What are your first associations with the word “blockbuster”? Don’t think too much, just shout out the first words on your mind. These words will likely include “expensive”, “spectacular”, “filled with explosions” and “CGI-effects”. And looking back at the industry in the last five years, you would be right – these are your typical blockbuster movies in a nutshell.
Michael Bay, director of the well-known Transformers franchise, established a very good-looking formula: “A very simple plot, plus lots of explosions, plus lots of CGI effects, plus a little drama for people who are not satisfied with previous components equals a profitable blockbuster movie.” And if you have a budget of $350 million dollars, this formula works perfectly. For critics who dare to call this formula heartless and devastating Mr Bay has a good answer: “I don’t care.” Because the formula is working, and people are spending their money to see loads of action. And so, studios are continuing to give billion-dollar budgets to make even more expensive films.
That’s how it used to be. But is it still working now?
I’ll quote two directors here; very well-known masters of their craft: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the pioneers in blockbuster-making. Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and Lucas’ Star Wars were the first epic movies filled with special effects that became international phenomena – milestones in the filmmaking industry. Back in 2013, these two veterans of the film industry were the first ones to see that blockbusters were running out of time as a genre and that this formula wasn’t going to work forever. But no studio listened to them.
“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm,” said the legendary creator of Jurassic Park. And his words turned out to be all the more true just three years later.
However, before we get to 2016 movies to witness the fall of “Transformers have fallen on Ghostbusters” franchise, let’s look at what makes a movie successful.
Firstly, there are reviews from critics. Reviews aggregators, like Rotten Tomatoes, help to indicate such trends by analysing the reviews from different sources. Also, reviews on such well-known website databases as IMDB play a significant role for the potential audience.
Secondly, there are box office numbers, which help to define how profitable the film was. It’s a simple formula: the film should earn more money than it spent, otherwise there is no financial profit.
Thirdly, there are numbers of licensed copies sold to the cinemas. Sometimes they help to identify whether the movie meets the expectations of cinema-owners. One cinema can buy one licensed copy that they will run ten times a day in one room, or ten licensed copies that will be run once a day in different rooms. If cinemas buy lots of licenced copies, it shows that they believe in the success of the film and filmmakers make part of their profits in advance.
Lacking one of the previous criteria isn’t crucial. The Blade Runner or Shawshank Redemption flopped at the box office, making far less money than they were expected to make, but later on, both became two of the most watchable movies of all time. And some films, like Forrest Gump or The Godfather, were firstly misunderstood by critics – time proved them to be wrong.
However, if movies with a multi-billion dollar budget are lacking all three criteria, losing money one after another, like dominoes, it is about time to think, what’s wrong with the industry?
The 2016 spring season showed that mega-budget action films are no longer making the same profits. London Has Fallen had an average rating of 3.9 out of 10. It struggled to pay back its rather small $60 million budget. This film was pure action and had zero hope for something deeper. Then there was Batman v. Superman, a confusing action flick, which made most of its $330 million gross from licensed copies for theatres and first week screenings – when the audience was going to the cinema to see why the film everyone was looking forward to see for two years was so bad; average rating: 4.9/10.
Moving to summer, the losses got bigger. Star Trek Beyond, a very well-advertised movie, failed to meet expectations and made zero profit, as well as Michael Bay’s new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (making $80 million of pure loss). Even the Ghostbusters remake, that got so much scandalous public attention, dragging political and media figures into the discussion didn’t hit its budget.
Will March 2017 be an exception? I don’t think so. Beauty and the Beast, Logan, Power Rangers, Ghost in the Shell – another month filled with blockbusters, aiming for the same audience – and another high potential for failure.
But the reasonable question is, why isn’t the formula working anymore? Why do these high-budget movies fail to meet expectations, or reach their audience? Is it because we finally got bored of meaningless action, and directors were too lazy to provide us with something more? Or is it because we simply don’t have enough time and money to go and see them?
Yes, and yes, these answers could serve as reasonable causes. But, I believe there is one more reason. The rise of well-structured and well thought-out TV-drama. Where films had given up on thoughtful plots, preferring to substitute for heaps of action instead, TV series took the lead. If you want to see character development, original twists, or just watch a good drama, it’s more likely that you will find what you need on Netflix or Amazon rather than in cinemas today.
Does that mean we will see the death of traditional cinema theatres? Of course not. The movie industry is changing constantly, and there are good chances that we’re on the doorstep of something new. Oscar-winning pictures like Birdman and The Revenant proved that there is a place in audience’s hearts for deep and thought-provoking films, so as blockbusters are leaving the stage, this kind of movies will hopefully take the lead.