Is the blockbuster in trouble? On the surface, to suggest such a thing might seem as foolish as handing out the wrong envelope at the biggest event of the film calendar because you were busy tweeting pictures of Emma Stone. This is the blockbuster weâre talking about. Itâs Luke Skywalker, Jurassic World, Disney, The Avengers, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Pixar. Itâs the Rock punching his fist through a building. Itâs the effects-driven cultural juggernaut that powers the entire film industry. Does it look as if itâs in trouble?
A glance at the balance sheet for the year to date would cement the view that the blockbuster is in rude health. Total grosses are higher at this stage than any of the past five years. Logan, the Lego Batman Movie and Kong: Skull Island have all pulled in big audiences globally. And then thereâs Beauty and the Beast, a true cultural phenomenon, currently racing its way up the all-time rankings. All this and thereâs still a new Star Wars instalment, another Spider-Man reboot, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner 2049, plus sequels of (*deep breath*) Guardians of the Galaxy, Cars, World War Z, Kingsman, Transformers, Fast and the Furious, Planet of the Apes, Despicable Me, Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean still to come. Hardly the signs of a crisis, it would be fair to say.
Dig a little deeper though and the foundations that blockbusters are built on start to look shaky. Last month, Variety published a story that painted a picture of an industry âscared stiffâ by its own future, as consumer tastes adapt with changes in technology. Increased pressure from Netflix and Amazon, those digital-disruption barbarians, has caused the big studios to consider changing the way they release movies. The âtheatrical windowâ, the 90-day cushion between a filmâs debut in cinemas and its release on DVD or streaming, is set to be reduced to as little as three weeks in an attempt to bolster dwindling home entertainment sales. Itâs a move that the industry sees as necessary, as younger viewers develop more adaptable, portable viewing methods, and indeed many smaller productions have begun to release their films on-demand on the same day as in cinemas â it was one of the reasons that Shia LaBeoufâs Man Down grossed a much-mocked Â£7 in cinemas.
At the same time, investors from China â long thought to be Hollywoodâs saviour â have suddenly cooled their interest, cancelling major studio deals as the Chinese box office suffers growing pains (with domestic ticket sales only increasing 2.4% in 2016 against a 49% rise the year before) and the governmentâs crackdown on overseas investment starts to bite. Add to that a couple of high-profile recent flops â Scarlett Johanssonâs Ghost in the Shell, Matt Damonâs The Great Wall, the unintentionally creepy Chris Pratt/Jennifer Lawerence sci-fi Passengers, Jake Gyllenhaalâs Alien knock-off Life â and you have an industry thatâs not as thriving as the blockbuster bluster might suggest.
Hollywoodâs response to this instability has been to double down, focusing on blockbusters to the exclusion of just about everything else. In the past decade the summer blockbuster season has mission-crept its way well into spring, a phenomenon that has been termed âcultural global warmingâ; this year, Logan was released a mere three days after the Oscars ended. The resulting effect is of a full calendar year of blockbusters, with a small drop-off for Oscars season in January and February â and even in that period this year we still saw the releases of The Lego Batman Movie, The Great Wall, John Wick 2 and the lamentable Monster Trucks.
Meanwhile, the mid-budget film â that hardy perennial that used to help prop up the industry by costing relatively little and often earning lots (think Sophieâs Choice or LA Confidential) has largely been abandoned by the major studios, its potential profit margins seen as insufficiently high when the cost of things such as marketing is factored in. Which isnât to say that mid-budget films donât exist, itâs just that theyâre being made by smaller, independent studios â see Arrival and Get Out for recent successful examples â or most frequently as TV series. (Thereâs that Netflix, disrupting things again.)
In essence, what this all means for the industry is that itâs blockbuster or bust. Studios have looked at the shifting landscape and decided to react by filling it with superheroes, action stars and CGI creatures, making more blockbusters than they used to, but fewer films in total. The old tentpole formula, where a few big films would shelter the mid-range and low-budget stuff, has largely been abandoned. âThe blockbusters are about reducing the films these studios produce down to a minimum,â say Steven Gaydos, vice-president and executive editor at Variety. âThey make nothing but big bets. You have to keep building a bigger and better spaceship.â
Itâs a high-risk strategy and one that, in the form of Disney and their Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar franchises, has brought big rewards. But this sudden ratcheting up of the stakes means that the cost of failure has become far more pronounced. Last year Viacom was forced to take a $115m (Â£92m) writedown on Monster Trucks, while Sony took a writedown of nearly $1bn on their entire film division after a faltering couple of years.
While those losses might be explained away as the result of bad bets on bad films â Monster Trucks was infamously based on an idea by an executiveâs five-year-old son â they hint at the apocalypse that could ensue if a broader, industry-wide problem were to present itself. Namely, what if the public loses its appetite for the blockbuster?
Itâs not entirely without precedent: in the late 1950s, as television threatened to steal a march on cinema, studios responded by going big. Spectacle was seen as the key: westerns, musicals and sword-and-sandal epics dominated. But audiences soon grew tired of these hackneyed genres and ticket sales continued to dwindle. That time the industry survived, thanks first to the injection of vitality provided by the edgy, arty New Hollywood films, then later with the early blockbusters such as Jaws and Star Wars.
