We’ve already turned the page from October to November, and Hollywood couldn’t be happier to move on. October was a truly terrible time for new TV shows and movies, at least based on ratings and ticket sales. Outside of Supergirl, there isn’t a single breakout hit among the new Fall TV shows (even a returning behemoth like Empire is down), and beyond The Martian almost every new October movie deeply disappointed. Even the few other hits of the month, Goosebumps and Bridge of Spies, aren’t exactly setting the world afire. And then this past weekend, which had the lowest combined box office revenue of the year to date, delivered a career-worst opening for Sandra Bullock (Our Brand is Crisis) and a career-low for Bradley Cooper (Burnt). In the case of Our Brand is Crisis, the results were so bad the former that Warner Bros. president of worldwide marketing and distribution essentially told the media, “Wow, we really fucked up, but we’re desperate to keep working with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (who served as producer). So, could you maybe let them know how awesome we think they are?”
Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but such transparency would have been funny if it weren’t so familiar at this point. That’s the kind of statement the various other studios had to release after The Walk, Steve Jobs, Rock the Kasbah, Crimson Peak, Pan and Truth bombed in their wide releases throughout the month. Of course they were going to step forward and re-inforce how proud they were to work with people like Robert Zemeckis (Walk), Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle (Jobs), Bill Murray and Barry Levinson (Rock the Kasbah), Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak), Hugh Jackman (Pan) and Robert Redford (Truth). However, behind the scenes everyone’s stepping back and asking, “What the heck happened out there?”
As per usual, there isn’t any one answer to that question. Instead, there were a variety of factors which contributed to turning this October into such a bloodbath for new movies:
The state of the box office on the final weekend of October (actual totals, not estimates):
There were several horror movies (Crimson Peak, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), adult dramas (Bridge of Spies, Truth, Rock the Kasbah, Steve Jobs, Our Brand is Crisis, Burnt) and special effects event releases (The Walk, The Martian) duking it out. Usually when there’s a glut of similar product in the marketplace the takeaway is that the studios divided the audience too much, leaving too many movies struggling to find some oxygen. However, you also have to go case-by-case to see if that’s really true:
Movies like Pan and The Last Witch Hunter – big budget productions which no one was asking for, dogged by negative word of mouth for months prior to release – bomb all the time. No mystery there. Del Toro is still a niche director, and Crimson Peak was sold as a scary haunted house movie when it’s actually a gothic romance/psychological thriller with some supernatural elements. It’s generally a terrible idea to lie to audiences like that meaning it’s not stunning to see the end results at the box office. Jem and the Holograms only ever had a small cult following, and then the movie alienated them by changing so many things in the transition from 80s cartoon to live-action film. Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse were blacklisted by studios who didn’t like Paramount’s experimental deal to release them on VOD earlier than normal to eliminate the traditional 90-day theatrical window.
The more surprising part is how all of the prestige adult dramas and awards contenders not named-Bridge of Spies flopped. Rentrak’s Paul Dergarabedian told THR, “A total market saturation by films aimed at the over-30 crowd has caused inventory to swell to the point where the target audience has been fragmented to near extinction and with a dearth of anything approaching blockbuster status, the overall box office has suffered during this thankfully short-term malaise at the multiplex.” That’s before you even remember that several prestige dramas from September (Sicario, Everest, Black Mass, The Intern) were still competing for attention throughout the first half of October, or that Steve Jobs was sorta competing against the fact that Ashton Kutcher beat it to market with his own Jobs biopic in 2013.
#2. The Adult Dramas Didn’t Take Enough Time to Build Up Word of Mouth
October is traditionally the beginning of the Oscar season, but what that often means is that studios will release movies catering to older crowds in select theaters to build word-of-mouth. That’s what Sicario did in September, and it’s what Steve Jobs did in early October. Last October, Birdman did it and kept adding theaters all the way through Thanksgiving, but there’s little patience for that kind of thing this year. All of Hollywood is terrified of November’s forthcoming behemoths Spectre and Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (as well as Star Wars in December). As a result, many of October’s prestige titles, like Burnt, Crisis, Bridge of Spies and Rock the Kasbah, simply cut to the chase and opened wide right away or after maybe just a week in limited release. That only really worked out for Bridge of Spies. These are generally the types of films which truly do need the extra time to build up awareness. However, this year the studios thought they could be sold on star appeal. Oops.
