[Marxism] In Blockbuster Era, No Room at the Box Office for the Middlebrow

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 24 12:21:47 MST 2019


NY Times, Nov. 24, 2019
In Blockbuster Era, No Room at the Box Office for the Middlebrow
By Brooks Barnes

If you walked into ArcLight Cinemas in Sherman Oaks, Calif., on Friday 
looking for a movie to watch, you would have been greeted by a digital 
sign listing these offerings:

“Frozen II”

“Frozen II”

“Frozen II”

“Frozen II”

“Frozen II”

The 16-screen multiplex, located in suburban Los Angeles, offered 26 
screenings of the Disney sequel on Friday, or about one every 30 minutes 
starting at 10 a.m. The ArcLight had other movies on offer, of course, 
including “21 Bridges,” a decently reviewed new crime drama starring 
Chadwick Boseman. But they were pushed to the edges. “21 Bridges” got 
five time slots.

“Frozen II” was expected to take in more than $100 million over the 
weekend in North America and will easily sell $1 billion in tickets 
worldwide by the end of its run, according to David A. Gross, who runs 
FranchiseRe, a movie consultancy. Disney also stands to make a killing 
on thousands of licensed products: Elsa satin nightgowns ($30), “super 
sparkly” lip gloss sets ($9), Olaf diamond pendants ($2,550).

In contrast, “21 Bridges,” released by STX Entertainment and 
independently financed for an estimated $33 million, was expected to 
collect about $12 million over its first three days in domestic 
theaters, a result that Mr. Gross said he would describe as “solid.” 
Total ticket sales in North America might reach $40 million. There is no 
related merch.

Now imagine that you are a studio chief trying to keep your job, and the 
only sure way to do that is to find the most profitable movies possible. 
Do you bet on a franchise film like “Frozen II” or go with an original 
drama like “21 Bridges”?

People love to chide Hollywood for making the movies it makes. Did the 
world really need three “Hobbit” epics? (In a word: no.) But the 
grumbling has grown louder in recent years, especially among cinephiles 
and older ticket buyers, as film companies have tried to adapt to a 
changing marketplace. To combat the arrival of streaming services and 
mammoth flat-screen televisions, Hollywood has swung sharply toward 
event movies like “Avengers: Endgame” (Disney), “Fast and Furious 
Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (Universal) and the coming “Jumanji: The Next 
Level” (Sony). Lumbering sequels and remakes at least have a shot at 
cutting through the Instagram-Netflix-Fortnite-TikTok clutter and 
filling seats.

These giant movies also create value through merchandise and spinoff 
theme park rides. Disney has two stage productions of “Frozen” running 
in the United States; new ones are coming to Britain, Australia, Germany 
and Japan. So-called ancillary revenue is the only real way for a studio 
to enhance the standing of its parent company on Wall Street. A 
blockbuster in and of itself doesn’t move the financial needle the way 
it used to, not when studios are embedded inside conglomerates as big as 
AT&T, which owns Warner Bros., and Comcast, which owns Universal.

But there are adverse side effects.

“These huge franchise pictures are elbowing out midrange and 
lower-budget movies,” said Jason E. Squire, editor of “The Movie 
Business Book” and a professor at the University of Southern 
California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “It’s harder for midsize movies 
to get theaters in the first place, much less hold onto them long enough 
to build an audience.” Mr. Squire pointed out that bloggers now 
routinely assess movies as hits or misses based on their first day in 
theaters — or even before they arrive, based on advance ticket sales.

Movies come in three basic sizes. Big ones — superheroes, Pixar-level 
animation, James Bond — cost $100 million or more to make and try to 
shock and awe on a global scale. Midlevel films, mostly dramas and 
comedies from second-tier directors (“The Goldfinch”), cost $20 million 
to $40 million and go after a specific audience: women under 35, baby 
boomers, African-Americans. Small movies like the Fox Searchlight farce 
“Jojo Rabbit” cost less than $20 million and often aim for awards 
recognition.

Death-Star-size movies have been around for decades, but they used to 
land at specific times of the year, and more modest films could steer 
clear. Now colossal movies arrive almost every weekend. Some flop; 
“Terminator: Dark Fate” did not pull in the popcorn-munching masses. 
More often than not, however, these franchises do their jobs, said Paul 
Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, which tracks box 
office data.

