The Summer of Flops: Why Hollywood Has a Blockbuster Problem


By now, some of you will have heard that the Independence Day long weekend brought some bad news for Disney. Their latest summer tentpole film, The Lone Ranger, became the latest in a string of embarrassing, high-profile commercial flops. To be sure, the phenomenon of the box-office bomb isn’t all that rare, but what’s troubling is the frequency of the past few failures: Will Smith’s After Earth crashed and burned on May 31st and White House Down imploded on June 28th.

It’s a pattern that makes the recent comments by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas at a university symposium seem prophetic.  At the event, Spielberg and Lucas predicted we’d soon see a Roland Emmerich-sized catastrophe in the movie business, prompting huge (think $45) admission prices for blockbusters. The saddest part is that it doesn’t have to be this way. But if the industry doesn’t turn itself around, going to see the next Superman film might become as costly as going to the opera.

When you consider how bloated blockbusters are today, it’s surprising they turn a profit at all. And the funding problem is compounded by the little industry calculation that determines whether your film is actually “profitable”: if you spend $500 million on your movie, you’ll want to double that amount in ticket sales if you really want to call it a success. Why? Because if you want to make another movie, you’ll need another half a billion dollars. Call it a vicious circle of James Cameron proportions.

Jaden Smith as Kitai Raige in "After Earth"

In fact, if it weren’t for the international box office, a lot of our favourite blockbusters would never have been made; there simply wouldn’t have been the capital to fund them. After all, when you’re dropping $50 million to book an A-list star and $100 million on a splashy marketing campaign, you’d better hope your film connects with moviegoers in other countries – there just isn’t enough domestic revenue to cover the costs.

This leads to a second major issue with modern blockbusters – the foreign sponsorship deal. It’s an increasingly common sight: Chinese and Indian actors are shoehorned into American films for the sake of attracting overseas investment (and ticket sales). Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for encouraging inclusive, cross-border stories in Hollywood. But when studios are cynically re-shaping films around international cameos just to pay the bills, you have to wonder what else the studios will sacrifice.

These special appearances by stars from other countries just get silly after a while, and disrespectful of their talent. If a Chinese star like Fan Bingbing can only make it into Iron Man 3 to please the Chinese investors and moviegoers, what does that say about the filmmakers’ interest in her talent, or in the character she plays?

Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby"

Or consider Amitabh Bachchan’s appearance as the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby. They’ve even kept the character’s Jewish name – is Bachchan just a placeholder for another actor the studio would have preferred to use? Could they simply not afford to turn down the foreign investment?

So we have an industry using any means necessary to fund their overexpensive products. It's not necessarily a recipe for disaster. But as more big-budget films go the way of The Lone Ranger and After Earth, it leads me to wonder if audiences are just starting to feel put off by the size and generic feel of these movies.

Even from the trailers, you can tell that Ranger is heavy on Pirates of the Caribbean-style action and  light on character and drama. The same goes with other recent bombs - and audiences are becoming savvy enough to notice it before going to the theatre. So the question becomes, how many of these expensive mistakes can the studios afford before a change is necessary?

It's important to note that the bad decisions  inspiring this audience rebellion actually begin long before casting and filming - they take place when the movie is being written. It’s now a common practice to have a revolving door of screenwriters being hired to draft, rewrite and polish a screenplay before it goes into production. And as more than one critic and Hollywood outsider have pointed out, this strategy opens a Pandora’s box of other issues.

Firstly, hiring a whole team of writers adds yet more costs to the ballooning budget. Secondly, the formulas for today’s major blockbusters are so tightly controlled by the studios that new writers can rarely have much of an impact on a script. Lastly, if the stream of rewrites does anything, it makes the film feel schizophrenic, stuffed with half-formed themes and ideas from multiple members of the writing team (a recurring complaint about The Lone Ranger, in fact).

So, what’s the solution here? Well, as with any industry-sized problem, there’s no overnight fix. I wrote a post a while ago calling for a “cap” for movie budgets, but we all know that’s not going to happen. At the risk of sounding fatalistic, maybe it’s best to let Spielberg and Lucas’ predictions come to pass.

Maybe the only thing that can prevent more big-budget flops is a bigger flop – on an industrial level. It’s clear that the biggest moneymakers in the business are also the biggest liabilities, and they don’t seem to be running on their own steam. Perhaps the future of blockbuster filmmaking is charging higher ticket prices as a justification for big-budget entertainment. It wouldn’t be easy to swallow, but then again, the recent crop of blockbusters isn’t all that palatable, either.


What do you make of the trend of high-profile film flops? Is it a sign of a financial apocalypse, or just an unavoidable part of the modern movie industry? Join the conversation in the comments section below, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers! You can also check out some of my recent posts here:


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