Summer, Bloody Summer

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As our last thrilling episode ended in June, we had left poor, helpless, hapless Hollywood tied to railroad tracks with the July/August Express out of Union Station barreling down, dastardly Audience Disinterest at the throttle, henchman Audience Apathy throwing on more coal.

But wait!  Are those cavalry bugles heard from just over the hill?

Yes!  Coming to the rescue, led by our hero Captain Overseas Markets and his sidekick Ancillary Sales!

And just in the nick of time, too!

Seriously.  Because I doubt there’s been a Monday’s reading of weekend box office tallies by studio execs this year which hasn’t been accompanied by a silent prayer of thanks for overseas receipts.

Over the last 20-30 years or so, it hasn’t been unusual for top-earning releases – particularly action-driven fare – to pull in more revenue overseas than at home, but recent years have seen the dynamic ratchet up to a dizzying level.  Example:  the five top-earning 2011 titles to date – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Transformers:  Dark of the Moon, The Hangover Part 2, Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides, Fast Five – all pulled two-thirds or better of their worldwide take from overseas.  According to Entertainment Weekly, at least part of that growth is the result of “a major expansion in the construction of movie theaters around the world” combined with a growing middle class with a taste for movie-going in areas of Asia and Latin America.  What’s also clearly evident is that overseas audiences have an even greater appetite for cinematic junk food than hometown fans. 

Which is just fine with Hollywood.  Overseas box office is what makes the enormous costs of today’s blockbusters not only possible, but worthwhile, particularly in light of flattening domestic earnings.  Because the damned things cost so much, and with breakeven somewhere between two-three times box office gross, it’s almost impossible for movies like Green Lantern (budget:  $200 million), Transformers:  Dark of the Moon ($195 million), Harry Potter/Deathly Hallows Part 2 (shared $250 million cost with Part 1), Pirates/On Stranger Tides ($250 million) and the like to produce black ink solely on their domestic take, even if they’re top U.S. earners (despite Transformers, Harry Potter, and Pirates being three of the top four U.S. moneymakers for the year thus far, only Potter probably reached breakeven on its domestic earnings).

Overseas revenues can put a Band-Aid on a studio bleeder like Green Lantern ($116 million domestic + $90 million foreign), turn a slight underperformer like X-Men:  First Class into a healthy bread-winner ($146 million + $204 million), and put a bonafide hit like Transformers ($349 million + $757 million) or Pirates ($240 million + $799 million) through the roof.  Throw ancillary monies into the mix and except for the most expensive out-and-out flops (Conan the Barbarian, say), there’s a good chance of a studio going home jingling money in its pockets on most major releases (or at least not losing much). 

Take this year’s lead-off big bungle, Columbia’s $120 million The Green Hornet.  Bad reviews, bad word of mouth, a U.S. gross just under $99 million…the very definition of a big ticket stinker, a studio black eye, a dud.  But roll in overseas box office and the tally goes up to $228 million.  When the eventual DVD sales and TV fees get tossed into the kitty, the probability is that, on Columbia’s books, The Green Hornet will fall somewhere between a very modest loss and a very modest profit.

And that’s the kind of business acumen which has made America the economic powerhouse it is today!

If you detect a note of sarcasm there, it’s intended because these sorts of numbers make overseas coin a Hollywood analgesic, an industry anesthetic, Kool-Aid spiked with LSD and arsenic with the sugary sweet taste and colored lights a distraction from the fact you’re drinking poison.  These kinds of stupendous overseas earnings shouldn’t distract from or be taken as a cure for problems at home, and it often appears – to some of us outside the business, anyway – studios seem to think (not unlike their confreres bundling up junk mortgages for investors a few years ago) that as long as the final tally is a whopping one, the business is in hunky-dory shape.

And it isn’t.

 

Even with overseas and ancillaries providing the lion’s share of revenues, the domestic market is still critical for a number of reasons:

Keep in mind that although we talk of “foreign” and “overseas” box office as if it’s a single bloc, it’s not.  It’s the combined total from dozens of markets, each with its own dubbed prints and tailored advertising campaign; in other words, it’s not free money.  It costs money – and time and effort – to earn it market by market.  Domestic box office is still the largest single theatrical revenue source for most major releases.

