Too Big Not To Fail 

How high prices, glut of screens and fewer hits killed the summer blockbuster

If this isn't the end, it's certainly the beginning of the end.

When film historians look back on what triggered the demise of the phenomenon of summer blockbusters, they'll look to the early part of the 21st century--and, in particular, the summer of 2013--and see that's when moviedom's golden goose not only stopped laying precious eggs, but began having its feathers plucked clean.

This season's overhyped and underwhelming film lineup expected consumers to shell out $10 (or more) to what turned out to be The (100) Duds of Summer. Budgets got bigger but the thrills and, more crucially, audiences got smaller. To date, this summer's total domestic grosses topped $4.4 billion, but only because admission prices had gone through the roof (and 3-D admissions, which currently top $14, really raked in the cash).

But comparing apples to apples with, let's say admission prices in 2000 (the U.S. average was $5.39), this summer's adjusted gross revenues drop to $2.8 billion. In fact, the estimated total number of tickets sold this summer, just more than 521 million, hasn't been this low since 1992. And the industry has an even bigger distribution problem: The top-grossing film in 1992, Batman Returns, opened in 2,644 theaters compared to this year's top performer, Iron Man 3, which opened in 4,253 theaters. Simply put, the movie business has a real estate dilemma and we all know how the nation's last real estate debacle ended, don't we?

You name the genre, it was on life support this summer. Sequels? Puh-leez. This year, we had the pleasure of revisiting Kick-Ass (2), Red (2), The Smurfs (2), Grown Ups (2), The Hangover (3) and The Fast and the Furious (6). Animation is usually box office gold, but this year's most successful efforts were Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University, both retreads. Turbo, Epic and The Croods all tanked. Action-buddy comedies? If you saw 2 Guns or R.I.P.D., you're probably still wincing.

Perhaps the biggest letdown for movie studios this summer was how its up-until-now box office stalwarts lost their luster: Tom Cruise (Oblivion), Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), Adam Sandler (Grown Ups 2) and Will Smith (After Earth) all failed to crack the season's Top 10 films, while pulling down huge paydays.

In June, Steven Spielberg made what some thought were pretty controversial remarks, predicting that cinematic blockbusters would become Jurassic relics.

"You're going to have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man; you're probably only going to have to pay $7 to see [a movie like] Lincoln," said Spielberg, speaking at the opening of a new media center at the University of Southern California. "There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm."

I couldn't stop thinking about Spielberg's comments the last four months, watching movie audiences cool off as the summer sizzled. By July, I thought he was onto something. By August, I was fairly convinced that he could be right. It's Labor Day, and now I'm sure of it. After all, he's freakin' Steven Spielberg.

Consider the paradigm shifted.

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