With summer coming to a close, it’s safe to declare not only was this summer bad for cinema in the creative sense but also in a financial sense. According to a recent article by Bloomberg, of the 32 films released this summer 17 of them combine for a loss of $915 million. This incredible financial lost has left Hollywood wondering why the model of large big budget adaptations and sequels is not the cash cow it once was. In an attempt to try and answer this question I have decided to use this week’s Celluloid Cinema article to explore and analyze the Summer 2016 box office season and hopefully provide some answers.
While the easiest generalization to make about why this seasons profits have been so low is to declare that there must not have been any good films that were released and audiences decided to stay away from the theater. While I admit that most of the films put out by the big name studios over the last few years have been declining in quality, saying that the entirety of Hollywood can not produce a lackluster film that can find some audience to make back its money is disingenuous and not a critical enough of an answer. But let’s entertain that explanation and see if a correlation between quality and profit does exist. Early this summer one of the first films released was Popstar; an Andy Samberg led mockumentary that received a solid 77% on Rotten Tomatoes. Now if a correlation between quality and profit did exist then one would expect a comedy film with reviews this high would easily make its money back, except reports say the film has lost Universal nearly $40 million. While a film like Suicide Squad which received a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes has generated Warner Brothers a profit of $180 million. And its not just Popstar and Suicide Squad that serve as examples to show quality does not equal profit, the entire summer 2016 box office is littered with both good and bad films making large amounts of money or losing it. More than ever right now it is apparent that the quality of a film is irrelevant to making money.
With the argument of film quality out the window, let us instead look at the films that have succeeded this summer and try to find some similar traits among them. If we look at the three most profitable films of this last summer we get Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War and The Secret Life of Pets. An interesting note about two of these three films is that they are animated. If we look at the 2015’s more profitable films from summer we will also find that the animated films Inside Out and Minions were at the top, grossing two billion dollars worldwide together. This begs the question as to why animated films seem to be exempt to bombing at the box office. Is it because they are family friendly, which allows for a wider range to go see the film? When looking at the recently released film Kubo and the Two Strings, a family friendly animated film with a 96% percent on Rotten Tomatoes, its $80 million loss would argue that is not the case. In fact, I would argue the family factor does not carry any weight in the financial success of an animated film. Especially in an environment when the adult animated film Sausage Party was still able to make a profit of $70 million without the family audience. But what does that mean then? If it does not matter if a film is good or bad and the audience that it appeals to does not matter, then how can one predict whether or not a film will be profitable?
Based off of research I have been doing over the last few months, I have come to a conclusion on why this has been the worst financial summer for Hollywood and how the filmmaking process could be more profitable. While I would love to recommend to Hollywood that the answer to their problems lies in making better films, that is not the answer or even relevant to some extent. Films make most of their box office revenue opening weekend, this means that the only way for a filmgoer to tell if a film is bad before they see it is to check out a review of it from a critic that has seen an early screening. However, as evident by the opening weekends of films like Suicide Squad audiences either are not taking critics seriously or reading them at all for. Instead, as evident by the drop off films experience in their second weekend, the basis in which filmgoers gauge if a film is good or bad is by word of mouth from their friends. This is why films that are rated so badly this summer have been able to have large box office returns. Instead of investing their money into the film to make it good Hollywood should instead put the money into advertising and making people think the film will be good thereby securing these large opening weekends before the public finds out the truth about the film. So if that solves the inverse relationship between bad films making a lot of money, why are good films not making money and why are animated films largely in the positive?
In the late 90’s and early 2000’s when special effects really started to become realistic with the aide of computers, people would flock to theaters to see the next big summer blockbuster. This resulted in film budgets ballooning to $250 million dollars and still making a profit. However, as time went on, the budgets kept expanding but theater audiences stayed relatively the same as the amount of movie tickets sold over the last five years has only fluctuated about 5% year to year. Again this shows that the quality of a film does not matter, but it is in fact the budget that makes or breaks a film, and right now Hollywood is still dumping money into special effects with the mindset it will bring people to the theater. Instead what theaters need to be watching for when they make a film is not whether or not people will want to see it, but if they are getting the best value out of the money they are spending. This is why animated films have been an outlier the last few years. As recently reported by The Hollywood Reporter, in regards to animators being underpaid for Sausage Party, the animation industry competes so competitively for jobs that often studios that win bids to animate films have to close their doors after production because they have to bid so low to remain competitive that they can not stay in business. As a result, the budgets of animated films are substantially lower than their live action counterparts because studios are easily able to make them at a safe price.
Now what does this mean for Hollywood? Are live action films just too expensive to make now? Should Hollywood instead rely on animated films and slowly bankrupt every animation studio? The issue is not animation versus live action. Studios can still make live action films they just need to tone down the action centered special effect extravaganzas they have been producing the last few years and instead tell a simple modest story. If the story is good people will tell their friends to go see it, and if its bad just pump more money into marketing because the only people that will know its bad before it comes out is film critics, and what do they know?
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