Tony’s older brother Ridley, made a little cash after overseas box office is factored in, but it did nothing to excite fans of the Alien franchise. I saw it a few days after it opened, while people were still expending quite a bit of bandwidth on the internet debating what the hell the movie was about; I came away feeling angry and ripped off. The script, characters, and internal logic of that film were so uniformly idiotic that I actually felt more depressed than usual about modern commercial filmmaking — which, if you know me, is saying a lot.
I saw Safe House on Blu-ray recently, and kind of liked it. It was made in the Tony Scott style of quick cutting, vivid colors, and expertly choreographed action, and it held my attention. A film like Safe House satisfies an audience’s thirst for catharsis through violence, for a kind of purging of monotony in the character’s lives and, by extension, in our own lives as well. Filmmakers continue to return to this well again and again, with diminishing returns. Ryan Reynolds was miscast, the twists were supremely predictable, and the government angle of the story was far too derivative of the Bourne movies.
Speaking of Bourne, I still can’t believe that Universal — the same studio that produced Safe House, which was, at its core, a rip off of the Bourne franchise — made a Bourne movie without Jason Bourne!
And I don’t mean the studio simply replaced Matt Damon — a kind of passing of the torch similar to when Roger Moore took over for Sean Connery in the Bond movies — I mean they made a Bourne movie without the Bourne character! How was this not a bigger story? What’s next, a James Bond movie without James Bond? A Forrest Gump sequel without Forrest Gump? I’m still too ticked off to actually see this movie, in spite of the fact that its director, Tony Gilroy, made what I consider to be one of the finest American films of the past decade, Michael Clayton. I guess you could say I’m sort of boycotting this one, and though few moviegoers likely share my sentiments, the movie, inexplicably titled The Bourne Legacy (was Lame Attempt to Remind You of Bourne already taken?) and starring Jeremy Renner as a secret agent named Aaron Cross, underperformed (you might even say flopped), losing upwards of $40 million for Universal and probably killing the franchise in the process. [Update: foreign box office really kicked in late in the game, and the movie eked out a decent profit after all.]
Other notable big budget money losers in 2012 include Dark Shadows, John Carter, Battleship, the Total Recall remake (which may have lost Sony around $40 million as well), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Watch, Rock of Ages, and That’s My Boy. In other words, just about every single big budget release that wasn’t The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, or, more broadly, every movie on the release schedule that didn’t have sufficient international appeal or wasn’t marketed primarily to children. Even the hotly anticipated Expendables sequel, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first role since leaving the governor’s office, came up short, eventually squeaking out a small profit for Lionsgate.
These are dark days for the studios. Put yourself in their shoes. Everything they produce with a budget in the $100 million range has either lost money this year or struggled to break even. Of the higher profile, special effects driven $200 million movies, Dark Knight and Avengers hit the jackpot, while two others, John Carter and Battleship, crapped out spectacularly. Even the appetite for computer animated kids movies seems to have suddenly waned, leaving the studios perplexed. Meanwhile, there is less and less crossover between domestic and international tastes. Just as last year the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean entry crossed the billion dollar threshold without building any goodwill whatsoever among American moviegoers, so too did MIB 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man rely on overseas popularity to justify their hefty price tags — but this time neither MIB nor Spidey managed to get anywhere near a billion dollars in total revenue.
On the other end of the budget spectrum, the studios have been leaning heavily on modestly priced movies, with great success. Some of the most popular movies of 2012 cost their studios next to nothing to produce: The Vow, Magic Mike, Think Like a Man, Act of Valor, Contraband, The Cabin in the Woods, Hope Springs, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection, Chronicle, The Lucky One, Project X, The Five-Year Engagement (a film that deserved a much better fate than it got), The Grey, The Three Stooges, and current box office champ The Possession were all produced for around $30 million or less (often much less). Meanwhile, there were a handful of hits budgeted in the $50 million range as well, including the aforementioned Ted, 21 Jump Street ($40 million reported budget), and American Reunion. But $50 million, spent on the wrong movie, can be a huge hurdle for a studio to overcome. Ask George Lucas, who self-financed the $58 million Red Tails and has so far earned back less than half of that.
Or ask Warner Bros., who surely believed that getting Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis in the same movie for only $60 million was the closest thing to a sure bet that there is in Hollywood. Any other year, The Campaign would have broken even domestically, which, in this case, would have required a return of $120 million in U.S. box office. Instead, the comedy topped out in the States at around $85 million. I hate to constantly remind people of this, but distributors only keep half their reported gross box office receipts, meaning that The Campaign, which was not an expensive movie to produce by historic standards, will nonetheless complete its domestic run at least $10 million in the red.
Or ask Oliver Stone, who brought The Savages in for around $45 million, with a stellar cast that included John Travolta and Benicio Del Toro, and must have figured that he had the kind of critically acclaimed, gritty, intelligent crime drama on his hands that, in the past, has tended to score at the box office. Not this year: the picture is also about $20 million in the hole domestically.
