Box Office Awesome: Go Big or Go… Home?

The general consensus, at least business-wise, is this year has been a great summer for movie business. And, um… is it? Really?

To be sure, the top end for 2015 has been great. Jurassic World shattered expectations for the second biggest first-run of all time. I don’t know anyone who was even predicting $400 million domestic, much less edging into the mid-600s. And even if Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t do the gonzo business expected, it’s still an extremely solid performer in abstract. Beyond those two are the animation over-performers of Inside Out and Minions. If the biggest films are doing that well, doesn’t that mean it’s great overall?

Well, maybe.

See, there’s going to be a neat trick when all is said and done. The gulf between the 4th place film (Minions) and the 5th place film (Pitch Perfect 2) is already almost at $140 million, and will probably be close to $150 million when all is said and done.

Pitch Perfect 2 is “only” at $183 million. (It’s a vast over-performer relative to expectations, but bear with me for a moment.) The gap between them is huge. In fact, this summer will be the first in twenty years that no film has grossed between $200 and $300 million. (Assuming, of course, that Straight Outta Compton doesn’t have some crazy late legs to get over the mark.)

It’s not just the summer, either. Except for Cinderella, which barely limped over the double century mark thanks to efforts by Disney to pair it with Age of Ultron and Inside Out, no other film this year has hit in that $200-300 million range.

Again, the last time that happened was 1995. The trick was in 1995, the highest grossing film the entire year was Toy Story which did not even make $200m. We’re in vastly different territory for what films are capable of. Ticket prices have nearly doubled in that time, and the population of the US and Canada (the Domestic Market) has increased some 65 million.

Our hit films, are really big hits. We’ve already got 5 films that have made at least $300 million. And that’s not including American Sniper which had an extremely limited Christmas release before going wide over the MLK weekend, which technically means it’s a 2014 film, but it made almost all its $350 million in 2015. For the rest of the year, there will be at least two more films that also get that big, the final Hunger Games film and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. So this year is going to be huge for the top of the line success.

Oh, yeah. The previous record for $300 million grossing films, is 4.

But paired with that is near complete absence of the mid-level blockbuster status. The hits have gotten hittier, but they’ve apparently sucked the life out of everything else. Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Have done acceptably solid local business, but nothing spectacular. That’s in spite of absolutely glowing reviews.

This brings to mind the comments in recent years about the future of blockbuster films. Steven Spielberg and his blockbuster-creating brethren have posited that there’s an end on the horizon. The status of budgets getting bigger and bigger is going to doom blockbusters because people have so much gosh-darn distractions.

Except that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. The blockbuster will survive, it seems, but only in an increasingly branded status. If you like cinematic universes, you’re golden.

But it feels like anything not aiming for the broadest possible audience is doomed to relative mediocrity. Much like the turn of the century changes to the industry spelled doom to the $50 million budget mid-level studio efforts, it seems that this decade has been pruning back on anything that doesn’t have a really well-established brand.

This isn’t exactly new. Hollywood has long been in the franchise business and branding is part and parcel of the game. But the budgetary requirements mean that even to have a chance at success, you need to have an established brand from the get-go.

If you’re playing with the shared worlds of Marvel or DC or already established franchises, that’s good. But the likelihood of getting anything new off the ground is looking like a harder and harder sell. There’s a catch 22 going on: you to be successful to have a shot at a franchise, but you need a recognized brand in order to get that success.

Blockbusters are here to stay, but “originality” for whatever definition you apply to it, is out the window.

The trials and tribulations of Dreamworks Animation is pretty much a pinpoint example of that. For the past several years, the studio has been trying to get new franchises off the ground. They’ve tried several times to get a new series started, to replace their Shrek and Madagascar lines. And except for The Croods, they’ve all been pretty much whiffs since the first How to Train Your Dragon, which was over 5 years ago. All these original property attempts, and many, many commercial failures.

Even Home, which turned out to be a massive spring surprise, didn’t quite get the return from international markets that would let them say “this is a success!”

The DWA brand, it seems, isn’t quite enough to get audiences to come just because. A marked contrast to Walt Disney Animation and Pixar.

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