Tuesday, May 30, 2023

How Much Will The Little Mermaid Make at the Box Office?; or, "Will The Little Mermaid Make a Billion Dollars?"

As I remarked in a prior post I had wondered if The Little Mermaid might not be the live-action movie that will break the billion-dollar barrier this year--and then when seeing the opening weekend numbers, particularly the numbers from overseas, I became much more doubtful.

Consider the track record of the movies that seem most comparable--the four live-action adaptations of Disney animated classics released pre-pandemic, namely The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King (as middle-of-the-pandemic, simultaneously-on-streaming Mulan is not likely to be very helpful here). Those four movies all made between 28 and 35 percent of their domestic gross during the first weekend of release (with Aladdin, like The Little Mermaid a Memorial Day weekend release making a third), while all four made 60 to 67 percent of their money abroad.

A $118 million opening gross would therefore work out to something in the vicinity of $340-$410 million domestic, with the usual level of international ticket sales suggesting a global total of some $850 million to $1.2 billion by the end of the run (the latter, about what Aladdin made when one adjusts for inflation).* However, in the first three days of release, rather than the U.S. gross being 30 to 33 percent of the total it was more like 58 percent of the money made globally (all as the movie came out in the larger and more lucrative markets, China included). Should that domestic/foreign split endure then a $340-$410 million gross would work out to something more in the vicinity of $600-$700 million globally.

Of course, we are still quite early in the film's run. Should it prove to have stronger than expected legs at home, or enjoy some "bounce" overseas after a weak early reception, it could do better. All the same, the $1 billion mark that the four preceding films cleared easily (at a moment when the dollar was less inflated) remains a long way off, even should the film do better than now expected. (After all, the movie would have to take in 40 percent+ more than the high end of the range I calculated here.) Meanwhile, in light of its reception it may be easier to imagine the film doing less well than "overperforming."

* Adjusting the May-July 2019 prices of the period of Aladdin's release for the prices of April 2023 the film's $1.05 billion gross at the time of release is equal to $1.24 billion today.

Analogies for The Little Mermaid's Box Office Run: Black Panther, The Last Jedi, Ant-Man 3?

As I remarked earlier a major factor in my hesitation to discuss the box office prospects of The Little Mermaid was the scarcity of useful points of comparison compared with other would-be blockbusters. (The most obviously useful analogies--other live-action adaptations of Disney animated classics--are few, and pretty much all pre-pandemic, in contrast with what I write here about Marvel Cinematic Universe films.)

Still, in the wake of the first weekend it seems to me that there are three points of comparison even beyond the prior live-action Disney adaptations.

The Little Mermaid is like Black Panther in being a Disney-backed film hailed in many quarters as a step forward for representation.

It is like The Last Jedi in its box office gross, at least at this stage of things, appearing a significant disappointment in comparison with its predecessors, all as supporters of the film claim that online trolls opposed to that step forward for representation are significantly at fault.

And it is like Ant-Man 3 in the film's underperformance, while being evident in the domestic market, being much more pronounced in overseas markets--the gap between anticipated ticket sales and what the film has actually made much wider there than at home.

Whether these latter two analogies will become less salient--or more so--to our thinking about the movie's run is something we will see in the weeks ahead.

Is Disney-Lucasfilm Changing its Star Wars Film-Making Strategy?

Since Solo flopped back in 2018--indisputably and hard (even the Deadline folks expressed suspicions that the numbers they had understated the disaster)--there has been much more smoke than fire where the cinematic side of the Star Wars franchise has been concerned. The concluding film of the sequel trilogy apart, there has not been a single film in the five years since, and so far as I can tell, no informed observer seriously expecting Star Wars on the big screen this year, or maybe even the next.

Besides the studio's getting burned (and very badly burned indeed) the pandemic confused things--depressing revenue, and inflaming the already exuberant expectations about the money to be made for streaming, raised expectations that this, not theatrical release, was the logical focus for producers, all across Hollywood, with this reflected in Disney's case, and Star Wars' case, in the studio's launching a succession of Star Wars-themed streaming series. (There was no Boba Fett movie of the kind once planned--but there has been a "Book of Boba Fett.")

Of course, with the box office recovering, and expectations surrounding streaming "less exuberant" than before, studio chiefs have their eyes fixed on selling $20 tickets once more. Still, the financial damage of the pandemic remains, compounded by what, compared with the post-Great Recession norm expectation of "free money for investors," have been high interest rates.

