This summer's box office tally was a record-breaking $4.75 billion, so why is Hollywood so glum?
Well, there's still the perception out there that this was a summer of big, expensive, face-planting flops, and there were dire warnings all summer that the studios should change the way they do business or risk going under, since American viewers seem tired of recycled blockbusters and 3D gimmickry. Even the hit movies, like "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "Man of Steel," had some fans griping all summer about how over-the-top they were.
But, in the end, everyone still went to the multiplexes. You may be going into the fall feeling queasy about all those bloated, disposable nothingburger movies you indulged in over the summer, but the takeaway for the industry and its accountants is far different. Here are the lessons they learned that will be guiding them for summers to come.
1. It's hard to go wrong with destroying the world.
"World War Z," "After Earth," "Pacific Rim," "Elysium," and even the jokey apocalypses in "This Is the End" and"The World's End" were hits (though some were bigger hits abroad than here; more on that, below). Audiences didn't seem to tire of imagining their own doom. Just this past weekend, two months after its release, "This Is the End" came back to 2,000 theaters and grabbed another $2 million.
2. Low-budget horror is a gold mine -- if you do it right.
"The Purge" earned $64 million; "The Conjuring" did even better, at $135 million and counting, nearly two months after its release. But you really have to scare people. "You're Next" didn't quite cut it, stalling out around $17 million.
3. Raunchy, R-rated comedy is also a gold mine -- if you do it right.
Summer is supposed to be for kids? Sure, as long as Pixar can keep 'em happy. Elsewhere in the theater, however, there were plenty of older teens and adults going to see envelope-pushing, raunchy comedies like "The Heat," "We're the Millers," "This Is the End," "The World's End," "Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain," and even "The Hangover: Part III," the third installment of the movie that launched this mini-trend. Still, as with horror, the execution had to be there, or else you got a box-office dud like "Kick-Ass 2."
4. Make the movies China wants to see.
Sorry, Americans, but you're not the audience Hollywood is trying hardest to please anymore. Overseas earnings now make up the bulk of many movies' take, and they saved more than one film this summer that flopped domestically ("After Earth," "The Hangover Part III," "Pacific Rim"). And, in many cases, the foreign audience Hollywood most wants to please is China. The country has relaxed quotas on non-Chinese films exhibited in the country and has been on a theater-building spree, meaning that its going to eclipse the U.S. as Hollywood's largest market within a few years. Already, Hollywood is catering to China by making more 3D movies (we may be sick of them here, but the novelty hasn't worn off there yet) and by inserting Chinese actors into casts. This was done clumsily in "Iron Man 3," in a special version only Chinese audiences saw -– and laughed at –- but the integration will be more overt in the future, as in the upcoming "Transformers: Age of Extinction," where some actors will be chosen via a Chinese reality-competition TV show. So get used to movies marked by big action spectacles, thin plotting and characterization, and not too much dialogue -- that is, movies that translate well to the rest of the world.
5. The conventional Hollywood wisdom that favors safe sequels and reboots over risky originals? Pretty much validated.
The top five grossing movies of the year (to date) are "Iron Man 3," "Despicable Me 2," "Man of Steel," "Monsters University," and "Fast & Furious 6." Not far behind are "Star Trek Into Darkness," "The Great Gatsby," "Grown Ups 2," "The Wolverine," and "The Hangover Part III." On the flip side were the flops, of which most were original films and would-be franchise launchers, like "The Internship," "R.I.P.D.," and "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones." Yes, some original movies did well, like the low-budget horror films and R-rated comedies mentioned above, as well as sleeper hit "Now You See Me." (So did "World War Z," arguably an original movie, since most people were unfamiliar with the source novel, whose narrative the film largely abandoned anyway.) And some sequels and remakes flopped ("The Lone Ranger," "Red 2," "Kick-Ass 2"). But the dire predictions made by the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and producer Lynda Obst that the system would implode if there were three or four big flops in a row proved to be unfounded. Most of the movies performed as industry experts and even casual observers predicted they would. As a result, you can expect the multiplex to be full of remakes and Roman numerals for at least the next couple of summers.
6. There are still hungry audiences out there for alternative fare and they're not being served.
It was a good summer for counter-programming, especially at the art-house, where viewers made modest hits out of such grown-up movies as "Before Midnight," "Mud," "Fruitvale Station," and especially "Blue Jasmine," the Woody Allen drama that has topped $25 million to date and shows little sign of slowing down. There's also "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which topped the charts for three weeks and is approaching $100 million, proving that people will come out in massive numbers to support a serious historical drama, even in the summer. Finally, there's "Instructions Not Included," the bilingual comedy that's scored $20 million in its first 10 days of release, proving that there's a hungry Latino audience out there that Hollywood has pretty much never noticed. There's money to be made catering to people other than teenage boys, if Hollywood can just figure out how to reach them with the stories they want to see told.