It’s that time of the year again! The Fall football is at its midpoint, every man worth his salt is squeezing the last few uses out of his grill, and the action-packed, special-effects heavy films have disappeared from your local cinema once again. The summer of 2015 has come and gone with the box office franchise titans of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World each crossing the coveted billion-dollar threshold. When a film makes over a billion dollars at the box office, it looks great to studios, fans love it, and it solidifies the film in the pantheon of great, successful movies.
Unfortunately everything is not as it seems when looking at the billion dollar club, which may ultimately lead to a bursting of the box office bubble. The lack of creativity in blockbuster films is ultimately going to hurt the industry as it creates more and more brain-dead fans with each passing summer. The massive box office hauls don’t reflect an impending crisis, but a close examination of the box office records on website boxofficemojo.com, illustrate that a troubling trend has started to emerge.
The first takeaway that could either mean boom or bust for Hollywood and movie fans is that currently only twenty-three movies have broken the coveted $1 billion mark and most were released in the 21st century, with the exception of Jurassic Park (1993), Titanic (1997) and Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999). Secondly, only three of the films are non-sequels: Titanic, Frozen, and Alice in Wonderland (2010); illustrating a growing trend in Hollywood to go with what you know, rather than betting big on original content. And lastly, the top 2 films, which are the only ones to ever gross over 2 billion dollars, have both been directed by James Cameron, Avatar ($2.7 billion) and Titanic ($2.1 billion).
Furious 7 kicked the year off with a bang grossing over a billion dollars worldwide before the summer movie season even began, as fans flocked to theaters eager to see how the series would handle the real life death of its star, Paul Walker. The summer season was predictable, however 2015 might be shaping up to be the biggest year for Hollywood as it is on track to beat the records set in 2012, which saw an incredible four movies break the 1 billion dollar mark. Believe it or not, there could be a total of seven, yes SEVEN, films that break the 1 billion dollar mark this year. Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World and Minions, yes Minions, have already grossed over a billion dollars internationally and there are still three films left that could also gross over a billion dollars: Spectre, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The trailers for Bond 24, Spectre, look as sharp and stylish as Skyfall, and anything less than a repeat of the success of Skyfall would be a disappointment. Skyfall is the only film in the Bond franchise to break a billion and also won Adele an Academy Award for Best Song. With its director and team of writers returning, Spectre is all but guaranteed to continue the success of its highly entertaining predecessor, even if Sam Smith’s recently released theme song is a bit of a letdown. But who can top Adele?
The Hunger Games Franchise has gone the Harry Potter and Twilight route and split its final book into two films with the finale being released in November. With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 being the last film in the series, it could potentially have a larger turnout and even greater returns at the box office, than the previous three films in the franchise. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 made $1.3 billion and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 made $829 million, both of which had the highest gross of any film in their respective franchises. Studios realize it’s in their best interest to make as much money as possible when releasing the final film in an adapted series, and whatever adaptations are coming down the Hollywood pipeline, you can expect the trend to continue.
If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you would already know that the ticket pre-sale for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is already breaking records and crashing websites, with all this hype James Cameron might want to share some elbow room in the even more exclusive 2 billion-dollar club. Yes, I’m calling it now and saying that I believe Star Wars: Episode 7 will ultimately bring in over $2 billion at the global box office. The hype this movie has received from three trailers is utterly astounding. Star Wars purists know that Episodes 1-3 were ill-conceived excess, and with a solid cast that brings back almost everyone from Episodes 4-6 and directed by fanboy favorite JJ Abrams, the force will be strong with this release.
With all of the hype and press around the box office results, the problems with the movie industry are still there, and chief among them is the sequel machine that has gripped Hollywood by the balls, throat. Every film I’ve mentioned of potentially hitting the billion dollar mark in the remaining months of this year is a sequel, and not just any old sequel either. Although Bond is a behemoth of a franchise unto itself, this year’s movie will mark the 24th film in the franchise and it’s expected to break a billion. Furious 7, the seventh film in the Fast & Furious franchise, took its seventh try to hit that coveted mark. The Avengers: Age of Ultron was both a sequel and a continuation of a greater franchise. Disney even has plans to turn Star Wars into a franchise on steroids, with three more planned Star Wars sequels, a spinoff AND a theme park addition. Sequel fatigue is bound to set in and the outlook for the future is bleak. The last film with an original idea to hit the billion dollar mark was James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, and even Cameron is working on three, potentially four more sequels to Avatar.
This new trend of striving for the billion-dollar mark is pure Hollywood greed at its finest. No longer is debuting at number 1 the big prize, nor remaining number 1 for several weeks, the ultimate goal is to cross the beloved 1 billion dollar threshold and many studio heads are clamoring for another Avatar or Titanic. The blame can be placed on both big Hollywood studios and summer movie fans. It’s a cyclical process of the beast feeding itself and will only stop with a series of massive flops on the level of Disney’s dismal John Carter.