#3. Star Power Doesn’t Matter Anymore
Isn’t terrible that the new Bradley Cooper movie Burnt only made $5 million? The film’s distributor thinks they simply got caught in the glut of like-minded projects, telling THR, “It’s pretty tough out there for adult films. There’s a lot of bodies being laid by the wayside.” But didn’t Cooper’s other 2015 movie, Aloha, also bomb? What about that weird Serena movie he did with Jennifer Lawrence which absolutely no one went to see? Just because he was in The Hangover, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and did the voice of rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t necessarily mean people will go see something just because Bradley Cooper is in it. It was never even a slamdunk that the TV adaptation of Limitless on CBS would be a hit this season just because Cooper was in the pilot and will appear in select future episodes, although that has paid off for the network so far.
It’s an increasingly familiar story. No movie star guarantees a big opening weekend with every new movie they make anymore (except for maybe Denzel Washington). Brands (Marvel, Pixar, DC, etc.) are the new selling point. Casting known actors helps to get movies made in the first place, and it remains a huge international draw. However, back at home when movies like The Martian and Bridge of Spies do well we partially attribute their success to featuring box office draws like Matt Damon and Tom Hanks. When movies like Burnt and Our Brand is Crisis disappoint we attribute the failure to the fact that star power is not in and of itself a box office draw anymore. Having a star helps, but you need more than that. You can’t slap a name on a poster and automatically put butts in seats. Whatever you’re selling better at least be kind of good, and you’re marketing better be more than “Bradley Cooper as a chef…we think” or “Sandra Bullock says mean things to Billy Bob Thornton!”
#4. Post-Recession Mentality Means We’re Not in the Mood for Serious Movies
Maybe we just weren’t in the mood for serious movies yet. Give us Goosebumps and 90s nostalgia. Give us The Martian and Matt Damon sciencing his way off of Mars. October is the month to see movies like Gravity, Captain Phillips, Gone Girl and Annabelle. Sure, some of those were awards contenders, but they were also fun to watch. This October’s prestige movies just looked too serious. Sensing as much, the mostly serious Bridge of Spies was sold as an intense spy thriller (it’s not – it’s an adult drama with a quasi-thrilling ending).
Or so the argument generally went in a recent THR roundtable discussion. Stephen Galloway took a wider look at it and wondered if we all long for more escapism from our movies in a post-recession world, “It’s a puzzle to me why audiences are staying away from some very good films. Are we living in a Depression-era mentality, where people just want escapism — the present day equivalent of Busby Berkeley musicals? I wonder if there’s a holdover effect from the Great Recession, where ticket-buyers are simply reluctant to see anything that isn’t branded as a great ride.”
#5. They Simply Weren’t Good Enough
Certain types of movies, like low-budget horror flicks and comic book adaptations, don’t need to be particularly beloved to make money. Quality is a convenience; not a necessity. Other types of movies, like adult dramas, absolutely must be fantastic, but even then that’s not a guarantee of box office success. Outside of Steve Jobs and The Walk, the critics didn’t seem to think that any of October’s new dramas were fantastic. The best reviewed movie of the month also happened to be one bonafide box office smash (The Martian).
Here are the October adult drama flops along with their RottenTomatoes Score:
- Burnt (28%)
- Our Brand is Crisis (31%)
- Crimson Peak (69%)
- Truth (57%)
- Rock the Kasbah (7%)
That’s not exactly the type of critical acclaim which screams “Must see!” The month’s other big bombs were less-dependent on good reviews, but for what it’s worth here’s what critics thought of them:
- The Last Witch Hunter (15%)
- Jem and the Holograms (20%)
- Pan (26%)