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Hollywood’s summer of flops: A box office massacre

A string of disappointing movies — both critically and commercially — have led to damaging financial implications. So what exactly went wrong?

Charles Bramesco, Guardian News & Media Ltd
15:46 August 12, 2017

We’re coming to the end of a particularly chilly summer in Hollywood. It’s been a brutal week for movie theatre chains as they ready their quarterly earnings reports for shareholders and warn those investors that they’re not going to like what they see. The AMC theatre chain is haemorrhaging money, with a 27 per cent decrease in value over the summer, ticket sales have fallen 10.8 per cent across the board, stocks are in a nosedive (China’s Wanda Group has ponied up $100 million, or Dh367 million to buy out available AMC stock), and the four largest multiplex operations have cumulatively lost $1.3 billion.

Present projections predict a year-end total of $11.2 billion in ticket sales, chalking up a hefty slide down from last year’s $11.37 billion. Just last week, The Dark Tower, a starry wannabe franchise-starter, became the latest under-seen fatality of the season. Things are not looking good.

While the past few months have seen a handful of highly visible exceptions (Wonder Woman, for one, raked in a princely $400 million to claim the number two spot for the year to date in box office gross), the articles declaring 2017 to be the greatest movie summer on record refer mainly to the preponderance of high quality films making the rounds rather than big-impact blockbusters.

Positive reviews do not a hit make — consider the sad example of Atomic Blonde, a glossy action flick that has barely recouped its $30 million budget despite glowing notices and Charlize Theron as a martial arts Amazon in black lingerie — and we’re in a severe drought of crowd-pleasers operating on a studio scale. It feels like the ink has scarcely dried on last year’s post mortem of the summer wreckage, and yet the time has come to undertake the solemn work of surveying the damage once again.

The defining lesson of this year’s flop crop: there’s no such thing as a sure thing. We’ve watched studios incrementally move away from original, creator-driven projects seen as “risky” (meanwhile, the first-time director Jordan Peele’s Get Out is the most profitable film of the year, with a $175 million payday on a measly $4.5 million budget) towards franchises and other projects ostensibly boasting built-in audiences through brand recognition. But this summer, audiences drew a line under what they’ll buy into on simple merit of nostalgia or the sunk-time fallacy, and now the chickens of failure have come home to roost.

2017 was the year that moviegoers finally rejected presumption. This year saw a crop of films boldly positing themselves as franchise-starters crash and burn on arrival, learning the hard way that audiences don’t want to spend 90 minutes on what feels like set-up for something they’ll get in two years. The Dark Tower condensed seven novels of knotty Stephen King prose into one incomprehensible package that then positioned itself as Act I in a grander, dumber vision with its final minutes.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Emoji Movie, Power Rangers and Baywatch all attempted to substitute familiarity for wit and heart, assuming the audience wanted to hang out with characters they knew without first proving they deserved to be loved.

Films content with their own finality fared surprisingly well, however; Baby Driver has nearly hit the hundred-million mark, and although Dunkirk didn’t quite match Christopher Nolan’s past successes, it more than paid for itself with a $140 million US gross. While horror and action continue to thrive, this year Hollywood has struggled with comedies; successes such as The Lego Batman Movie, Despicable Me 3 and The Boss Baby all fall under the “compulsory kiddie cinema” umbrella, and the twin disappointments Rough Night and The House simply weren’t funny enough to survive in the laugh-or-be-killed landscape of comedy. Girls Trip is the odd sleeper hit out, and its fiscal success ($95 million worldwide to date from a $19 million budget) may help make sense of a scattershot season. While public discourse continues to rage over the position and utility of identity politics — the championing of marginalised groups along lines of gender, race and sexuality — executives have found that the topic isn’t so embattled in cineplexes. Girls Trip, Wonder Woman and Get Out all earned public goodwill by offering someone other than a white man their moment in the spotlight, and proved that audiences aren’t afraid of diversity. Quite the opposite, in fact; white men have been calling their bankability into question left and right.

Once upon a time, the mention of Will Ferrell, Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp would have been enough to sell The House, a Mummy revival or another lacklustre Pirates of the Caribbean flick. But with no wattage to hide behind, The House face-planted and the latter pair failed to meet earnings expectations, despite objectively large sums.

Which leaves the confounding case of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. On paper, it should have been huge: an unfamiliar story in a time when audiences grumble over Hollywood’s lack of creativity, a ravishing sci-fi spectacle with enough CGI to make Avatar look like a student film, a cast featuring a supermodel and a pop star bringing their huge followings to the table. Perhaps in practice, it was all too outre to sell to the American people, an incoherent mishmash when compressed into ad form.

Maybe critics wield more power than conventionally assumed, as the majority of reviews warned that the complete bafflement of the ad campaign carried over to the film itself. Either way, the most expensive independent production of all time had to rely on overseas markets to make its money back, settling for a $37 million haul in the US. (Things are just peachy in China, Hollywood’s twin to the east; its entertainment economy keeps growing as US films develop a foothold, with Wolf Warrior II’s nearly $600 million take setting the national record for highest-grossing film of all time.)

If there’s sense to be made out of this mass carnage, it’s that movies can no longer afford to phone it in. At least in the past few months, audiences have gotten sharper about shunning entertainment that panders to them or insults their intellects. Half-baked ready-made franchise pilots, brain-dead remakes of half-forgotten pop culture flotsam, sequels coasting on the goodwill earned by preceding films — you’re all on notice. If there’s a more inspiring bellwether of hope for the future than the latest Pirates and Transformers movie’s grosses paling in comparison to those of previous instalments, I’d love to see it.