Foreign also doesn’t work equally well for all pictures.  Comedies don’t travel as well as action pics, and the more distinctively “American” the comedy – like Bridesmaids – the less traction it usually gains overseas.  And, despite the conventional wisdom, sometimes even the kinds of movies that are supposed to, should, and guaranteed to work overseas play as badly there as they do here i.e. Green Lantern, Conan the Barbarian, Cowboys & Aliens (which is actually playing worse overseas).

Also, performance on the home theatrical circuit often sets the pace for how well – or badly – a title will do in ancillaries like DVD, pay-per-view, Netflix downloads and the like including merchandising.  Although it’s not an ironclad rule, more often than not, a picture which doesn’t draw well in theaters won’t generate great aftermarket interest.

More concretely, commercial and pay-TV licenses are pegged to domestic receipts.  HBO isn’t going to pay top dollar because a flick did monster business in Japan or Germany; it pays based on how it earned here at home.

But there’s an importance to the domestic market which goes beyond the dollars and cents.  Domestic earnings are like those core samples Al Gore’s always talking about when he’s doing his global warming shtick, pulled out of the Antarctic ice to reveal, “Oh, yeah, you can tell the air was a lot cleaner twenty years ago.”  Domestic is a symptom of the health of the heart of the business, and right now the Hollywood EKG is showing traces of a disturbing arrhythmia.

 

Consider:

By summer’s end last year, Hollywood had turned out one movie which had broken the $400 million mark in domestic earnings v zero this year; three movies which did over $300 million v two; four releases which crossed the $200 million line v three.  Two thousand-eleven did, however, turn out 16 releases in the $100 million earning range compared to 10 last year, but…

Those 18 chart toppers from January through the end of summer 2010 brought in a combined total of $3.679 billion domestic for an average per-title take of $204.5 million v $3.548 billion for 2011’s top 21 titles for an approximate $170 million average.  Total domestic box office at summer’s end was running 4.3% behind last year.

Mind you, there’s been more 3-D releases this year which means more 3-D surcharge revenue going into the pot…and yet 2011 is still coming up short against last year.  And the money isn’t the whole of it.

Using average ticket prices as a rough gauge (they held steady through much of the first half of the year but are expected to climb before 2011 is out), theaters have sold something like a quarter-million fewer tickets so far in 2011 compared to 2010, and this comes on the tail of a decline in attendance from 2009 to 2010.  According to a New York Times “Media & Advertising” story in July, “Theater attendance has fallen by about 10% (since 1999), or even more when measured as a share of the growing population” (my italics).

So, what’re we looking at?  We’re looking at two down years in a row in attendance, and despite some occasional upticks, the extension of a downward trend in admissions from a peak in 2002.  Unless there’s a spectacular upturn during the last four months of the year, 2011 admissions are on track to be the lowest since the mid-1990s.

Anybody going to call that a healthy business?  Yeah, sure, there’s all that foreign moolah coming in, and the merchandising and blah blah blah, but, seriously, are you going to look at those numbers and say there’s no problem?  If so, let me know what on-line university you got your MBA from.  Didn’t they have an intern program with Lehman Brothers?

In the 1960s/1970s, the movie business was in the throes of a much worse attendance slump.  The movies had been steadily losing audience for years, sliding from a weekly attendance high of 84 million in 1944, to 30 million per week by 1960, 18 million by 1970, and an all-time low of 17 million by 1973.  Hollywood’s response was to be defensively aggressive, trying to pull people away from their TV sets and save their business with movies which were more daring, more brazen, and more challenging.  It would turn out to be one of the most creatively expressive periods in American commercial cinema.

To be fair, a lot of other supportive elements came into play as well:  even adjusted for inflation, production costs were much more moderate than they are today, it was a socially turbulent time in which overturning Old Hollywood storytelling traditions seemed all of a piece, and there was a young, cinema-literate audience in place with an appetite for the different and daring.

However, in the 1970s – with Jaws and Star Wars – the studios found gold with youth-targeted, big scale, action/effects-driven flicks, and by the 1990s, the movie blockbuster – particularly the franchise blockbuster – had become the financial cornerstone of a revived movie industry.

