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Week-to-Week: Do Auds Know It's Doomsday Time At All?
As the summer box office sets off alarm bells, do audiences realize the crisis movies face in the coming years?
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This morning, I appeared on Coast Live here in Norfolk, Virginia, and discussed the state of this summer’s box office with co-host Chandler Nunnally. The thesis of this conversation was that we are at an inflection point for the future of moviegoing. In March, a National Cinema Foundation report spoke to the alleged health of theatrical distribution, arguing that the decline in box office revenue was exclusively an issue of supply:
“Box office, on a film-by-film basis, has rebounded to 2019 levels, limited only by the number of wide releases in the marketplace. The number of wide releases in 2023 is more than 40% higher than 2022 and approaching the number of wide releases in 2019.”
But four months later, this has proven false, with the underperformance of massive tentpole films like The Flash and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny pointing to a crisis within major studio production. In the immediate wake of the pandemic, the concern was that the theatrical distribution business would become the sole domain of the I.P.-driven blockbuster, pushing mid-budget films out of the marketplace (and into streaming). And while this has largely proven true, the realization that even those tentpoles aren’t safe from the erosion of moviegoing as a ritual has created a greater urgency for the studios who have still largely come to depend on theatrical runs to justify huge production budgets and marketing campaigns.
Of course, there’s no generalizing across films struggling in this box office climate. The box office failure of The Flash doesn’t mean that James Gunn’s efforts to reboot the DC franchise with Superman: Legacy will necessarily face a similar fate, just as the relative underperformance of Ant-Man: Quantumania didn’t doom Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3. But superhero films have long been “blue chip” releases that could be counted on to generate a certain level of box office success solely through a sort of cultural inertia, the ritual of seeing them able to create a baseline that would only be added to by marketing/broader cultural interest. When Disney and Lucasfilm agreed to spend $300 million to make a new Indiana Jones film, or when Paramount spent $200 million to reboot the Transformers franchise, they were applying this same logic, arguing that there are certain types of franchises that are essentially too big to fail, if not necessarily too big to disappoint.
We’ve since learned this isn’t true, especially in the realm of animation. On the one hand, the breakout success of films like The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse clearly demonstrate that characters with strong brand affinity are able to draw audiences to theaters, particularly if they have cross-generational appeal. But on the other, the original stories of Pixar’s Elemental and Dreamworks’ Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken were effectively dead on arrival—while the former will leg out a halfway decent post-pandemic total comparable to Lightyear and The Good Dinosaur before moving to Disney+, the latter had the 29th worst wide opening of all time, effectively signaling the death of the Dreamworks Animation brand as a meaningful one outside of its constituent franchises.
In the case of Elemental, there’s no mystery here: beginning with Soul, Disney created a culture where people are used to watching new Pixar films on Disney+, despite their huge budgets that made them significant loss leaders in the company’s efforts to launch a streaming empire. While I imagine that high-profile sequels like Inside Out 2 and Toy Story 5 could change this, there’s little to suggest that an original Pixar film like next year’s Elio (below) is going to be capable of generating the interest necessary to sustain the types of opening Pixar was used to in the past, and on which their production budgets have been predicated (which explains the recent round of layoffs, Pixar’s first in a decade).
None of this is news to anyone following along with industry news and box office returns, but as I discussed this on a local station’s morning lifestyle talk show, I wondered: do normal people realize that there is a crisis in moviegoing, and that the industry’s efforts to monetize their at-home viewing are more or less a failed business model?
Movies are different from television in this way. Streaming has been just as—if not more—disastrous for television, but in that case there is more tangible evidence of disaster (especially given the discourse around the ongoing WGA strike, which includes feature writers but has been discursively dominated by TV scribes). Canceled shows and shows being pulled off of streaming platforms as soon as they’re canceled—those are effects that would drive a viewer of those shows to search for a cause, and ultimately discover some harsh truths of our current moment. TV fans are also generally more likely to create relationships with a show and its cast/crew over a longer period, making the harshness of budget writedown cancellations and removals a greater betrayal. While there are no doubt still casual viewers streaming away their favorite shows without realizing the industry is confronting the reality that those platforms are not sustainable, it’s far more likely for them to realize something is wrong than someone who reduced their moviegoing from once a month to once every three months.
