Box Office

Box Office: What Do You Do When Nothing Seems to Work Anymore?

Listen up, Hollywood film studio executives. Put down your copy of Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Arts Agency. I’ll spoil the ending: Yes, you’re probably mentioned in it at some point, and yes, it’s probably pretty unflattering. Stop gossiping about Brangelina, debating whether or not Les Moonves will take over Viacom, taunting Sheri Redstone for clearly having no idea what she’s doing and/or laughing about how that one Paramount executive who wanted to sell the studio to China was fired literally one day after he proposed to his much younger Chinese girlfriend on her talk show in China. Pull yourself away from the election and worrying the way Donald Trump talked to women on The Apprentice is far too similar to how you talk about your female colleagues and subordinates behind doors. Stop pretending you genuinely care about diversity, or that the awards season still matters.

It’s time to wake up and face the facts: almost nothing seems to be working right now.

Financially, that is.

Artistically speaking, you guys still crank out the occasional quality movie, but when you do good luck getting people to see it (sorry Bridget Jones’s Baby). Get used to looking at a $25m domestic total for a movie like Hell or High Water, one of the best reviewed films of the year, and calling that a victory even though it’s actually just barely breaking even (i.e., Hell or High Water‘s budget was $12m). There was a time when movies like that did at least twice that business just as there was a time when the old star + concept formula was a safe bet to produce a hit.

Tell that to Deepwater Horizon, Mark Wahlberg’s recently released disaster flick which has fallen prey to the now all-too-familiar question: “Was that opening weekend actually big enough considering how much the film cost to make/budget?“[See Also: Magnificent Seven]. The answer these days is almost always no or “well, let’s wait to see what it does in China.” That is if the film is lucky enough to have actually earned a Chinese release since our current future overlords only allow 34 foreign films in their country per year.

Of course, Deepwater Horizon‘s struggles should have been and largely were expected. Very few films do much of anything in September, one of the slowest months of the year for new movies. The same goes for Storks, 2016’s latest talking animal animated movie except unlike Kung Fu Panda 3, Zootopia, Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets this one is bombing fairly hard. However, this year’s box office woes haven’t been exclusively felt during the off months. Pundits, for example, are still trying to make sense of what happened this summer, as per Vox:

Hollywood treated audiences to yet another plodding procession of sequels and remakes, franchise starters and extenders, reboots and reimaginings, too few of which provided even the most basic cinematic pleasures: romance, excitement, escapism, comedy, spectacles worth projecting on a 50-foot screen. Most summer movie seasons are built on formulaic productions, but this one felt worse somehow — as if the old formulas suddenly no longer worked.

It turns out that more summer movies does not mean better summer movies, in part because far too many of them rely on old ideas. Nearly all of this summer’s most expensive, expansive releases, from the superhero sequels to the live-action reboots of animated classics, were based on existing media properties of some sort — so that every week felt like the cinematic equivalent of reheated leftovers.

The so-called “summer blockbuster movie season” claims so much real estate on the calendar, now starting in late March and ending in mid-August, that we all end up feeling bludgeoned to death by mid-June, if not earlier. On top of that, it leaves little room on the calendar for non-blockbusters, and an entire generation is now being trained to expect to pay to see only certain kinds of movies. Everything else is just future fodder for Netflix binging, regardless of how many critics, bloggers and podcasters rave about the smaller films while they’re actually in theaters.

Except, of course, that new generation is turning away from movies altogether, as per The Atlantic:

In the first half of the twentieth century, going to the movies was like going to church: Americans did it almost every week. Today, buying a movie ticket is more like going to the doctor—something many Americans never do and most Americans do only four or five times a year for routine cultural check-ups. (Domestic box office is growing mostly because average ticket prices are rising.)

So, ten percent of monthly filmgoers buy half of all movie tickets. The celluloid loyalists are young, heavily concentrated among people between 18 and 39.

But Hollywood’s young fanatics are getting less fanatical by the year. The good news is that Americans younger than 18 and older than 40 are actually watching more movies than they were five years ago. But the most important demographic to Hollywood, 18-to-24-year-olds, is also abandoning movies faster than any other group.

Overall, film attendance continues to go down faster than a hooker on Hugh Grant (happy 20th anniversary, South Park). In 1930 (and, yes, I realize the pop culture landscape was seismically different back then), the average weekly cinema attendance was 80 million people, 65% of the U.S. population. This past week, only 15.6 million people went to see a movie (or at least only 15.6 million movie tickets were purchased), which equates to just 4.8% of the total population. On the year, the weekly average has been closer to 23.4 million, just 7.2% of the population.

If you want to go even further back, at one point this year the film industry was on pace to sell the fewest U.S. tickets per person of any year since perhaps before the 1920s and the fewest total tickets in two decades. Thankfully, Finding Dory, Secret Life of Pets and Suicide Squad came along to reverse that, but the truth remains that domestic attendance has mostly flatlined, making Hollywood more reliant on foreign audiences than ever before. As The Atlantic pointed out, “In the last five years, the Eastern Asian and Latin American markets have grown by $6 billion, while the U.S. and Canadian markets have grown by less than $1 billion. The necessity to create a single product for a global crowd encourages studios to produce the artistic equivalent of Rosetta Stones, interpretable for many tongues.”