Only now the cement around that cornerstone is wearing away and it doesn’t offer the support it once did.  In my June recap of the year’s box office performance to that point, I wrote about Hollywood’s obsession with the 14% of the country that was 15-24 years of age, but I misspoke (well, miswrote).  Hollywood’s not obsessed with young people, but primarily with young males; say between 6-8% of the population.  With the exception of the Twilight series, most of the big money major releases, particularly in the summer, are all about tickling the fancy of young males.  Nobody’s making Cowboys & Aliens or Fast Five or superhero flicks or even The Hangover Part 2 because they think it brings the young ladies in…unless their boyfriends are dragging them in by the arm.

Six to eight percent.  You couldn’t get that slim without sticking your finger down your throat after every meal.

 

Here’s how that plays out:  the top five earners this year – Harry Potter/Deathly Hallows 2, Transformers:  Dark/Moon, The Hangover 2, Pirates/Caribbean/Stranger Tides, and Fast Five – were made for a combined cost of about $775 million dollars (and that doesn’t count marketing costs, folks).

Let me say it again, because that’s a pretty impressive number, and I’ll say it in a more impressive way:  over – well over — three-quarters of a billion dollars…wagered on just 6-8% of the population.  And that’s only the top five flicks.  Run down the studio slates for the year thus far, and you’ll see that kind of betting run into billions.

That’s Hollywood hanging its most expensive gilt-covered doors by one hinge, and looking at this summer’s box office scores, last year’s numbers, and a decade’s worth of slipping attendance, it’s clear that hinge has developed a definite wobble.

Dependent on a demographic diminishing in both numbers and movie-going interest, Hollywood has responded by being aggressively defensive.  The majors aren’t trying to expand their audience, but trying to keep from losing it, and their tactic for doing so has been to play – in a total reverse from the situation in the 60s/70s – as creatively conservative a game as possible.

Early this year, website Box Office Mojo looked at studio schedules for 2011 and tallied a record number of sequels, prequels and spin-offs for the year:  27, which, according to a February piece in The Daily Mail, breaks down to about one out of every five titles to be released this year (this doesn’t include the fistful of remakes also on tap).  Box Office Mojo also found 2011 would present a record number of fourth sequels (five) as well as another five fifth sequels, two part sevens, and Harry Potter’s eighth and final installment.  In a rather despairing May article in Newsweek, Roger Ebert looked at Mojo’s stats and observed, “…nothing is harder to get financed than an original idea, or easier than a retread.” Ebert went on:  “I heard earlier this month from (writer/director) Paul Schrader (Affliction [1998], American Gigolo [1980], screenplays for Taxi Driver [1976], Raging Bull [1980])(who) informed me that grown-up films and creative projects were ‘over’ in the new Hollywood…”

Creatively dispiriting, of course, but it might bit a bit more palatable if it was financially working as a tactic.  So…is it?

On the one hand, there is all that overseas money pouring in, and that’s not to be dismissed, nor are the vast bucks from merchandising i.e. videogames, action figures, etc.  But on the other hand, most of the so-called “tent pole” pictures released this year haven’t been holding up the tent here at home as well as they used to. Of the top six live-action sequels, for example, all big studio releases, four showed a sharp drop-off in domestic earnings from the previous installment:

The Hangover 2 – 8.3% drop

Transformers:  Dark of the Moon – 13.4%

X-Men:  First Class – 19%

Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides – 22.7%

With those numbers on display, maybe now is a good time to take a close look at how summer has gone since we last checked in at the end of June… 

At summer’s halfway point, I’d written, “…the best bets for major coinage (for the rest of the summer) are July 12’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, July 22’s Captain America:  The First Avenger, and July 29’s Cowboys & Aliens…”

I was wrong about how many shots Hollywood had at the big money, but we’ll get to that.

Of Universal’s $163 million Cowboys & Aliens, I’d said, “…the title lays out the prospects:  it can either be one of the most unique and enticing offerings of the summer, or winner of the Are-You-Freakin’-Kidding-Me? Award of the year.”  As it played out, C&A was decidedly not the former.

Which was a sad surprise for Universal since all the right combustible elements looked to be in place.  Its Western/alien invasion mash-up seemed an appetizing enough fanboy hook, and, indeed, the movie’s presentation had been a Comic Con fave, and the online comic book geek community had enthusiastically chatted up a C&A storm for weeks before the flick opened.  The cast was headed by David Craig, the guy who’d made James Bond relevant again; and one of fanboydom’s patron saints, Harrison “Han Solo/Indiana Jones” Ford.  Steering the whole enterprise was director Jon Favreau who, working with Robert Downey, Jr., had pumped fresh air into the superhero genre with Iron Man (2008).  Yet all that well-stacked tinder stubbornly refused to ignite.  The Western side wasn’t particularly exciting, the alien bit not very enthralling, and it all came off impressively — …well, impressively unimpressive.

