I noted a little while ago how this summer is expected to be underwhelming at the box office. Some analysts have even gone so far as to predict that it will be a catastrophe. Well in the last few weeks, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Despicable Me 3 have done pretty well at the box office. Seeing those results (a 100 million dollar weekend for Spider-Man), you’d think all of that flop hubub was just hot air coming from the mouths of boring statisticians. Well you’d be wrong. This summer has been underwhelming and, hopefully, underwhelming enough to send a message to studio execs. The thing is, compared to years prior, these box office numbers are low. To be fair, the numbers are actually fairly similar. 1.16 billion this June, compared to 1.17 billion last June. Not a dramatic drop off, right? Well for one thing, the stakes are higher this time around. One important statistic is the number of trackable releases, this year saw an over ten percent increase in movies released for the month. That kind of increase should yield better returns, but it didn’t. Maybe that’s because every number one movie this summer has been a sequel (save for Wonder Woman). Then again, what hasn’t? The sequels keep on coming. And hopefully someone’s got an appetite for them (*cough* China *cough*), because there’s a lot more coming your way.
A few weeks ago Transformers 5 came out and took the number one spot at the box office against all other non-existent films opening that week. It came out with a strong(?) eighty-five million. Which, in reality, is a totally okay weekend assuming that you are going to be able to build some momentum off of that. And it absolutely did not. Ever since it’s opening, it’s pretty much come to a screeching halt, coming nearly one hundred million dollars shy of it’s total budget. Ever heard of a franchise called Pirates of the Caribbean? Ever think they would make five of them? Well they did. The latest installment managed to capture the number one spot at the box office on opening weekend. Yay. Only, it was also number one in a very weak race to the top, competing against Baywatch, which was the Rock using his twitter to bolster even the most meager of user reviews. It’s kind of akin to getting a good playoff seed in the Eastern Conference of the NBA. Doesn’t say much. It didn’t really do what it needed to do for the studios to be happy. Ouch. Tom Cruise’s Mummy had a similar disappointing performance, though for whatever inconceivable decision, they’re gonna go ahead and give that universe another shot. If that’s not enough for you, look forward to the next parts of Planet of the Apes: Millennial Edition, Annabelle, Or How Many Ways Can We Make This Same Doll Movie?, and The Nut Job 2. That’s right, there will be a second one. It will be wide release. Grasping at straws much?
Well it looks like whatever the reason, audiences have started to notice and in a big way. Look at the Pirates series. Number one launched the series off to a great start. Number two? Over 400 million domestic. But that’s where the downward trend begins. A steady dropoff with number three as well as four. The latest one (number five for those counting at home) will be lucky to crack 200 million – even worldwide – which isn’t good because no matter which way you try to spell it, it’s going to come up short. How about Transformers? Same formula more or less. The first two sequels rode a lot of hype and then they threw Mark Wahlberg in there and look who screwed up a perfectly good thing? The same trend plagues a few other series who seem to have worn out their welcome. Franchises like Shrek and Ice Age can only ride the nostalgia train for so long before they have to appeal to a different generation. Now, this particular trend doesn’t always spell instant doom. Despicable Me just came out strong with it’s third release and has already made it’s money back, despite a weaker opening than it’s predecessor (and, by the way, Minions, for reasons unbeknownst to me, had a nine-digit opening weekend). But the trend continues nonetheless. Why do nine different Star Wars movies and twenty-four Bond films not tire audiences?
Part of this could be the very real influence of the critics. A movie with a lot of initial hype opening to a lukewarm Rotten Tomatoes score spells trouble for the studio. A film with little buzz and a strong score can and has yielded the opposite. A zero rating? You might as well forget it. When it comes to this endless stream of sequels, there’s a pretty evident trend: the more you make, the worse they get. Sure, your number two comes out with a solid eighty, maybe seventy, and you think, ‘Eh, we’ll bounce back with the third one’. Take a lesson from Pirates of the Caribbean: No you will not. Turns out critics, or more likely movie review sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, have some sway over audiences (Rotten Tomatoes is one of the five hundred most visited sites on the web). These sites can bring down even some of the most hyped films (I’m looking at you DC).
The strange exception to this rule is the Marvel universe, which for some reason is still beloved by most despite their banal, formulaic regurgitations. To be fair, they have a pretty good formula and they’ve developed their own style guide which is easy on the eyes. When they make a sequel, it’s all about being involved in a bigger picture, which excuses all possible plotholes and allows for many (tiring) meta cliches. It is why films like Captain America: Civil War can call themselves a Captain America movie and get good reviews, despite being a not-so-thinly-veiled prequel to Avengers 3. But the relationship between Marvel and the critics is also wearing thin. Their gilded flashiness which previously led to their uniqueness has become the standard and has forced them to try new things in order to stay on top of their game. Some say they’re hitting a slump (maybe the people who sat through Thor: The Dark World?). Currently, Marvel is on a ‘new superhero’ spree, launching Spider-Man and Black Panther to bring some fresh air into an increasingly stale room (and to stale reviews).