Alas, Disney-Lucasfilm has been stumbling here, moving from one effort that produces a lot of publicity but no movie to another --significant in which is its, like the runners of a certain other aging franchise (the post-reboot James Bond series), relying not on a "creative producer's" vision working with directors who may not have been household names but could be counted on to deliver "the goods" as that producer desired, to hiring some Big Name, and preferably a Hot New Name, to "Make it New."* The already long-prominent J.J. Abrams was enlisted to helm Episode VII, while they had Rian Johnson slated to direct not just The Last Jedi but a whole lot of other Star Wars, while Josh Trank (after Chronicle), and Patty Jenkins (in the wake of her success with Wonder Woman), came and went without much resulting, especially as each lost their luster (Johnson after the ill reception to The Last Jedi, Trank after Fantastic Four, Jenkins after Wonder Woman 1984).

I get from this a sense of fickleness and irrationality. Big productions do not lend themselves well to auteurial-type filmmaking (as George Lucas learned the hard way making the original Star Wars, which is why others did the actual directing on The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi), with this all the more the case given the hard realities of studio control in this day and age, and where Star Wars is concerned, an established universe and a fandom very attentive to the details with all the associated additional constraints. The result is that either the Hot New Name cannot bring very much to the film--or you get something that will displease the fan base, which will be very vocal about the fact, with the reactions to Episodes VII and VIII, exemplary. J.J. Abrams played it ultra-safe with Episode VII (such that a little way into the movie the more alert members of the audience think to themselves, "Wait, I've seen this before . . ."), while Rian Johnson did the opposite with Episode VIII, being thoroughly flippant toward the material (a major reason for the backlash).

Still, Disney may be starting to move away from this irrational approach, if their choice of Dave Filoni is anything to go by. Filoni's film experience is limited, but his television experience on Star Wars' new series is vast--a fact that may be relevant to the film he has been tasked with making, a tie-in to multiple Disney TV series'. That does not by any means guarantee a more successful film. Indeed, I am not sure that the promised Heir to the Empire (is it me or has the commentariat little-noticed that this was the same title Timothy Zahn used for the first in his big trilogy?) is a really well-conceived project, given that a TV tie-in may be quite awkward in bringing in the wider audience expected for a Star Wars movie. (Certainly it was no asset to Dr. Strange 2.) All the same, it may mean that the management is no longer pursuing fantasies of "An auteur will figure things out for us," which, at least, suggests some self-criticism, and maybe a little more insight into what the studio has and how, if this is at all possible, it might be got to work.

* In his very useful book on the saga, Licence to Thrill, James Chapman wrote of the Bond series' directors as "proficient journeymen . . . whose greatest asset was their ability to translate the script to the screen in a straightforward way without any self-conscious tricks."

Monday, May 29, 2023

The Little Mermaid: The Film's Opening Weekend Box Office Gross

The Little Mermaid is not the kind of film about whose box office performance I am inclined to make guesses. Disney's live-action remakes of its animated classics are still a fairly small sub-genre, offering little basis for the kind of analogies that underlie so much of box office gross forecasting than action-adventure blockbusters, and indeed, even the highly prolific Marvel Cinematic Universe with its over thirty films to date. Still, I have to admit that when recently suggesting that we might in 2023 not see a single live-action movie break the $1 billion barrier, especially as the chances of Guardians of the Galaxy 3 (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe with it), Indiana Jones, and then The Flash, all seemed to recede further, I thought that if any movie might prove me wrong it would be The Little Mermaid.* (After all, the movies have been huge money-makers, with four of the current wave of such films to date breaking the billion-dollar barrier, and two doing it in 2019 alone--namely Aladdin and The Lion King.**)

Now that, too, seems most unlikely. The Little Mermaid, just a few days ago supposed to be headed for a $135-$140 million gross over the four-day weekend seems likely to finish with something less domestically--just $118 million. Meanwhile the movie is doing even more poorly abroad, with $68 million collected internationally--a figure sufficiently underwhelming that while some of the entertainment press present the domestic underperformance as a "win," the disappointment there is undeniable. (Incidentally the film did have a release in that huge and important Disney market, China--where it collected $2.5 million.)

I will not get into the issue of why this has been the case. There are lots of other people doing that already, many doubtless better-informed. But it is another underperformance in a year already looking to be full of them for Hollywood, and for Disney especially, as what was arguably the first "normal" year for the box office with respect to the release schedule and audience behavior post-pandemic time and again elicits weak responses to its full slate of would-be blockbusters.

