Another weekend, another tale of two box offices. On the one end, the big movies continue to do what big movies do, i.e., practically print money; on the other end, the small movies (i.e., anything costing less than $100m to make) continue to do what small movies do these days, i.e., fail spectacularly or get by on modest business which would have been considered failing just a couple of years ago. This has been one of the primary themes of the year at the box office, and it begs the following question: is this the new normal? Has event cinema so effectively and permanently altered our collective moviegoing habits that there’s simply no room for smaller movies anymore, especially not when Gilmore Girls is on Netflix (OMG, Rory is such a terrible journalist, amirite?). Or are we all simply reading the signs and waiting for the really good smaller movies to arrive while ignoring the current batch of ho-hum wannabes (sorry, Allied)?
First, the specifics: Moana just enjoyed the second biggest Thanksgiving debut in history whereas Rules Don’t Apply posted one of the worst wide openings of all time, easily the worst such opening of 2016. These were the two extremes at the Thanksgiving box office, but the story in-between those two positions was the same: the rich (Moana, Fantastic Beasts, Doctor Strange, Trolls) got richer while the poor (Allied, Almost Christmas, Bad Santa 2, The Edge of Seventeen, Rules Don’t Apply, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Bleed for This, Jack Reacher 2, Deepwater Horizon, Inferno) got poorer, either through continued underwhelming performance or a disappointing opening.
The weekend box office via BoxOfficeMojo:
Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and The Accountant, all three mid-budget dramas aimed at adults, are the obvious outliers, managing to drum up respectable business while at least managing to probably break when you factor in their international numbers (e.g., Arrival is up to $92m worldwide). However, those types of movies used to at least break $100m domestic, and that’s just not in the cards this year. As such, veteran film executive Adam Goodman put it best in a recent THR article: “We keep pushing the extreme between winners and losers.”
One of the main culprits of this recent divide might not be budget level but instead quality. To compete with not only the Disney machine but also the perpetual cycle of buzzy TV shows, smaller movies must have absolutely stellar reviews and word-of-mouth. Sadly, apart from Edge of Seventeen that simply doesn’t describe any of the recent underperformers. Allied, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Bad Santa 2 and Rules Don’t Apply tanked this weekend partially because they’re simply not as good as they should be. In fact, I outright detested Rules Don’t Apply and it’s astonishingly inept editing, although others have been more kind (e.g., THR lists it as a dark horse Best Picture contender, to which I say WTF?).
We are in that November/December period where Oscar bait used to reign supreme. There are 15 such movies which are either already playing in ultra limited release or will be by Christmas. Inevitably, most of these movies will be overlooked by viewers, forcing them to hope for a box office boost should they net any awards nominations early next year. Moreover, several of the studios have been stuck with movies (Paramont’s Allied, Sony’s Billy Lynn) which are good, but not great, which is actually one of the bigger sins a small film can commit during awards season where anything vaguely adult drama-like is judged (by critics and audiences alike) not on whether it’s good but whether it’s good enough to win awards.
Even if some of these non-contenders-dressed-in-awards-contender-clothing had been rescheduled where would the studios have put them other than perhaps the dead zone that is January? One of the lessons Hollywood learned after the bloodbath summer of 2013, when one blockbuster after another bombed, was that big movies need to be spaced out better to give audiences time to breathe. The industry has since responded by employing year-round blockbuster scheduling, which is how we ended up with Batman v Superman in March and Star Wars in December. However, that has left fewer and fewer openings on the schedule for smaller movies, as Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: Civil War) told KCRW earlier this year:
Joe: Where the business is going, I think, is that large companies are going to be buying pieces of the calender with branded IP. Star Wars now owns Christmas. Marvel owns May and November and potentially August. Deadpool in February. Now we’re proving that you can make money in any month. It’s really about owning a date which then becomes very difficult for smaller films to find a release because these massive movies are occupying all the screens, all the attention, all the media.
Anthony: We’re definitely in a place right now where the global marketplace is getting cohesive. These movies are opening everywhere, more so day-and-date. All across the world audiences can have a communal experience around a movie together, which I think is a really fantastic development in the history of not just cinema but of our world. It’s a very interconnected world nowadays. There’s a heightened sense of these movies, the power of these movies now because of the waves they send through the global marketplace. But the more that becomes the norm the attention will shift to the niches in the industry.
Joe: Netflix’s valuation compared to most studios is significant. They may become the future of sub-$100 million movies. They may find out their own niche. The studios will work hard to differentiate their content from what you can get on a Netflix or an Amazon, which is why these event movies are so important.
For now, the entire industry is watching to see what happens over the next two months when an unusually strong batch of awards contenders gradually make their way into theaters. Manchester By the Sea, Loving and Moonlight are already posting strong numbers in limited release while Nocturnal Animals, Miss Sloane and Lion are just getting started. Anticipation is high for Fences, La La Land, Silence, Jackie, Hidden Figures, 20th Century Woman and Patriot’s Day, but what hope do any of them have going up against Rogue One not to mention Sing, Passengers and Assassin’s Creed?
There used to be room for both kinds of movies at this time of the year, and there still is, just not nearly as much, not after Force Awakens made over $200m in its December opening last year. If Rogue One does a fraction of that business it will likely inspire other studios to compete by scheduling even more December blockbusters of their own thus meaning the month (as well as the start of January) will be overtaken by event cinema the same way March and April have thus hastening the inevitable future where blockbusters, animated movies and micro-budget horror movies dominate theaters while everything else ultimately ends up on Netflix, Amazon and VOD. Our collective need for more escapism under a Trump presidency could also greatly contribute to our continued outright rejection of or tepid response to more serious-minded movies.
Perhaps the answer is to stop shoving so many of these smaller movies into the final months of the year, do away with the notion that serious cinema only truly comes out to play at the end of the year instead of being present throughout the entire year. Or perhaps there is no answer, and this is simply, to quote The Aviator, “The wave of the future.”