The commercial failure of The BFG has normally reputable outlets like Variety (the journalists of which have had, shall we say, a bad few days) asking whether Steven Spielberg had lost his touch. It’s bizarre for a number of reasons, but the biggest of which asks who looks at the current cinematic landscape and thinks Spielberg is the one who has lost it?
It’s apparent the problem isn’t the guy who has essentially dreamt the childhoods of millions for going on 50 years in cinema, especially since it’s not like The BFG got savaged; it’s rated fresh on RT. And not even a year ago Spielberg released Bridge of Spies, an Oscar-nominated historical drama that spared no expense with its period Cold War setting and movie star (Tom Hanks) despite an economical $40 million budget. It ended up grossing $165.5 million worldwide, quadrupling the investment and earning supporting star Mark Rylance an Oscar.
While interest in the films’ stories may vary (I definitely prefer Bridge of Spies), they are both master classes in filmmaking, effortlessly elegant enough to seem simple, leading to such wrong-headed pronouncements as Variety’s. The BFG wasn’t a victim of quality but of the release calendar and crowded highways they’ve become. The last couple years are littered with examples of sequels, remakes and adaptations of literally any and all IP you can think of, jockeying for eyeballs and 2016 has seen a full-on pile-up.
No less than THR, Vox and /Film analyzed the recent “sequel slump” as we’re alliteratively calling it now, with Vox in particular using Metacritic statistics to “prove” this year is particularly bad for sequels.
According to the same site, this year has seen 37 sequels hit theaters so far, a record. That list includes Ride Along 2, Zoolander 2, London Has Fallen, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Now You See Me 2, Independence Day: Resurgence, all of which undergrossed their predecessors sometimes by half, in some cases even accounting for inflation.
And who was it who foretold a potential convergence akin to this? Oh yeah, that “hack” Spielberg.
In 2013, he predicted an “implosion” of the film industry when a bunch of $250+ million dollar films flop and upend the model of massive investment=massive profits.
“That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”
After such an event, he imagined ticket prices would scale to the film, “you’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man, you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln,” a film he had to co-own a studio to make (even then, it was very nearly an HBO telemovie).
George Lucas, who, along with Spielberg’s Jaws, helped birth summer movie season with Star Wars, agreed that a Broadway model may be the way of the future. Three years after the two legends’ comments, a version of this has emerged as the Screening Room is now a thing. It’s already happening, as forward thinking producers like Daniel Alter note.
— Daniel Alter (@DAlter007) June 28, 2016
Screening room is a model/harbinger of things to come. And again, things change (fast). https://t.co/MPqSID9VnI
— Daniel Alter (@DAlter007) June 28, 2016
His view on the two-part Avengers: Infinity War could be prescient. The films stand as the culmination of the entire MCU, Phases 1-3, which already includes four billion-plus-dollar films. With the stakes nothing less than the fate of the universe and all possible realities plus the possible departure of several of its superhero actors (contracts are up, after all), it is the most ambitious finale to a cinematic franchise ever conceived. As such, it could also stand as the Peak Blockbuster, because, as far as populist filmmaking goes, Marvel Studios reigns supreme at the moment. They know as well as any storyteller that after going as big and cosmic as Infinity War, the only option is to scale-back the stakes. Like the whole “cinematic universe” notion to begin with, Marvel may be ahead of the curve here, too. Whether post-Infinity War amounts to a soft reboot, simple recasting, or business as usual, I have no idea.
In the meantime, it will be a while before we see the ship turn. The Hollywood luxury liner is scraping the iceberg and, like Spielberg said, it’s only a matter of time before a breach. Just yesterday, the Alicia Vikander-fronted The Tomb Raider was officially dated for March 16, 2018, squaring it against The Flash. The two blockbusters are sandwiched between an untitled Fox/Marvel film (Deadpool 2?) and the long-gestating shark flick Meg on one side and Spielberg’s Ready Player One on the other. While blockbusters and franchise filmmaking were usually saved for the summer (hence “summer movie season”), their proliferation has led studios to colonize other months seeking profitable new corridors. Every time there is a surprise hit, studios try not just to replicate the film but its release and marketing.