Note to Hollywood:  Save your money goosing your presence at Comic Con.  The fanboys are not America.  They went nuts over Battle Los Angeles, too.  What’d that get you?

 

The first sign of how badly this was going to play out was when Cowboys & Aliens opened the same weekend as Columbia’s The Smurfs and barely managed to edge out that critically-trashed cartoon/live action hybrid with a $36.4 million first weekend take; less than a million more than the little blues – a hair’s breadth in wide release terms (actually, since Smurfs opened in about 350 fewer cinemas, it beat C&A in per-screen earnings, and isn’t that a damned shame!).  After that inauspicious debut, it was all downhill, C&A steadily losing traction week to week, ending the season with an embarrassing (in blockbuster terms) $94 million domestic making it one of the most heavily hyped, most anticipated, and most disappointing pics of the summer, right up there with Green Lantern.

And maybe Paramount’s $140 million Captain America:  The First Avenger.  I had written at the end of June that the worrying question for Paramount would be “…even if Captain America is good, has the summer audience already been too burned out by…‘superhero fatigue’ to care?”

And, Captain America was good (it at least had that edge on Cowboys), or most reviewers thought so (79% positive Rotten Tomatoes score), but that kind of rah-rah boosting didn’t do much for the good captain at the box office.  The pic’s $65.1 million opening may have been better than that of underperformer X-Men:  First Class and dud Green Lantern, but was less than Thor’s respectable if unspectacular $65.7 million.  Capt. A began losing ground almost immediately thereafter, with a second week fall-off of over 60%, and a summer’s end domestic take of about $169 million; certainly less of a hang-your-head-in-shame tally than Cowboys, but hardly heralding the next gold-plated superhero franchise.

With a bloodied Captain America being carried home on his red, white and blue shield, and with the overall performance of superhero flicks this year being less than superheroic (Thor did ok but only ok, while X-Men/1st Class plateaued earlier than Fox had hoped, and Green Hornet, Green Lantern, and wannabe cult franchise Priest all foundered), co-producers Paramount and Marvel Studios have to be at least a little concerned about their 2012 superhero all-star epic, The Avengers.  Writer/director Joss Whedon is tasked with putting together a $150 million FX dazzler bringing together one certified 24k superhero – Iron Man – with iffier prospects Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk (who, even after two big screen efforts still hasn’t clicked with the masses) for a general audience that, of late, seems superheroed out.

Paramount’s not the only one who should be wondering if the cape-and-mask gang is the best place to wager its blue chips.  Sony has 3-D reboot The Amazing Spider-Man in the pipeline, with an estimated cost of over $200 million, and Warners is supposed to roll out its second attempt to re-launch its Superman franchise with the $175 million Man of Steel.  Both – like The Avengers – are due in 2012.  And, like they used to say in the ads, that’s not all folks:  Warners has another superhero flick slated for 2012, the $250 million The Dark Knight Rises, the third entry in writer/director Christopher Nolan’s re-envisioning of the Batman brand.  Watching how this year’s flock of big-budget supermen crowded the market and elbowed each other out of the big money, it’s hard to picture a happy ending to a year with four even heavier heavyweights fighting for breathing room.

Note to Hollywood:  maybe it’s time to put the comic books down and give the caped crusaders a breather.  Give us time to miss ‘em.  Or at least spread ‘em out a bit.


One of the few franchise installments to do what it was supposed to do was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.  It was a perfectly executed finale to a decade-long saga as carefully cultivated and cared for as any franchise of the blockbuster era.  Harry Potter set – and remains – the gold standard for big budget moviemaking, always balancing its effects with heart, its dazzle with drama, and its magic with very human characters.

As one might expect with a finale fans had been waiting for for 10 years, Potter roared out of the gate on a rocket-powered broomstick blowing past the opening weekend record set by The Dark Knight (2008), $169 million v $158 million, and then kept blasting past benchmarks:  biggest midnight opening, best grossing single day, best first four days, biggest worldwide opening, fastest earning of a half-billion worldwide, fastest earning of $600 million worldwide, top-grossing franchise ever, fastest earning of $900 million worldwide, tying Avatar (2009) in earning a billion dollars worldwide in just 18 days.  Hallows/2 ended the summer topping the U.S. box office with $373 million, and is, easily and by far, the leading contender to end up top domestic grosser of the year.

