Summer blockbusters have officially begun an agonizingly visible decline into bittersweet oblivion, like the Terminator giving a thumbs-up while being slowly dipped into a cauldron of boiling steel. Summer 2014 saw the most dismal box office turnout in eight years, which included the worst 4th of July weekend since 1987 both in terms of gross receipts and comedic remakes of old cop shows.
Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures
Pictured: 1987 (left), 2014 (right)
So, what happened? How did a movie like Sin City do a $30 million opening weekend in 2005 and then a $6 million weekend 10 years later? Is it because Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan have over-saturated the market with dark, brooding comic book violence, or did everyone just suddenly realize that Frank Miller is kind of an asshole? In our exploration of the many lukewarm box office "hits" and utter stench-filled bombs released this year, we came up with a helpful list of things Hollywood should avoid in order to prove our dismal predictions about the 2015 blockbuster season wrong, as much as we love being right.
Two of the biggest and best-received films of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, were entries in Marvel's cash-printing pyramid of a united cinematic universe for all of the characters they didn't sell off piecemeal in the '80s and '90s for starry-eyed promises and a sack of magic beans. Unfortunately, every other film studio out there has learned the exact wrong lesson from Marvel's success, because they all apparently believe the secret to billion-dollar franchises is turning every tentpole picture into a half-dozen interconnected spinoffs, instead of turning every tentpole picture into a half-dozen interconnected spinoffs that people actually enjoy watching.
Thanks to other studios trying to duplicate Marvel's success, we are now getting a Lego cinematic universe, a Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy cinematic universe, and a series of films continuing the complex mythology of The Conjuring, which includes the upcoming October release Annabelle, an entire movie based on the haunted doll featured in The Conjuring's first four minutes, because apparently that was the number one request on every test audience ballot.
"We just bought the American Girl line for crossover potential."
While franchises like Star Wars and DC Comics might have the source material to justify such an undertaking (although we're pretty doubtful about the former and latter), Sony is planning to build an entire universe out of their brutally unnecessary Spider-Man reboot that no one liked, promising one Spider-Man film per year until we as a society band together and burn the studio down.
"We'd release a Hypno-Hustler trilogy before we'd ever let these rights go."
Look, sequels are fine -- we accept and occasionally welcome the continuation of a popular film in a theatrically released second (or third, or fourth) chapter. But just because a movie does well (or, in the case of Universal's Classic Monster Universe and DC Comics' Batman v Superman and Justice League, you're really hoping a movie does well), doesn't mean we want to see it spun off into a crushing web of annual installments until we're all in our 70s. Star Wars was the most popular film series of all time for a solid 20 years, all based on the strength of three movies, which, 20 years ago, used to be considered a lot of goddamned movies. Star Wars didn't become a whispered guilty pleasure until they tried to squeeze more blood out of that stone in 1999. Let your successes breathe for a bit; give the moviegoing populace a chance to absorb them and make them our own instead of shoving them down our throats as if you can force us to love them.
The idea of a "cinematic universe" isn't the only good Marvel idea other studios are attempting to emulate. Marvel has a habit of mostly hiring indie directors to make their big-budget superhero movies, like James Gunn, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, and Edgar Wright. The part that other studios are ignoring is the fact that Marvel remains firmly in control of the entire process, even going so far as to fire the director if their vision is straying too far from what Marvel had in mind (like with Edgar Wright).
"For the greater good."
"The greater good."
Anyone remember the flaccid wet flop that was Transcendence? Warner Bros. dropped $100 million into that movie and left it entirely in the hands of a first-time director. How about I, Frankenstein? That was a $65 million comic book adaptation handed off to a guy who had directed one unknown film. You can't just grab some promising new director and toss him or her a bunch of money -- you have to keep that person on a generous leash, lest you end up with a $160 million Godzilla film with no Godzilla in it.
Yes, Gareth Edwards made an indie movie about giant monsters (with the imaginative title Monsters) that many people enjoyed, but the entire concept of that film is that you never see the monsters, which is precisely what Godzilla isn't supposed to be. We assume Legendary Pictures read the title of Edwards' film and then hired him without bothering to actually watch it. A similar hiring process doubtlessly led to Regency Pictures handing the guy who made Black Swan a hundred million dollars to make an insane action movie about Noah's Ark. It's time to accept that Marvel is the only studio that can get away with this kind of nonsense.
Since every film that manages to make even a little bit of coin is immediately franchised out into two or three sequels, we've steadily begun to see summer months that are crammed full of more huge releases than we can possibly make it out to see. There are only so many previews for CGI-laden explosion fests we can sit through before our eyes glaze over and we end up spending the weekend at home reading a fucking book instead.