The low profit-sharing in international markets, piracy and inflation drive studios to make bigger and bigger bets. As stories are viewed more and more as “product” and “content,” the focus on basic storytelling becomes an afterthought. This assembly line approach extends from the films to their marketing, as noted by film and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. How many times can we see big words and Matt Damon’s face and feel compelled to see whatever film he’s the poster boy of?
One film that actually managed to innovate in film marketing was Deadpool, but somehow it’s February release date became the most important feature, not that it was a passion project a decade in the making with a unique ability to break the fourth-wall. So now there’s a ridiculous number of blockbusters set for that winter month too, with the Fifty Shades sequels, The Dark Tower, The Great Wall, The Predator, Black Panther and Pacific Rim 2 all setting up shop there in 2017 and 2018. March 2017 is even worse, with Wolverine 3, Kong: Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast, Baby Driver, Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur, Power Rangers and Ghost in the Shell all opening in four short weeks. Two weeks, later Fast 8 hits. All of this excludes summer flicks.
It’s impossible these films don’t cannibalize each other and all it would take is a confluence. Making so many big-budget features and parking them so close to each other is a recipe for such, like lighting a match in a gas tank. Nobody wants Hollywood to become Disneyworld, though it fast is and, importantly, the Mouse House doesn’t want it either. Who’s to say that The Jungle Book didn’t eat some of Civil War‘s grosses? Or that Finding Dory didn’t kneecap The BFG in the family market? Diversity bests monopoly any day.
Studios have tried to offset this distrust of sequels by making them essentially remakes of their originals, “requels” if you will. Independence Day: Resurgence chased the success of Jurassic World, both of which counted on nostalgia and an updated premise to carry the day. Both have defenders World overwhelmingly succeeded while Resurgence overwhelmingly did not. Both films are 90s classics but the former fulfilled a franchise promise – that of a fully-functional dinosaur theme park paired the star of the moment Chris Pratt while the latter didn’t justify its existence by, say, embracing its sequel status 22 Jump Street-style and lacked any marketable stars.
The disappointment comes from the idea, especially in the case of Resurgence, “you had X amount of time and X amount of money and all the imagination in the world and this is the best you could come up with?” The film is even complete with the most greasy salesman-like sequel hook I’ve seen in a long time. What has appeal in a Marvel film, like a post-credit tease, is regurgitated clumsily and without heart, like an unfortunate number of tropes in Resurgence. Because unlike virtually every other studio, Marvel has earned audiences’ trust.
People don’t trust studios to actually make good movies because, for the most part, they don’t. Worse, in cases like this year, they don’t care to. Trust has been diffused by the democratization of the Internet and consistency can be key. Marvel is nothing if not consistent, whether it’s taking full advantage of the shared universe conceit (The Avengers & Captain America: Civil War) or launching an obscure character (Ant-Man & Doctor Strange). Studios neither can nor should be as homogeneous as Marvel is, but they should become well-known for their IPs and specifically knowing the strengths of the IP. The Conjuring 2 and The Purge: Election Year are great examples of how mid-budget genre films (whether from an auteur like James Wan or a shingle like Blumhouse) marketed well can do as good or better comparably than their mega-budget competitors like Warcraft or The Legend of Tarzan.
The idea is similar to what I wrote on Tuesday about how Justice League has the opportunity to reconstruct their seminal stories in the wake of another maligned 2016 sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Warner Bros. is hoping the third time is the charm for their burgeoning DC cinematic universe, the only feasible rival to Marvel and producers have used the word “redemption” for the production and story interchangeably. Now, all of Hollywood needs to follow that film’s trend and (re)earn audiences’ trust in their vision for a world where corporate populist storytelling can actually be meaningful and not just lazy brand extension.