It might be carping to dig into all this gold to find a little dross…but it’s there.  Among the other, less-touted records Hallows/2 set was the sharpest falloff from its opening Friday to Saturday – 53%.  Its second week falloff was the steepest in the series and one of the biggest of the year – a dizzying 72%, and then receipts took another tumble of almost 54% the following week.  With the supercharged opening surges which are part of a successful blockbuster rollout, it’s almost impossible for one of these big budget gargantuas not to experience steep and immediate fall-offs.  But, still, 72%?  If you were on a plane that dropped that much, you’d be going through barf bags like they were your favorite candy.

Some quibbling about at least one of Hallows/2’s records raises the question of whether or not box office is the best gauge – or any kind of measure — of how well a movie is actually playing for the public.  The Dark Knight made its money when the average price of a ticket was 70-80 cents less than it is today.  Hallows/2’s earnings were also juiced by 3-D surcharges, with 43% of the latest Potter’s cash coming from 3-D screenings.  In other words, Potter set its records with fewer viewers than previous record-holders.  This isn’t to take anything away from the Boy Who Lived – by any yardstick, this flick was an out-of-the-park home run – but these kinds of numbers do show just how precarious the blockbuster business is. 

And it is precarious.  It’s a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls.  One small misstep and you’re in the suds.  Ask the people behind Green Lantern.

 

Consider:

According to Box Office Mojo, this past July set a new monthly box office record of almost $1.4 billion.  That month, something in the neighborhood of 10 major titles went into release, and there were maybe three or four holdovers from June still earning enough money to matter; say a total of 14 titles in national distribution having a noticeable impact at the box office.  Forty-two percent of that pot – over $600 million – was earned by just two – yes, just two — titles:  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and June holdover, Transformers:  Dark of the Moon.

Now, imagine Hallows had been less than the perfect send-off for the Harry Potter series, and/or, people had finally woken up and smelled the coffee about Michael Bay, and that either – or both – of these flicks hadn’t done the kind of business they had (not possible?  Again, ask the people behind Green Lantern – I’m sure they thought they had a lock, too).  If even only one of those pictures had underperformed, the financial picture of the American motion picture industry for the entire month would have changed.

Precarious enough for you?

And keep in mind that even during a super month like this past July, a win for the business is not a win for every studio.  While the gang at Paramount was carting off their Transformers doubloons in wheelbarrows, there was another group sitting in an office at Universal up to their asses in Cowboys & Aliens action figures nobody wanted trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong.

(In crabby, old fart voice:)  And another thing…

The biz broke the monthly dollar record; not the monthly attendance record.  Box Office Mojo reported that while July’s 175 million ticket sales were up a bit over July 2010, they mark a significant downhill slide from the most recent peak of 190 million for July 2007.  Going a step further, BOM reported ticket sales for the year through July — 793 million — were the lowest since 1996.

Juicing prices isn’t a business; it’s a tactic, and a stopgap tactic at bestIt’s bad enough less people want to go to the movies each year, but if Hollywood and exhibitors keep trying to compensate for cold, empty seats by heating up ticket prices and then stoking them with 3-D add-ons, there’s a risk – particularly in these less than flush economic times – of pricing movies beyond the shrinking number of people who still want to take in a flick.

Note to Hollywood:  Not to be pissy, but might it not be a better idea to figure out how to get more asses in seats than how to squeeze more money out of the fewer people going to the movies?  Just a thought.  An attendance record – now that would be worth a champagne toast.

July did boast an out-of-nowhere hit that was one to make your head – and stomach — spin with Columbia’s $110 million The Smurfs.  Smurfs easily presents one of the true WTF?!?! moments in 2011 box office prognostication as here was a movie universally panned, with a trailer promising a movie every bit as bad as it turned out to be.  And yet it bucked off the cowboys and zapped the E.T.s of Cowboys & Aliens in its opening weekend and went on to become one of the big family movie winners of the year.

 

Good God, why?