* The three movies in question are the late 2021 release Spider-Man: No Way Home, and 2022's Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water, while the animated The Super Mario Bros. Movie has already been the year's first $1 billion hit.
** The other two are 2016's The Jungle Book and 2017's Beauty and the Beast.

Guardians of the Galaxy 3's Fourth Weekend at the Box Office: How Did it Do?

The weekend numbers are a little slower than usual coming in on a four-day holiday weekend, but we do have them now.

As of Sunday Guardians of the Galaxy 3 had taken in $299 million domestically, with the film's breaking $300 million today reasonably assumed--and thus has already surpassed the bottom end of the range specified in pre-release expectations (to say nothing of the "doomsday" scenarios of an Ant-Man 3-like collapse), with some way still to go. More or less consistent with my projections of recent weeks, should the week-to-week trend hold I still expect the movie will finish up somewhere around $330 million in North America.

That said, with the film's global take standing at $731 million, it seems there is a quicker decline in the film's take overseas, reflecting the more front-loaded character of the international gross as compared with the weaker opening but better holds seen in the U.S.. (The opening weekend saw the movie take in less than 42 percent of its money domestically--$118 million of the global $228 million; this past week saw it take perhaps 45 percent of its money there--$32.5 million of the $72 million or so.) How much that international take slows remains to be seen, but going by its week-to-week declines over the past two weeks (from $146 million to $78 million, from $78 million to $39 million), I can picture another $40 million+ coming in from abroad. Working out to $470 million+ internationally, and $330 million domestic, a final worldwide tally at least in the vicinity of $800 million very probable, and a gross some way north of that fairly so, with a figure of somewhere around $825 million not too hard to picture (if with perhaps a little more coming from North America, a little less from elsewhere).

Again, this is better than what many feared given the unhappy precedents of the last three Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films (and that opening weekend), but confirms the film-to-film declines of the MCU franchise's various series for the time being. That still leaves the franchise profitable for now, and likely to remain profitable even were it to go on falling some way--but rather less so than at its Phase Three peak, with the trend untoward, and complacency on the part of the franchise-runners unwarranted.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

BoxOfficePro is Now More Bullish on Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and The Transformers: Rise of the Beasts: Implications

With the release of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse scarcely a week away BoxOfficePro's projection regarding that movie's gross is significantly higher than its original expectation--the $85-$105 million estimate for the opening weekend now up to $95-$130 million.

The result is that the high end of the range for the film's gross now approaches $360 million.

I remember not too long ago wondering if Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse might not be the highest-grossing Marvel superhero of the year. At the time my expectations for Guardians of the Galaxy 3 were lower than they are now--the strong holds having not yet materialized then. Even with those holds materializing, though, I think the movie unlikely to get much past $330 million, such that film that makes $360 million might well beat it--all as the other live-action Marvel movies this year seem unlikely to do even as well as Guardians (my expectations for Captain Marvel 2, and Kraven the Hunter, decidedly lower).

Right now it also seems that, with expectations for The Flash downgraded in the latest report (a point I took up in my prior post) Spider-Man may have a good chance at beating him too. Combined with the possibility of Aquaman 2 seeing its gross fall a long way from that of the original Aquaman (though in fairness it seems to me way too early to do more than speculate about that), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse could well be not just the top-grossing Marvel superhero movie of the year, but the top-grossing superhero movie of the year, period.

The upward revision of the projections for the next Transformers (Rise of the Beasts) is interesting, though less impressive. Where previously the expectation had been of the movie making $60-$90 million in the U.S. the range is now more like $75-$100 million. This would still be a grave disappointment in relation to the franchise's earlier movies, the standards of summer blockbusters generally, and the money reportedly sunk into the film. Still, it may be a positive sign for the bottom line, which the backers of the movie sure could use.

Expect more here on the prospects of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse this week.

The Flash, The Claqueurs of the Media, and the Audience's Response

The latest reports indicate that, even as the media has turned very bullish on the chances of The Flash at the box office, the evidences of the public's interest in the film remain weak--by summer blockbuster standards, at least. This movie starring a member of the Justice League's old core that is being touted as one of the greatest superhero movies ever--if not the absolute greatest superhero movie ever--may be looking at an opening weekend in the mere $70 million range, just half of what might have been hoped for just a short time earlier.

Why such a disconnect?

