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