Could such a mass tuning-out happen again? Certainly, thereâs an eerie echo in the way that Hollywood has reacted to changing times with size and spectacle, but also in their narrow focus. Once an erotic thriller such as Fatal Attraction or a musical drama such as Footloose might have reasonably been considered a blockbuster. Nowadays the blockbuster almost exclusively resides in the action, fantasy, kidsâ film or superhero genres.
The superhero film in particular looms large over the industry, as every studio tries to replicate the formula set by Marvel. Ever-more niche caped crusaders are being given their own films â Batgirl, Aquaman, the Gotham City Sirens â in an attempt to unearth a new Deadpool. Spider-Man and Batman have once again been rebooted in an attempt to freshen up the respective franchises. And, of course, everyone wants their own âcinematic universeâ â a vast galaxy of characters that together can generate a seemingly infinite number of spin-offs, sequels and prequels. At this very moment, the creators of Call of Duty are actively seeking to turn their grisly shoot-em-ups into a series of interlocking films, while James Cameron â a director whose preferred method of cracking a nut is with a sledgehammer, you suspect â is creating a universe around his smash-hit Avatar, replete with five sequels, graphic novels, actual novels and, most bewilderingly, a Cirque du Soleil show.
These shared universes actively court the sort of audiences who will turn up to every film, buy the action figures, don the cosplay outfits and eat the branded breakfast cereal â in other words, teenage boys. âThe dominant ideology is fanboy culture,â says Gaydos. âIt is adolescent. It is conflict resolution by violence. It is wish-fulfillment, spectacle and diversion â sound and fury, if we want to get Shakespearean.â
Truly, the geeks have inherited the earth. But what about the rest of us? How many people have the time, energy or inclination to sit through, say, all the films in the forthcoming Universal Monsters shared universe, which begins this year with a reboot of The Mummy and has revivals of Wolf Man, Van Helsing and the Invisible Man in pre-production? Greenlighting this series of films without knowing whether anyone is going to bother to watch even the first of them looks like a risky endeavour, and the recent plight of the Divergent YA film franchise, whose latest film is being released as a TV movie due to lack of interest, offers up a cautionary tale that studios should perhaps be paying attention to.
But whatâs striking about all these blockbusters is how youth-skewed they are, at a time when a third of cinemagoers in the US are over the age of 50. Older audiences can enjoy The Avengers as much as everyone else, of course, but pitching your market primarily towards young people is a risky strategy. Young people tend to be the most fickle audience, one whose attention âis split in a million placesâ, says Gaydos. Theyâre also the audience least able to splash out on cinema tickets. And of course theyâre an audience who are becoming increasingly accustomed to watching content on their phones, laptops and smart TVs.
In other words, theyâre the ones likely to force through the seismic change the industry is currently fretting over. If they lose interest in the modern blockbuster in the way that younger audiences turned away from the westerns, musicals and historical epics in the 1960s, the studios will have to find something shiny and new to wave in their faces â and this time they wonât have something akin to the New Hollywood to court them with, as that sort of transgressive, edgy, groundbreaking fare is increasingly turning up on the small screen.
Perhaps the best thing the studios can do in the face of this new world is to show some imagination in how they develop and present their blockbusters â and there are signs that this is already happening. Producer Stephen Woolley, who has worked on films such as The Crying Game and the forthcoming adaptation of On Chesil Beach, cites Deadpool as a film that has subtly managed to shift the perception of the superhero movie. âItâs taking a much more sophisticated view of that world and ridiculing it, while at the same reinforcing it. It was a clever have-your-cake-and-eat-it from the people who created it.â
Meanwhile, Disneyâs successful live-action reimaginings of their animated works â most notably Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book â suggests that itâs possible to play the sequels and remakes game without it feeling like a retread over old ground. Most remarkably of all, the musical seems to be making a comeback with the success of La La Land, that rare mid-budget movie to have crossed over into blockbuster status, grossing more than $400m at a budget of $37m.
Woolley is aware of the risks swirling around the blockbuster, but feels that mass extinction is still some way away, if it ever comes. âThe danger you have is that audiences are fickle, and they could suddenly turn off,â he says. âSomething happens for them to say: âActually, we donât like those movies any more.â And thereâs always this inkling that it might happen. But every time it seems to happen on the blockbuster front, another movie comes out to prove you wrong.â
Ultimately, though, what might keep the blockbuster safe for the time being is not the films themselves but all the stuff around them. âThe thing that the studios are making is something akin to a hypermovie or a supermovie,â says Gaydos. âItâs a whole other thing. Itâs a toy-delivery system. A Cars movie will gross $500m or $600m but the Cars products will sell $4bn. Ultimately the movie is designed to be a giant marketing tool for merchandise and theme parks that generate billions and billions.â
As Hollywood agonises over its own future, it might be that the best way for the blockbuster to survive is to subsume itself into bigger, more secure revenue streams: toys, games, merchandise, live attractions. So if you want to keep the blockbuster around for a while longer, you should get your Superman costume on and pour yourself a bowl of that branded cereal.