This is the summer of failure at the box office for Hollywood.
No, wait. That was last summer.
Or was it the summer before that?
Hold on. When did we have the summer that was so bad it caused George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to predict we were heading for a repeat of the implosion of the 60s which led to the American New Wave movement?
I dunno. I’ve lost track. Point being: Things have been trending in the wrong direction for a while now. Hollywood mostly just gets by on a few big hits per summer now, and repeatedly hopes the latest title to miss or underperform was just another speed bump and not part of the ever-widening chasm between what audiences actually want and what studios think audiences want.
To be fair, progress has been made in terms of when movies get released (blockbusters like Beauty and the Beast in March, Oscar contenders like Dunkirk in July) and what kind of diversity we can expect to see on screen. However, Hollywood always prefers to revert to the mean. So, they just keep giving us a lot of the same old four-quadrant shit over and over again, even if no one’s partcularly asking for more of that and instead flocking to originals like Baby Driver and Dunkirk.
Where conventional wisdom would dictate that Hollywood stop making sequels to movies people didn’t like all that much in the first place nervous sudio suits and producers instead forever sees a chance for a Fast Five-esque franchise turnaround. Thus it is that in a recent THR run-thru of the current state of Hollywood’s various beleagured franchises producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura was quoted as saying the following about the future of theTransformers franchise:
“We are trying to please the fans and also give them a new experience. Plus, there’s a new audience introduced to the franchise every 10 years, and we have an obligation to that new audience.”
No, you don’t. You don’t have an obligation to cater to a new audience for your tired old film franchise. You have an obligation to simply know when to finally pull the plug and get out while the getting is still good, and you already missed that window since the $217m-budgeted Transformers: The Last Knight is currently sitting at a mere $551 million worldwide after 5 weeks compared to Transformers 4‘s $1.1 billion worldwide haul from three years ago. Not even China is going to save you this time since Last Knight plunged 75% in its second weekend over there, eventually stalling out at $228m total from the Middle Kingdom compared to Transformers 4‘s $330m.
But much as we now live in a political reality where nothing seems to actually matter or carry the weight it logically should so too does the sting of box office disappointment not hurt as much or change as many hearts and minds as much as you’d expect. Produers will keep plugging away at the same old stuff because their livelihoods depend on it. Anyone with real vision who could have replaced them in the Hollywood food chain has long since left for Amazon, Netflix, FX, HBO or even Hulu. And because Fast and the Furious reached its greatest financial heights long after a more rational person would have pulled the plug there’s forever the hope that a turnaround is always one good sequel away. Heck, not even necessarily “good” good; just better timed and marketed.
For Transformers, Bonaventura and Paramount are leaning on their Bumblebee spin-off to be that turnaround, casting Hailee Steinfeld to play the lead, hiring another indie director to man the camera (Kubo and the Two Strings‘ Travis Knight), setting it in the 80s because someone at Paramount clearly saw Stranger Things and slashing the budget to a paltry-$70m make it more cost-effective. This is effectively going to be their Transformers 6, and it will mark the third franchise reboot (albeit a soft one) since the first move unleashed Shai Lebouf and Megan Fox on the unsuspecting people of 2007.
Here’s the most annoying part: it might actually work. Steinfeld is a legitimate “get’ after Edge of Seventeen and the Pitch Perfect sequels. Knight’s work on Kubo and as lead animator on all of Laika’s stop-motion movie wonders before that is beyond raproach. And the extreme budget cut pushes the profitability bar into a more reasonable area.
But it speaks to a wider franchise practice in Hollywood where nothing can be allowed to die since the ease with which we can all access old movies online means audiences are genuinely discovering various franchises for the first time. That’s why James Cameron’s still talking about doing a new Terminator trilogy when the rights revert back to him in a year and a half. It’s why before long there’ll probably be talk of another Ghostbusters reboot. It’s why producers refuse to face the music when franchises appear to have naturally run their course.
So, for the betterment of it all Bumblebee needs to fail and act as a hopeful wake-up call. But, damn, Steinfeld being directed by the Laika guy? That [gulp] might actually be good.