Were parents so nostalgic for the 1980s cartoon series – which had also been pretty unbearable – they wanted to share that misplaced affection with their kids?  Could it have been something as simple as the blue dweebies having the kiddie market to themselves at release time?  Or was there something more other-worldly at work, like maybe the little blue folk hold some sort of eerie hypnotic power over family audiences?  Or mayhaps it’s a sign of the End of Days?  Who the hell knows?  The movie’s success may be inexplicable, but I doubt the gang at Columbia is laying awake nights worrying about it.  Instead, I imagine they’re sleeping soundly after exhausting themselves counting those $127 million domestic Smurf-bucks at summer’s end (and still earning!).

Another of July’s few big winners was deliciously nasty comedy Horrible Bosses.  A ruthless revenge fantasy in pitch perfect tune with the economic times, the $35 million Warners release had a summer’s end U.S. tally of $114 million which put it right in line with a string of strong performances by adult-oriented comedies (The Hangover Part 2 [$254 million], Bridesmaids [$167 million], Bad Teacher [$98 million]).

Not all of July’s losers were aspiring blockbusters.  Romcom Larry Crowne was dead on arrival despite the star power of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts ($35 million domestic against a budget of $30 million); Selena Gomez failed to turn her tweenish Disney Channel popularity into something big screen-worthy with Monte Carlo ($23 million/$20 million); in a year with flashier CGI efforts like Kung Fu Panda 2, Cars 2, Rio, and the like, the modest charms of Disney’s old school Winnie the Pooh didn’t have a chance ($26 million/$30 million); and the box office for talkin’ critter comedy Zookeeper gave off a smell like an uncleaned monkey cage ($77 million/$80 million).

Speaking of which brings us to August’s surprise breakout hit, Fox’s $90 million Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the studio’s second attempt to re-energize the franchise after Tim Burton’s creative fizzle, Planet of the Apes, back in 2001.

Expectations going in were low and for good reason.  In the decades Fox has been milking the franchise, the only entry worth a damn in the entire enterprise has been the 1968 original.  The four sequels which followed went from bad to worse, and a short-lived prime time TV series and an equally short-lived Saturday morning cartoon were no great shakes either. But, the sequels had been profitable, if modestly so, and, more importantly, they had kept the brand alive as a marketing platform for a merchandising bonanza which went on to outlast the movies in coloring books, board games, toys, lunch boxes, etc.  According to an AMC documentary on the Apes series made in anticipation of Burton’s 2001 film, one company alone had produced 300 franchise-related items up to that time.  Fox’s interest in revitalizing the franchise may have been purely mercenary (yeah, in Hollywood, go figure), but certainly understandable.

Even without the hyper studio push which accompanied so many of the summer’s blockbuster rollouts, Rise cleared the low bar easily.  A kinda/sorta remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972 – fourth in the original movie series), the script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver slyly inverts the original.  Instead of the original’s astronaut (Charlton Heston) being tormented by a society of brutish apes, Rise has a highly intelligent ape (Andy Serkis in an astounding motion-capture performance) being tormented by a society of brutish humans – our society.  Rise is more effective than smart, putting its simian hero through a Dumbo-esque series of babe-in-the-woods contrived and manipulative horrors, but that certainly works better than the nearly inert human side of the story with James Franco as a supposedly brilliant scientist who shouldn’t be trusted with a kid’s chemistry set.  And, not to be overly nostalgic, but the film’s be-kind-to-animals theme feels a bit warm and fuzzy measured against the edge of the original’s nuclear age point that man is his own worst apocalyptic enemy.  Still, there’s no denying the new formula worked for audiences, and Rise opened with $54.8 million, the fourth-best August opening ever, and continued to pile on the bananas for the remaining summer weeks ending the season with $151 million U.S. and still earning.

No doubt Rise’s staying power was aided and abetted by the remainder of August’s line-up much of which was grandly, epically, awesomely awful.  With the key young audience only available for a few weeks before they’re off to school, August tends to be a dumping ground for flicks without a lot of staying power, but even by that low standard, much of August could have been showcased under the banner, Why Hollywood Sucks.