Disney’s John Carter is the stuff of legends that is still talked about in Hollywood as a cautionary tale of excess and what happens when big bucks are bet on a new franchise that ultimately flops. 2012’s John Carter cost Disney $263.7 million to make and only grossed $284 million globally. A budget of a quarter of a billion dollars and you can see that Disney was swinging for the fences. The film’s colossal failure ultimately cost Disney chairman Rich Ross his job. Disney naturally did what any great business does after a great financial loss, they turned right around and did it again in 2013 with The Lone Ranger. The creative force behind the billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise made The Lone Ranger with a budget of $225 million and the film only earned $260 million globally. Two films that cost Disney almost a half a billion dollars to produce, only earned $56 million…combined.
Disney is perhaps the only company with pockets deep enough to sustain the practice of spending large amounts of money on films and ultimately having them fail. Their purchase of Marvel Studios in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion each shows that they’re willing to take huge risks and stock their stables full of franchises that all but guarantee the company to have a huge return on their investment. But at what cost?
The Lone Ranger and John Carter were supposed to kick off franchises, but ultimately disappointed critics and fans alike. With ticket prices rising on a yearly basis, films that are supposed to be fun, family fare, end up being disappointing and costly to the studios and moviegoers alike. The root of the problem can be traced back to money and the need for the ever more lucrative sequel to a sequel.
Sequel fatigue will set in sooner than we think, and it won’t be because the summer movies are no longer entertaining and full of Michael Bay-esque explosions, but because fans will ultimately tire of seeing the same characters on the screen every summer. Let’s face it, the last truly big summer blockbuster without a sequel would have to be 2010’s Inception and before that we’d have to go back to 1996’s Independence Day, which also has a remake in the works. Neither of those films hit the billion dollar mark and they did what great summer flicks are supposed to: create dialogue among viewers and entertain not just in that moment, but also for years to come. Nearly 20 years later and Independence Day is still a heck of a ride and is one Will Smith’s best performances. Bill Pullman’s speech in Independence Day is the Gettysburg Address for action movies.
Great movies, summer blockbusters included, should have repeat watchability 5, 10, 20 years after their release. Avatar came out in 2009 and holds the top spot in global gross, but when was the last time anyone watched Avatar? Even its Academy Award Best Picture Nomination is mocked and the film hasn’t been out for 10 years. The same could be said one day for the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is about to enter Phase 3. Will movie fans honestly want to watch Chris Evans as Captain America in 15 years, or care to see Thor: The Dark World, in 25 years once the movie is on its third or fourth reboot?
Perhaps the only silver lining that can derail the Hollywood greed machine is tentatively scheduled to arrive in theatres in 2017, Avatar 2. It was reported by the late composer and frequent James Cameron collaborator, James Horner, that James Cameron has enough material for 4 more Avatar sequels that he is trying to squeeze into three. What happens if Avatar 2 or 3 is a colossal flop, will that change the commercial culture of Hollywood? Highly unlikely as studios will adjust and cut budgets by a few tens of millions of dollars for a year or two and will be back to their grotesque budgets just in time for Michael Bay’s Bad Boys 6 or Transformers 17.
There has to be a change, but the only change that comes in Hollywood is a two-word phrase that is both beloved and feared, something different. Inception, District 9, World War Z, were films that were loved and were wildly different from the norm, and yet only Inception is the only one that makes the Box Office Top 100 of all-time list. The greatest films don’t always come with big budgets and even larger box office returns, and year after year we have at least one gem that everyone simply loves. Who DIDN’T see Guardians of the Galaxy last year and didn’t think “WOW, that was fun!” Though Guardians is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it had all of the elements of what a great summer blockbuster should be: fun, energetic, funny, and wild ride from start to finish. The only hope we have of not being taken hostage by the billion dollar juggernauts every summer is when creative directors like: Christopher Nolan, Neill Blomkamp (District 9), Guillermo del Toro, Spike Jonze (Her and Where the Wild Things Are), Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood), Quentin Tarantino and others put out films that speak to the human soul, entertain, and are just pure fun without all the fluff.
The creative minds in Hollywood as well as the fans will have to change. Hollywood will have to go back to its roots and cherish the spectacle and wonder of film and filmmaking. Only independent filmmakers seem to cherish the art form or filmmaking and the beauty in telling a story for the large screen. Even if the industry itself doesn’t change on its own it can still be forced to change. You and I have the power of the purse. If movies with original stories and characters that aren’t left open for a sequel start becoming the summer blockbusters, Hollywood would quickly follow suit to keep up with the change in consumer preference. But who am I to judge, I purchased two tickets for the first showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens the moment Fandango sent me an email saying the tickets were available in my area. There are some billion-dollar, franchise sequels you just can’t resist.