Let's look at the box office from July of 1996:
That's a pretty diverse offering, right? The two new releases, Independence Day and Phenomenon, couldn't have less in common -- one is about Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith fighting aliens and the other is about John Travolta getting super powers from a brain tumor and dying in Kyra Sedgwick's arms. You might also recognize one of the last good movies Michael Bay ever made on that list, and a film about Demi Moore's nudity, because the '90s were a different time.
There were only two new releases the next weekend, as well:
Box Office Mojo
Striptease Twister is also how The Rock spends his weekends.
Independence Day remained on top as the only big special effects event movie around (Eraser, The Rock, Twister, and Mission: Impossible had all come out months before). Also, notice that only two films had a budget of $100 million or more, and neither of those films were Independence Day.
Cut to 2014 around the same time:
Box Office Mojo
Deliver Us from Evil indeed.
Now we are drowning in a sea of $100 million or more blockbusters, including two superhero movies, two big-budget family movies, and two movies about hulking super-beasts destroying entire cities. The very next weekend saw the release of yet another huge event film about super-beastial destruction demanding our money and attention:
The overcrowded summer blockbuster release schedule means that most impressive openings are immediately stamped out by another impressive opening, because we literally have at least one big event movie open every week. That's too many damn movies. Films barely have a chance to become huge hits nowadays, and yet studios are spending twice as much on them.
After The Avengers made Marvel one dollar for every person on the planet, every other executive in Hollywood thought the key to never-ending wealth was to cram as many stoically blank faces into their movie as possible while heroically ignoring the fact that Marvel had spent entire films setting up all of those characters beforehand. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 learned this lesson to its woe when they crammed three villains and a contrived backstory for Spider-Man's father into a two-hour runtime without spending a meaningful amount of time on any one of them, the end result being uncannily like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3, which is a statement that is never a compliment.
X-Men: Days of Future Past ran into the same problem, delighting us with a really cool character in Quicksilver before pushing him aside after 10 minutes to make way for the 20 other mutants that popped in and out of the film like a kaleidoscopic action figure commercial.
20th Century Fox
"Wish I could stay, but I'm late for my shift at Burger King."
The producers of Godzilla weren't confident that one titanic rage lizard was enough to hold our attention for two and a half hours, so they threw in two other monsters for him to trade blows with in between scenes of painfully terrible dialogue and improbable science (the already greenlit sequel is going to up the ante to three evil monsters). Transformers: Age of Extinction assaulted us with a whopping 19 indistinguishable robots spread out over three hours of movie, as opposed to the nine that appeared in the first film in the series, which similarly overstayed its welcome at two and a half hours.
That brings us to our next point ...
As we just mentioned, the first Transformers was a problematic two hours and 20 minutes long, with at least a solid 10 of those minutes devoted exclusively to Shia LaBeouf's stammering. Age of Extinction was 15 minutes shy of three goddamn hours -- leaving audiences everywhere pondering why a story about racist space robots firing giant bullets over Marky Mark's head required the same runtime as Bridge on the River Kwai.
"What have I done?"
The problem isn't endemic to Transformers movies, either -- not only did Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes all exceed their predecessors in runtime, summer blockbusters in general have gradually been getting longer over the past three decades:
If the Hobbit films had come out in July the last three bars would have been able to break atmosphere.
There is absolutely no fucking reason that cinematic stories about Transformers and Batman should take the same amount of time to tell as Schindler's List and Gandhi.
The Expendables 3 was the box office equivalent of a muscular old man taking a massive public shit in his pants. Studio execs insist that an early leaked copy of the film was to blame for its poor performance, and while that certainly didn't help, anyone who saw the film and read up to this point knows that The Expendables 3 broke two of the rules we just outlined by sending its 17 lead characters (see point #3) stumbling through 126 minutes (see point #2) of boring, watered-down PG-13 action.
A quick IMDb search reveals that this '80s action throwback piece featured absolutely zero veterans of '80s action films working BEHIND the camera, a clear violation of #5 (don't hire an unproven crew without careful supervision):
The only Expendables 3 crew members with any previous '80s action experience are a make-up artist and an editor. No stunt coordinators, special effects gurus, or screenwriters. They even went with a completely unknown director instead of just hiring Stallone to do it (it's not like he was busy doing another film at the time). If Stallone agreed to act in The Expendables 3 but refused to direct it, that's probably a good sign to abandon the production and send everyone home with "Can You Believe We Almost Made a Third Expendables?" T-shirts.
In short, Expendables 3 was the perfect storm of every problem on this list. So, if nothing else, let's make sure that shit never happens again.
If you're Sylvester Stallone looking for a fight, contact David at his Twitter and he'll tell you where and when.
For more blockbuster weirdness, check out 4 Signs Chris Nolan's Next Movie Will Be Goddamn Crazy and 6 Bizarre Signs That Hollywood Is Stuck in a 10-Year Loop.