Rife with often lousy remakes and sequels, there was a flat, stale taste to the month.  Within two weeks of Rise’s debut came sequels $40 million Final Destination 5 and $40 million Spy Kids:  All the Time in the World, and remakes $90 million Conan the Barbarian and $30 million Fright Night.  The critics showed a little love to Fright Night, but movie-goers passed on all of them, each of the four dead on opening.  Final Destination 5 hopefully found the final terminus for a pointless franchise ending the summer with a U.S. box office of $39 million; writer/director Robert Rodriguez, who hasn’t had a substantial moneymaker in six years, took another step toward career irrelevance as the fourth installment in a forgettable franchise finished the season with $23 million; Conan offered up the summer’s biggest bloodbath at just $18 million; and Fright Night was truly a fright, taking a stake through the heart at $15 million.

The rest of the month didn’t get any better.  Columbiana was another Bourne clone about an invincible superspy on a revenge quest.  The $40 million flick could’ve used a bit more Kevlar, suffering box office assassination on arrival and ending the summer with a paltry $13 million.  Then came a surprising misfire from maestro of the macabre, Guillermo del Toro, who produced the $25 million Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of a 1973 made-for-TV flick, finished out the summer with a $16.6 million domestic take.  And then there was Our Idiot Brother, a goofy, sunny-faced comedy from The Weinstein Co., which clicked with reviewers better than movie-goers.  The smartest thing about Idiot was keeping its budget to a bargain-basement $5 million which helped its thin take of just $9 million from looking too bad.

Other notable August casualties:  body-switching comedy The Change-Up left Universal wishing it could switch the numbers of its $52 million budget with its $35 million box office, and also blackened Green Lantern star Ryan Reynolds’ other eye by handing him his second stiff of the summer; and Glee the 3D Concert Movie which posed the $9 million musical question, how many tickets can you sell to something people watch every week on TV for free?  (Answer;  $12 million worth).

The big success story of late summer was the $25 million adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel about race relations in the Deep South of the 1960s, The Help.  It was the anti-summer flick:  an adult drama about a still touchy subject skewing toward women and released between Final Destination 5 and Conan the Barbarian.  Proving not every summertime movie-goer is some hormonal teen interested in a testosterone fix of dizzying action and dazzling CGI effects, The Help shot past the $100 million marker in less than three weeks with little week-to-week fall-off, ending the summer still pulling in hefty bucks at the box office.

The Help was not the only summer release showing there’s a largely ignored adult audience willing to come out for stories they can connect with.  Although not as spectacular an earner as The Help, July’s $50 million Crazy, Stupid, Love ran up a healthy midrange take of $71 million before the summer closed.

And then there was Woody Allen’s time travel farce, the $30 million Midnight in Paris, which, in its humble limited-release way, boasted numbers blockbuster producers can only ever dream about.  No big, expensive, hype-charged rollout; week-to-week numbers which continued to move between modest fall-offs and gains; and per-screen earnings which remained among the highest on the exhibition circuit through the 14 weeks of summer the movie was on screens.  Midnight finished the summer with a domestic take of $51 million (and still holding steady!), making it The Woodman’s biggest hit.  Just as impressive, despite Allen’s comedies having an unimpressive overseas earnings track record, Midnight’s foreign has come close to doubling its U.S. earnings.  And they say the French are the only ones outside of New York and L.A. who “get” Allen.  Ah, tres bon, Monsieur Woody! 

There are four months left in the year, but the chances for an industry turnaround in that time are Slim and None – and Slim left town.

Fall is when the major studios release most of their heavy dramas, trying to impress each other in a run-up to the Academy Awards.  Fall will be the season of Steven Soderbergh’s bio-fear thriller Contagion, the noirish Drive, George Clooney getting political – again – in The Ides of March, bio-pics J. Edgar and The Iron Lady, Cold War thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, this year’s answer to 2010’s The Fighter in MMA drama Warrior, a Spielberg one-two punch in December with Warhorse and the motion-capture animated The Adventures of Tintin, and the much-anticipated American adaptation of the Stieg Larson international bestseller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Somewhere in there might be this year’s version of such 2010 late-year hits as True Grit, Black Swan, The King’s Speech…but even if there is, it won’t be enough.

There will also be a lot of the usual Hollywood fluff:  horror flicks (Apollo 18, Dream House), shoot ‘em ups (Killer Elite), and a mess of remakes, reboots and sequels (Straw Dogs, Footloose, The Thing, Paranormal Activity 3, The Three Musketeers, Puss in Boots, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, Happy Feet Two, The Twilight Saga:  Breaking Dawn – Part 1, The Muppets, Piranha 3DD, Alvin and the Chipmunks:  Chipwrecked!, Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows, Mission:  Impossible – Ghost Protocol).