Which is why I have to presume that a lot of regular people might not have understood the significance of Tom Cruise’s social media post from last month, where he and Mission Impossible director Christopher MacQuarrie posed with purchased tickets to screenings of three other summer tentpoles: Dial of Destiny, Barbie, and Oppenheimer. Cruise, who Steven Spielberg credited with “saving Hollywood’s ass” with Top Gun: Maverick last year, understands that this job—much like Ethan Hunt’s mission—is never complete. The pileup of blockbuster releases at a time when past success has been so elusive has Cruise and others sweating to the point where they are framing the film industry not as a horse race between distributors, but rather as an existential struggle for the future of distribution. Cruise allegedly had a particular issue in terms of the revenue-boosting Premium Large Format screens (IMAX, etc.), which in the case of IMAX Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer will have locked down for three full weeks, but he was unsuccessful—this new campaign is seemingly his next strategy, which was then picked up by Barbie director Greta Gerwig and star Margot Robbie on that film’s official social accounts.
This type of posting is not new for Cruise, who took a break from filming Dead Reckoning to film his visit to see Nolan’s Tenet in the summer of 2020 as movie theaters were reopening. And while it’s possible that Cruise is just an avid cinephile trying to use his platform to save theatrical distribution, there has been some justified skepticism about Cruise’s alleged love for movies, and it’s hard not to see this as a actor whose wealth has been accumulated through lucrative back-end deals on a film’s profits understanding that the path forward is bleak. And whereas in 2020 the pandemic felt like a legible crisis that everyone in the world understood, the current state of moviegoing is a quieter crisis, even if the still-ongoing pandemic remains at the heart of many moviegoers’ reluctance to return to theaters.
And the simple truth is that most people whose ritual patterns of moviegoing were changing were already confronting issues—disruptive crowds, high prices, increasingly poor quality control in projection—that had them shifting to home viewing without factoring in COVID. The producer at Coast Live simply got tired of dealing with the lackluster cinematic experience, something that distributors still haven’t really worked to address. It’s a reminder that while 2019 may have been the highest-grossing box office year in history, the seeds of this decline were already in place, and what’s happened since the pandemic has simply exacerbated the situation. But when the discourse is pushing that “Hollywood is back,” and when theater closures were significant—roughly 5% of screens—but not necessarily definitively connected to a lack of audience demand, do regular people realize that their choice to stream movies at home is not actually a viable future for Hollywood in the way Hollywood itself pretended it was when pivoting in that direction five years ago?
Because this isn’t the same crisis we worried about even two years ago. Then, it was a matter of what kinds of movies received theatrical releases, and the options available to those of us who still want to go to theaters. But with streaming platforms slashing spending and outright removing their straight-to-streaming releases, and with even big-budget films struggling to generate the necessary audiences, we are going to see some radical reevaluation from studios in the coming years that will have a direct impact on both the quantity and quality of films being produced. And while I don’t know if people’s perspective on spending the money and time to go to theaters to see more movies this summer would change if it seemed like the stakes were this high, I do feel like the industry is going to be increasingly desperate to find ways to get them to notice if Cruise’s “it’s a great summer at the movies” campaign doesn’t move the needle for the Dead Reckoning/Barbie/Oppenheimer pileup in the weeks to come.
I’m slowly working my way through The Bear’s second season, and I’ll be writing about it once I’m done, likely for next week’s installment of the newsletter. But as a preview, although I’m still of the argument that a weekly release would have been sustainable and justifiable given the show’s quality (and the substance provided by certain episodes, like “Fishes”), I do understand how the overall plot structure of the season benefits from a binge viewing. But I’ll elaborate more on that once I see where the season lands.
If you finished out the first season of Apple TV+’s Silo, paid subscribers had a lengthy discussion in a discussion post over the weekend, and I expect we’ll be covering season two whenever it returns down the line.
If you’re not watching the second season of Claim to Fame, I highly recommend it, and I’ll probably put together a discussion this weekend to talk about the season so far ahead of Monday’s third episode. The first season is also on Hulu, and gives a good primer to the game, which is good context for the second season’s variation. Really enjoying it so far.
My boyfriend and I absent-mindedly went through Neflix’s American Gladiators documentary “series”—it’s just an unnecessarily long, episodically organized documentary—over the past week, and it basically fills the same void as the Toys That Made Us and Movies That Made Us documentaries do in terms of having enough nostalgic footage and new information to pass the time, even if a more incisive and critical look could have dug more into the cultural conversation around steroid use. (Also, while outside the scope, I’d have loved to have gotten some perspective on the 2008 reboot).
We also had an episode of The Parent Test auto-play after we finished Claim to Fame and got oddly sucked into this late 2022 ABC social experiment about parenting styles—I doubt we’ll take the time to finish it, with so much else to watch, but it kind of became perfect background, and sometimes we need that.
In terms of upcoming programming, stay tuned next week for Lisa Weidenfeld’s reviews of season two of Apple TV+’s mystery comedy The Afterparty.