Summer Movie Struggles

Thanks to Deb and accommodating friends, I have been fortunate to see more movies than usual this summer. Some of it was to decide for myself if the buzz was accurate or because I was already predisposed to go and love the film.

But, there was also the new feeling of necessity. The time theaters allow a film to find its audience is rapidly dwindling. A good example is War for the Planet of the Apes which opened in mid-July, got good reviews, had a solid opening weekend, but was gone from my local multiplex by the first weekend of August – three weeks later.

Films we wanted to see, such as The Beguiled and Landline, are not even playing anywhere near us. Deb and I like the theater experience and it doesn’t always have to be the high octane variety. But, they show up in smaller theaters, none of which are housed conveniently to where we live. Instead, we’re left to try and remember to grab it via streaming, once we figure out which service will carry it and whether or not it’s a service we subscribe to (a rant for another day).

As a result, we have to plan in advance, reserving time to actually go see Wonder Woman or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, two of the more satisfying film-going experiences we’ve had this season. (While speaking of graphic novel adaptations, kudos to Atomic Blonde for kicking ass and looking good while doing it.)

It’s also interesting to see an increasing variance in box office takes of the bigger budget films. I recall the big deal made over Batman earning $100 million in its first ten days in 1989. Never been done before. That threshold has been regularly hit ever since yet this summer, plenty have fallen far short of the goal – King Arthur (already out on DVD) and Valerian among them. Even more successful films struggled to pass $100 million after weeks in the theater.

Studios are panicking because of the pressure to narrow the window from theatrical release to being available to stream at home, in addition to concern over the power of a Rotten Tomatoes score to sink a film before it opens. Film review embargo dates have been moved closer and closer to release, to blunt negative word spreading. As a result, I suspect, The Hitman’s Bodyguard (which is highly entertaining and recommended) was heavily screened for free the week in advance of the film’s opening on August 18.

The bemoaning includes the high budget flops as you compare box office versus budget. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell no Tales is currently #11 on the 2017 domestic gross list, but with a mere $171 million in US dollars it’s seen as a disaster. However, add in worldwide ($781 and counting), the film will easily be profitable for Disney.

But, there is no doubt too many sequels have outlived their audiences or the creative spark has gone out. Transformers: The Last Knight came and went so fast, you could hardly tell it was in theaters. Again, it rusted in domestic theaters but will still make Paramount and Hasbro some cash. But as they gear up spinoffs such as next year’s Bumblebee, one has to wonder where the audience demand is. Pixar’s Cars 3 also sputtered out the gate, the luster long lost on that franchise. Add in the failure for Aliens: Covenant to make anyone care.

And I echo the concerns shared elsewhere that Universal’s nascent monster franchise stumbled out of the gate with The Mummy which didn’t crack $100 million domestic (and yes, will be profitable thanks to worldwide gross). Just because a studio controls a lot of interconnected IP doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.

Of course, the simple answer is to make smarter, better movies.

I applaud, therefore, the films that are fresh and original, that try and tell entertaining stories without relying on complex continuities. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver may be the most successful of the bunch this summer while the flawed, but entertaining, Get Out took the spring prize.

We’re definitely facing a rapidly shifting movie theater business as we have more superhero films and movies based on graphic novels crowded out other properties. The serious, high-minded and lush productions that earn Oscar nods rule the final two months of the year. Everything else, seems up for grabs as studios grow ever more risk-adverse, strangling creative filmmakers who want to explore other facets of the human experience. We can hope for more Get Outs and Dunkirks but it behooves us, the moviegoer, to actually show up and support these films.

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