Even if a number of these releases do well (and the track record of this kind of beat-it-to-death rehashing so far this year doesn’t offer many good omens), there’s little here promising the kind of breakout success which could pull the year out of the hole.  Considering the slippage in franchise sequels thus far this year, supposedly sure hits like Twilight and Sherlock Holmes – even if they hit – will probably come in below the marks of previous entries.  But even if they hold steady, it won’t be enough.

The chances are the rest of the year won’t be about trying to have it end a winner, but trying to minimize the loss. 

So, what does it all mean?

Well, the most obvious meaning is Hollywood had a crappy summer, and, so far, it’s having a crappy year.  There were a couple of big moneymakers (huge if you add in foreign), but most of the big budget spectaculars – including the ones that did well – didn’t do the business they were supposed to do, certainly not in terms of actual ticket sales.  Summer 2011 may turn out to be the greatest illustration to date of over-betting on the young male market with the kind of overpriced, overblown, and over-hyped eye-dazzlers which used to be guaranteed gold-minters a few years ago.

At the same time, Summer 2011 also demonstrated the large, profit-generating audiences which are largely underserved, particularly in summer, but are hungry – even during summer – for big screen entertainment.  Adult women came out for Bridesmaids and The Help, adult men for Super 8, adult couples for Crazy, Stupid Love and Midnight in Paris, black moviegoers for Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family and Jumping the Broom.  These seven pics collectively pulled in almost $630 million this summer against a total production cost of just under $220 million (and a couple of these are still out there earning decent bucks); that’s an average budget of a non-threatening $31 million per (major studios could pay that out of the change lost in the studio chief’s office sofa), against an average domestic return of $90 million (better than 95% of the year’s releases so far).  They made that money without the big dollar marketing campaigns of the wannabe tent pole releases of the year, and often on little more than word of mouth.  The lowest earning of them – Jumping the Broom with $37 million against a budget of $6.6 million – ranks #55 among the 383 titles released to date.  The Help and Super 8 are among the year’s Top 20 so far; Bridesmaids among the Top 10.

Can they compete head-to-head in earning power with blockbusters like Transformers:  Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides?  Hell, no, particularly when you throw in the foreign and ancillary and merchandising money.

But considering the low costs (and low financial risk) measured against the returns, that’s damned good money.  Damned good money.  You have to wonder how much more of it there is to be made if Hollywood ever got serious about mining those under-exploited demographics, and put the same kind of marketing muscle behind these smaller releases they put behind brand names like Transformers which, one could argue, hardly need seventy-odd million bucks worth of help letting audiences know they’re there.

The blockbuster’s not dead, not by a long shot, nor is the franchise sequel.  Twelve of 2011’s Top 20 live-action releases through the end of summer were some kind of big-budget action/adventure special effects extravaganza, and seven Top 20 titles were sequels including all five chart toppers (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Transformers:  Dark of the Moon; The Hangover Part 2; Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides; Fast Five).  Even with slippages from their predecessors, the top earners were billion dollar money machines around the globe, and even #5 – aptly, Fast Five – has hauled in $600 million worldwide to date.

No, the big budget flick, the sequel, the tent pole franchise still has miles to go before it sleeps.  But they are losing some of their mojo, and of that, too, there should be little doubt.  There are pools of money Hollywood is ignoring as it runs around after the tattering, slender golden fleece which is the shrinking youth market, and if it continues to ignore those much larger audiences – women, minorities, grown ups of all stripes – the industry may find that when it needs them, they won’t come, having since been conditioned by Hollywood to the idea that movies are for kids.  Hollywood needs to do more than throw the over-24 crowd a scattering of appealing titles over the course of the year while it continues to sink billions into making and promoting movies aimed at kids who’d rather stay home playing Call of Duty 4.

The last time the American motion picture industry was in this position, Old Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn looked at the little blue-glowing box in living rooms that was stealing away the movie-going audience with a junk food diet of game shows, cops ‘n’ robbers, and cowboys ‘n’ Indians.  He issued a warning to TV which should also serve as a warning to today’s movie business:  “Tell ‘em not to make the mistakes Hollywood made…Don’t start making shows better after the people have stopped coming.”

– Bill Mesce

 

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