Blockbuster: Age of Extinction

Scott Mendelson thinks Transformers: Age of Extinction might underperform. We both agree that would be a good thing.

In an article released this morning, Scott Mendelson points to the fact that summer 2014 has seen a few decent-to-above average performers at the box office this year, but none that approach the astronomical levels seen by The Avengers, Avatar or other members of the billion-plus club.

Said Mendelson,

…the film industry could probably use a year without any mega-hits if only so they’d realize the folly of constantly chasing the once-implausible $1 billion mark before they had a meltdown of sorts all at once (like in 2016 for example). There is part of me that is hoping that we end the summer with the top domestic grosser under $250m and the top global grosser under $800m.

Reading his argument, I’m struck by the weird balancing act Hollywood has to make with its movies and their budgets. At a time when the average viewer sees 4 movies in theaters annually, they’ve thrown their money toward unambitious tentpoles that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. What I can’t help wondering is, why?

Of course, that’s a loaded question. Part of the reason (to my mind) is that studios see the amount spent on a movie as both bragging rights and a monstrous Achilles heel. Prevailing logic seems to be that, the more money is spent on a movie, the better the quality of the final product. This, therefore, is supposed to lead to more ticket sales.

The other end of that, the Achilles heel, is seen whenever one of those “event” movies underperforms significantly at the box office. Flops like The Lone Ranger or even under-performers like Edge of Tomorrow send studios racing back to their tried-and-true franchises, churning out repetitious movies with $150+ million price tags that will eventually crash and burn.

In an article from February, Mendelson had this to say:

The classical meaning of the tent pole used to be 1-3 films a year that were major pictures…that could hold up the studio over the year and both make them lots of money and help them weather the storm of periodic flops. But it’s all-but reversed today…

He later goes on to say the following:

We can’t complain as film fans about the glut of remakes, sequels, and big-budget franchise entries and then discount the successes outside that specific criteria. Variety is the key to a healthy studio [and] industry…in terms of the films they produce or distribute and the respective production and marketing costs associated with those films.

I’d take that even a step further. Even more than variety, developing a healthy franchise of films is an essential step that seems to be missing from a great deal of the expansion going on today. Warner Bros. and the DC Universe expansion comes with little fanfare, with the now-defunct The Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel as their justification. It seems unfounded somehow to think that these movies justify creating and expanding an untested amount of material.

Sadly, that seems to be the modus operandi these days. And it shouldn’t be.

I know, I know there’s more consideration behind these decisions than this. Smart men and women run studios, and they have a serious amount of experience in developing and distributing films. But, and this is a big “but,” like so much of Hollywood’s history, they seem to be following a trend that hasn’t proven its lasting power outside one outlier’s dramatic success.

And in that lies my biggest concern. As Mendelson said, “Not every studio has to be Marvel.” Yet it seems that every studio wants to be Marvel.

Why should they? Hollywood thrives as a business when there’s diversity among its offerings. Not just in the tone and subject material of its movies, but also in how they are sold to their audience.

Studios shouldn’t be expected to dramatically shift their business plans because their competitors have found success with a specific type of franchise. This isn’t the same thing as needing to get serious about digital platforms or making new deals with networks. We’re talking about upending the longstanding publishing format that’s kept Hollywood together for decades.

Putting all that aside because your competitor’s had five really good years is…well, it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Strategy decisions should be more considered than just following what could be a trend that burns out come 2016.

They’re oversaturating the market, and it could all be to their extreme detriment.

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