If not for the rise of the foreign market in recent years, who knows where the studios would be right now, especially considering the concurrent death of the home video market. However, the list of domestic bombs/foreign hits grows larger every year, with Bridget Jones’s Baby, Warcraft and Independence Day: Resurgence being the most recent additions, and eventually the foreign audiences, especially China, will turn on us. Remember, China’s still relatively new to seeing Hollywood movies, at least legally. Films we reject as tired retreads they embrace as feeling genuinely new to them, but that can’t and won’t last forever.

While that looms in the future, domestic stagnation threatens in the present. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from recent box office failures, such as:

Audiences simply DO NOT care about inspirational “based on a true story” movies anymore.

  • Examples: Deepwater Horizon, Snowden, The Finest Hours, Race, Eddie the Eagle, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, In the Heart of the See, The 33, The Walk, Everest. All of them domestics flops.
  • Exception: Sully since the combo of Hanks/Eastwood, 9/11-timed release date was apparently too much to resist

Or found footage anything.

  • Examples: Blair Witch, Project Almanac, The Marked Ones, Devil’s Due, Earth to Echo, Into the Storm, As Above So Below

Or anything YA that’s not Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games or Fault in Our Stars

  • Examples: If I Stay, The Giver, The 5th Wave, Vampire Academy, Ender’s Game, The Mortal Instruments, Percy Jackson, The Host, Beautiful Creatures, The Maze Runner sequel, The Divergent sequels
  • Exceptions: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The first Maze Runner, The first Divergent, Goosebumps

Or any non-Lord of the Rings fantasy universe

  • Examples: The Huntsman, Seventh Son

Or genres/characters who haven’t been popular since our grandparents were kids

  • Examples: The Lone Ranger, The Legend of Tarzan, Ben-Hur, the various recent Hercules movies, any non-Rocky boxing movies (Hands of Stone)

Or anything by Seth Grahame-Smith or feels like it could have been:

  • Examples: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, I, Frankenstein

Audiences also really hate it when you split films into two for no good non-financial reason

  • Examples: Mockingjay, Insurgent
  • Exceptions: Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Twilight: Breaking Dawn

And they are sick and tired of so many sequels/remakes/reboots/requels

  • Examples: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Zoolander 2, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Star Trek Beyond, Ice Age: Like Anyone Actually Cares Anymore,
  • Exceptions: Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory

And they don’t care about any movie stars who aren’t named Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson or Denzel Washington

  • Examples: Sorry Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys), George Clooney (Money Monster, Hail, Caesar!), Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun), Zac Efron (Dirty Grandpa, Neighbors 2, Mike and Dave…, We Are Your Friends), Tina Fey (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), Matthew McConaughey (Free State of Jones), Tom Hanks (A Hologram for the King), Michael Fassbender (Light Between the Oceans),

And film festival buzz means next to nothing for most people

  • Examples: Southside With You, Captain Fantastic, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Swiss Army Man, The Meddler, Midnight Special, Everybody Wants Some!!, Green Room, Miles Ahead, The Neon Demon, The Lobster, Eye in the Sky, Love & Friendship, Sing Street, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

After all of that, what’s left? What actually works at the box office right now, give or take a few exceptions? Audiences seem to simply want cute talking animal cartoons that’ll shut the kids up for two hours, and the latest episode in the multi-million dollar TV shows we call the Star Wars saga, Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe. Plus, maybe throw in the occasional cheaply thrilling micro-budget horror flick, R-rated comedy and Disney live-action remake that gives us nice memberries and our kids genuinely new memories. Beyond that, everything else is just something we’ll eventually stream or bittorrent.

Of course, that’s an oversimplification. Millions of people still saw those summer movies which were declared box office disappointments. Just because Star Trek Beyond, for example, sold considerably fewer tickets than Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t mean it was playing to completely empty theaters throughout the country. They were just slightly more empty than they had been three years ago. It’s really all of the indie movies which are playing to practically empty theaters.

And it’s just sad. For Hollywood, nothing seems to be working right now. The blockbuster formula is broken, at least for know. There’s also not enough room left for the little guys. Even if there was, audiences have been trained to not want to see those kinds of movies in theaters anymore. Yet audiences are also getting sick of the types of movies they have been trained to expect to pay to see. More and more, let’s just stay home and watch Netflix or HBO GO is the average person’s weekend mantra, causing theater owners to gaze at the superior product being offered on TV right now with extreme envy.

What does Hollywood do when nothing seems to work anymore? Stand still and bet on next year’s films being better, bank on a Jurassic World or Force Awakens to prop everything up as they did in 2015. Hope everything turns around, and that in a cyclical business we are on the downside of a cycle right now. While they’re all doing that, we’ll just be busy watching TV because, damn, have you seen Westworld or Luke Cage yet?


  1. What is working is mostly a combination of reputation and marketing, as well as being realistic how large the audience for a particular property actually is. But the problems run a little bit deeper…the rising ticket-prices certainly do their part to keep the audience away.

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