As for the rest of them, most of these franchises would normally just die off without so much as a razzie nomination, so what’s keeping them alive? The international community, led strongly by China. China’s film market has been booming in recent years and slick deals with US film companies have allowed for big-budget Hollywood films to become more present than ever in the former communist nation. What American audiences have spat out, they drink up by the bucketful. Franchises like the DC Universe and Transformers and everything that looks nice and explody appeal heavily to these audiences. For them, it’s a preference towards a visually-exciting experience. They could care less if they were watching Fast 12 or Transformers 23 – as long as it has the stunning visuals they’ve come to expect from such films, they’re happy campers. Look at China’s premiere director Zhang Yimou, responsible for such classics as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern! Those were dialogue-driven dramas, pulling elements from Chinese culture and folklore. They relied heavily on telling a moving story. Now where did we last see Yimou? Oh yeah, in that ‘I’m-still-not-sure-if-this-is-a-Jimmy Kimmel-sketch’ called The Great Wall. Any guess as to how that performed? The thing is, Hollywood has found a new market to pitch its movies to. In a way, the Chinese market is the huge financial safety net, should things go nasty stateside. But these are exactly the fifth, sixth, seventh installment movies that audiences have grown tired of. So instead of sinking, the problem is buoyed.
Part of the problem is that audiences praise one film and express interest in seeing more. But film and big franchises, for that matter, are more like cake or wine. A little bit here, a little bit there and everything is enjoyable. Too much and there could be a violent bodily rejection. I mean Christopher Nolan barely came away with The Dark Knight Trilogy with his perfect record in tact. And people STILL wanted him to do more. Audiences throw their money at one film and it sticks. Studios see that as a safe option and we’re thanked with more. The same principal follows remakes. That’s a whole other area that we can’t seem to escape. Beauty and the Beast was one in an upcoming deluge of Disney’s Golden years attempting to enter a three-dimensional world. Then there’s another category of franchise extension: spiritual sequels to the original films, or “reboots” as they prefer to be called. Whatever you prefer to call them, they are being used as a way to “re-introduce” new audiences to a previously successful franchise. This is how we got the new Jumanji as well as the It movie they wouldn’t let Cary Fukunagna direct the way he wanted, despite his track record. The studios milk the cow until it’s completely empty. Films like Indiana Jones, Alien, and Independence Day are given “sequels” (which are often prequels) some twenty years after the next most recent film in the franchise! They’re counting on people thinking, “I loved Blade Runner” and hoping that the nostalgia factor with cause their old craving to resurface and then translate into ticket sales for Blade Runner: 2049 or The Incredibles or whatever it may be. In their mind, the sequel is like wine, but in the sense that just needs to age enough before it becomes ripe. Sheesh. Though some of these are great for fresh eyes, it doesn’t really address the creativity deficit which has spelled doom for this summer’s box office.
I don’t want to say that films shouldn’t have sequels and franchises shouldn’t exist. There are some that are worth getting excited for. Not every sequel is created equal. Some are made as a greater expansion into a certain cinematic universe. Some are made as a meta manifestation of a film’s success. And some are just there because there is simply more to be offered. But it’s the culture that is at the heart of the problem for me. Because it promotes this idea that we need to run a good thing until it’s bad that needs to end. It’s the reason why your Uncle keeps you stuck in your kernel-encrusted seat after the credits of CHIPS because “there is probably something after the credits”. We’ve been conditioned to expect a nearly endless storyline. There has to be more. There can’t just be a satisfying conclusion anymore, we need to flesh out every possible detail of a character’s existence. And why not? We’re living in an age where television is king. More and more, people are tuning into their subscription-based programming over going to the cinema. One big incentive is that television is episodic. It provides a much larger platform for storytelling. Over episodes and episodes, seasons and seasons, you’re able to delve into a further dimension of detail. With television, you can create lengthier character arcs, parallel storylines, and respond to your audience in real time. But some of the shows that rode the wave of success have done so because they set their own boundaries. There’s a reason Game of Thrones doesn’t go into seasons nine and ten: none of the important characters would survive. But don’t worry! I guarantee you they’ll find some way to make a spinoff series, because Harry Potter taught us that when you have a fantasy fanfiction goldmine, you can’t simply let it die.
This provides a big opportunity. Perhaps the lesson after we spend the fall picking up the financial rubble created by this rough box office summer, is that the audience needs to be heard. The people are doing their part by putting their money where they want their media, now it’s time for the response. Cinema has to rise to the occasion and face this challenge. It’s not a request for originality – truly original stories aren’t really a thing in Hollywood – but more a request for diversity and responsiveness. The dialogue between television producers and audiences is powerful and has already altered the way that people interact with media. If cinema can do the same thing, then maybe we’ll get to see the satisfying conclusion to sequelculture, and subsequently, a number of franchises that deserve a proper sendoff.