What we know at this point is that, faced with declining box office revenues at home, the major studios have had no choice but to slash production costs on mid-level movies in order to turn a profit. At the same time, they continue to invest $200 million or more on movies that might give them a shot at Avengers-sized global blockbuster domination. What we don’t yet know is the long-term impact this will have on American audiences — and, to me, that is the crux of the entire matter.
I’ve been writing about this trend for a few years now, and I’m convinced that we are experiencing a radical paradigm shift in movie-going habits. The blockbuster fever that gripped our culture since a mechanical shark first began chomping on unsuspecting Cape Cod swimmers in 1975 has finally broken, and we are now living in what might best be described as a post-blockbuster era in the U.S. The lure of the theatrical experience remains — The Avengers is one of the highest grossing films of all time — but the urgency, the obligation, to attend each major new release has been lifted. Consequently, there will continue to be pictures that succeed on a massive scale, but the overwhelming majority of films released each year will have to make do with less. If we are drawn to a sequel of a popular franchise, or have heard good things on social media about a particular title, we can still be convinced to buy a movie ticket at full price. But for most other kinds of movie, the road to profitability is far more treacherous than ever before.
Even in the indie world this has become the norm. Wes Anderson’s latest has been the toast of the art house in 2012 so far (Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson may have something to say about that later this fall), but it needs to be pointed out that no other indie movie has even come close to Moonrise Kingdom‘s $45 million take. To Rome with Love was graded on a curve: it wasn’t nearly as popular as Midnight in Paris, but, on the other hand, with $16 million in domestic box office, it’s been a whole lot better received than the majority of Woody Allen’s recent work. As for the rest of the indie entries, it just seems to be nearly impossible for a much admired indie movie to break through to mainstream success anymore. And I say this despite the fact that 2012 has had its share of critically acclaimed indie pictures with star power and festival heat, along with a few pictures from independent filmmakers with impeccable reputations, such as Richard Linklater and Whit Stillman. People Like Us, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, Friends with Kids, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Words, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Safety Not Guaranteed, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Ruby Sparks, Robot & Frank, Your Sister’s Sister, Killer Joe, Take This Waltz, Damsels in Distress, Sleepwalk with Me, 2 Days in New York…the list goes on and on and on. Sure, there will be a Best Picture nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and, yes, there will be a whole lot more high profile specialty releases in the weeks and months ahead, but the die has been cast. The theatrical market is simply not there for more than a few breakout indie hits each year, meaning that about nine out of every ten indie titles will either lose money or stagnate if they choose to follow the traditional art house distribution path.
While the media is scrambling to figure out what’s wrong with Hollywood these days, the rest of America has simply begun to move on. Without the implicit requirement of seeing a movie as soon as it’s released in the theater weighing over them, audiences have finally stopped treating motion pictures with any intrinsic cultural favoritism. We’re just as likely to watch the Olympics, or a network sitcom, or a smartly written premium cable series, as we are to trek to the mall or the art house. When I started blogging in 2010, there wasn’t even any agreed upon terminology to describe what has come to be known as VOD. In other words, most of us were vaguely aware that we could rent a new release through our cable providers, but not many of us were actually doing it. These days, if you own an HD television, VOD is the single best way to watch a new movie. Six bucks per title is a relative bargain, and release windows are so truncated now that you can essentially rent a movie at home about five or six weeks after it has completed its theatrical run.
Remember all those big hits from the first few months of this year? It’s okay if you don’t. Though it’s only been six or seven months, all of those early 2012 movies — every single one — is already old news thanks to VOD. The Vow is ancient history, Contraband a distant memory. Even The Hunger Games has already landed on VOD, as has the ridiculous Battleship (Snow White and the Huntsman, released in June, is dropping this week).
In other words, if you wait a few weeks, you can skip the entire theatrical experience and really not miss a thing. If you’ve already taken your kids to Brave or Ice Age in the summer months, it’s not such a big deal anymore to skip the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid — which is precisely what happened. Every parent now knows that they can stream these movies at home in a few months, and because there aren’t enough worthwhile new children’s movies to see each month, the current three month VOD window is perfectly suited to exhausted (and financially strapped) parents, who can now tell their kids: don’t worry, we’ll rent that one soon enough. Has the Wimpy Kid franchise played out? No, of course not. The same number of kids will end up seeing Dog Days as the other two films, when all is said and done — but they’ll watch it on television, not in a movie theater. As a result, the next Wimpy Kid will need to cost even less than the current film’s already bare-bones $22 million budget. And on and on this goes, until, finally, there won’t be a bit of budgetary difference between tomorrow’s version of a mid-level movie and something made cheaply for television — and, perhaps more importantly, not a lick of difference in the public’s mind between the production values of a typical film intended for domestic consumption and its TV counterpart.
This may be giving heartburn to studio executives, but, for the rest of us, it’s not all bad news. On the contrary, I haven’t felt this hopeful about the future of American filmmaking in years. It’s easy to get hung up on a sky-is-falling interpretation of declining U.S. box office revenues, but, in fact, there are many surprising benefits that will come to filmmakers and audiences alike from a shift away from blockbuster economics. I’ll try to write about a few of these developments in the coming months.