Movie-goers watch the premiere of "The Lone Ranger," Friday, July 5, 2013, on a 70-foot wide inflatable screen, at Danny Boy's Drive-In on State Road near Ionia, Mich.
Back in June, iconic director Steven Spielberg predicted a dire future for the movie industry. Speaking to a group of film students at the University of Southern California, Spielberg warned that "(t)here's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm."
Since then, the cinematic casualties have mounted as if on cue.
"The Lone Ranger," the elaborate Western spectacle with a $225 million budget that only pulled in $29 million during its opening weekend, was the biggest bomb. When considering marketing as well as production costs, Disney is looking at something on the order of a whopping $200 million loss. It turns out, however, that misery loves company. The Will Smith vanity project "After Earth" was savaged by critics and ignored by the public. In addition, "White House Down," "Pacific Rim," "R.I.P.D." and "The Wolverine" all significantly underperformed and will likely require costly write-offs from Hollywood production houses.
That list makes for the half-dozen flops that Spielberg predicted. Does it mean a changing paradigm as well?
For our part, we hope it does. We yearn for a paradigmatic shift that shows empathy to the vast audiences who appreciate the kind of action, adventure, humor and romance that enobles rather than exploits.
Alas that may not materialize. While Spielberg was accurate about the number, he seems to be off regarding Tinseltown's response. Even with all of these box-office disasters, 2013 is on track to yield Hollywood's biggest grossing summer ever. That's due as much to increased ticket prices for attendance, and several big hits like "Iron Man 3" and "Despicable Me 2" have compensated for some of the turkeys. One expert, in an interview with Moviefone, said, "I don't think the misfires will change the release paradigm anytime soon."
That's unfortunate, because some of the lessons from these debacles are painfully obvious.
It's clear, for instance, that one summer can only accommodate a relative handful of action-packed, CGI-laden blockbusters. If audiences watch zombies take over the world in "World War Z," will they really want to watch the Oval Office blow up in "White House Down" and see a post-apocalyptic battle for survival in "After Earth," too? At what point does exhaustion set in? People like to eat a candy bar now and then, but a steady summerlong diet of nothing but high-calorie, cinematic junk food can be too much for anyone's stomach.
In addition, the idea that every movie needs to cost $150 million or more is absurd on its face. "Pacific Rim" is considered a flop because it has "only" made $84 million domestically. There was a time when an $84 million haul at the box office was something to celebrate, but when measured against that film's staggering $190 million budget, it becomes a disappointment. Compare that with the sleeper hit "Now You See Me," which has made almost $90 million less in worldwide grosses than "Pacific Rim" but is hailed as a success because its budget was a relatively modest $75 million, less than half of what it cost to create "Pacific Rim's" hordes of monsters and giant robots battling in heavily populated urban areas.
Common sense suggests that any paradigm shift should include smaller budgets, fewer explosions and — if it's not too much to ask — better movies.
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Once again, some of the summer's biggest hits, notably "Despicable Me 2" and "Monsters University," were the ones with the broadest appeal to children and adults alike. This confirms the research that suggests family films appeal to a wider audience, and therefore more dollars, than the more violent and disturbing fare that studios seem to favor. Yet this is a lesson the film industry stubbornly refuses to learn.
How many more mega-budget movies have to crash to the ground before Hollywood finally gets the message?