“A movie has to feel like an event,” he said, noting that ticket prices 
have risen over the last decade. (Concession prices, too.) “Otherwise, 
people say, ‘Ehh, let’s just watch Netflix.’”

Or Disney Plus, CBS All Access, Apple Plus, Amazon Prime Video or 
another one of the 271 streaming services now available in the United 
States. At $7 a month, Disney Plus costs less than a single tub of 
popcorn at big-city movie theaters.

And streaming-service programming is better than ever. Why go out to see 
Oscar winners when you can stay in? Olivia Colman, now starring on 
Netflix as Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown,” won the Academy Award for 
best actress in February. Three Netflix movies — Martin Scorsese’s “The 
Irishman,” Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and Fernando Meirelles’s 
“The Two Popes” — are contenders for the best picture Oscar at the 
coming Academy Awards. They will mostly be viewed on TV sets and mobile 
devices because of limited theatrical runs.

Mr. Dergarabedian noted that studios used to be able to reliably 
counterprogram “tent pole” movies. A modest comedy aimed at young men, 
for instance, could go up against a fantasy sequel, and both could 
thrive. But that strategy has become precarious. In July, 20th Century 
Fox released the sophomoric “Stuber” a week after Sony unfurled 
“Spider-Man: Far From Home.” “Stuber” was virtually ignored.

“More and more, it’s all or nothing,” Mr. Dergarabedian said.

Every studio has experienced higher highs and lower lows, a box office 
phenomenon that started in 2015. But no film company has been more 
affected this year than Warner Bros.

Warner has released seven small- and midbudget bombs — seven — since 
May, including several that received solid reviews from most critics: 
“The Good Liar,” a low-cost dramatic thriller starring Helen Mirren and 
Ian McKellen; “Motherless Brooklyn,” a period gumshoe drama directed by 
and starring Edward Norton; and “Blinded by the Light,” a comedic drama 
about a Pakistani teenager in Britain who finds inspiration in Bruce 
Springsteen. Most of the others (“The Goldfinch,” “Shaft,” “The 
Kitchen”) were poorly made.

“Studios used to be able to buy an opening weekend — O.K., marketing 
department, here’s a movie that isn’t very good, make it open,” said Mr. 
Squire, the professor. “In the social media age, those days are over.”

All told, the seven movies cost Warner and its partners an estimated 
$173 million to make (and more than $140 million to market in North 
America) and have taken in a combined $72.6 million, according to Comscore.

But a comic book character saved the day. “Joker,” starring Joaquin 
Phoenix as the Batman villain, cost an estimated $55 million to $70 
million to make. As of Friday, it had collected $324 million in the 
United States and Canada and more than $1 billion worldwide.

Shocker: Warner is already exploring “Joker 2.”

Warner is not abandoning midlevel movies. But it has started to divert 
some away from theaters. “Superintelligence,” starring Melissa McCarthy, 
was scheduled for Christmas release but will now make its debut on a 
streaming service in May. Warner’s theatrical lineup for 2020 is much 
more reliant on superheroes, animation and brand-name directors 
(Christopher Nolan, Robert Zemeckis).

Warner declined to comment. Executives at the studio have defended their 
choices in private conversations, noting that they reduced risk on the 
seven movies that flopped by taking on financing partners and selling 
off overseas rights for “Shaft” to Netflix. (Warner also took on 
partners for “Joker.”)

Nevertheless, some midbudget studio films continue to perform. “Good 
Boys,” an R-rated comedy set in the sixth grade, cost $20 million to 
make and collected $111 million worldwide for Universal. STX 
Entertainment recently found a hit in “Hustlers,” which starred Jennifer 
Lopez as a savvy stripper. It also cost $20 million to make and has 
taken in more than $150 million.

But the middle market will continue to struggle as a whole, Mr. 
Dergarabedian predicted, resulting in fewer midsize films reaching 
theaters. He brought up record stores and drive-in theaters as a 
comparison: “Vote with your dollars or kiss them goodby



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