One possibility worth considering is that if the last three years have been hard on Marvel, they have been much harder still on Marvel's consistently much less successful rival, the DC Extended Universe, which was in nowhere near so strong a position to endure the disappointment, with their respective positions in the spring of 2023 showing it, when each had a movie out--Ant-Man 3, and Shazam 2. There was much hand-wringing over Ant-Man 3 failing to break the half-billion dollar barrier. By contrast Shazam 2's global take stands at $133 million at last report--the DCEU's flop making less than a third (indeed, not much more than a quarter) of Marvel's apparent disaster did.

I might add that, while Guardians of the Galaxy 3's relatively decent legs have had attitudes toward the film's performance considerably more positive recently, the reality remains a movie that had a weak opening weekend, and will end up with a good deal less money than its predecessors when we think in real terms rather than just inflated dollars--continuing, if in lesser degree than some of its predecessors, the downward trend in the take of Marvel sequels relative to the preceding installments in their series'.

While the DCEU's less prolific character leaves us with less basis for making such judgments, it does not seem unreasonable to think its movies are also suffering in the same way--and that this would not implausibly be more severe in the case of the weaker franchise. Consider the worst installment-to-installment performance the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has seen in the post-pandemic period--Black Panther 2, which saw its real-terms global box office gross drop by about half as compared with the original (from over $1.6 billion to $859 million in November 2022 dollars). One may add that this at least partly reflected the extremely high domestic gross of 2018's Black Panther ($700 million, it beat out even Avengers 3 because of the unrepeatable event the first movie had been made out to be), and the loss of the star of the first film.

By contrast Shazam 2 fell 70 percent from a much lower height (the original's take about $430 million in early 2023 dollars).

Moreover, the Flash has no shortage of headwinds against it even without any such trend as that. Popularity-wise the character is no Batman--and even his movie fell short of $800 million last year (notably, in spite of the media also being bullish on that one). Meanwhile the current Flash movie is, in relation to its associated universe, not part of a build-up to something bigger and better (of the kind that worked so well for Marvel up through Phase Three), but the equivalent of a previously unaired episode of a canceled TV show being "burned off." In contrast with the usual expectations the star is not out promoting the film (we are actually hearing from Michael Shannon instead, to go by what I have seen in the press), diminishing that boost, precisely because Ezra Miller's profile is these days rather low in light of personal scandal (itself, perhaps, off-putting to audiences).

It may also the case that the DCEU's playing the "nostalgia card" is unlikely to work so well as the franchise-runners think. (What worked for James Bond will not necessarily work here--any more than the DCEU was able to replicate the MCU's success.)

Does that entirely rule out the movie's making $850 million as I recently thought not entirely outside the realm of the possible? No. But I find myself thinking a good deal more about the floor on the film's gross, which seems to me to be falling, and hard. Yesterday I speculated about a scenario in which (assuming the $70 million opening, ordinary legs, and not much more interest abroad than domestically) the movie ends up with under $400 million--frankly, as little as $350 million. Right now the movie's doing no better than that would not be a very great shock--while even a good deal better than that would seem to me to still be a reminder that, indispensable as the claqueurs of the media may (sadly) be in what one might call the "theater of theater" for making a movie a hit, their powers have limits. And those limits may be far short of what is needed to get moviegoers excited enough about the movie DCEU will have coming to a theater near you in June to make it the first-rank hit the studio so clearly needs.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Is The Flash Already Looking Like a Flop? (An Update on the Projected Opening Weekend Gross for DCEU's The Flash)

A little over a week ago BoxOfficePro reported that, based on its tracking, the upcoming DC Extended Universe (DCEU) film The Flash (due out June 16) was headed for a $115-$140 million domestic gross on its opening weekend.

Yesterday, when the publication released its next long-range tracking forecast it appeared the range had been revised downward. The top end of the range has not shifted by much--down only to $135 million--but the forecasters shifted the bottom end of the range downward by a rough quarter ($30 million), to a "mere" $85 million.

The revision predictably extends to the film's overall run, with the bottom end of the range falling from $280 million to $208 million (even as the high end of the range slipped only slightly, from $375 to $362 million).

In short, the floor fell dramatically.

Meanwhile The Hollywood Reporter has reported that the movie could now be expected to take in just $70 million on opening weekend.

This is far from consistent with the media's recent bullishness about the movie--and it would seem to indicate that the press is a lot more excited about the movie than he public is, its breathless hyping of the movie failing to catch on.

Of course, one may imagine that the weak debut will be followed by a positive reaction, and more robust ticket sales, in the following weeks. After all, good holds have partially saved Guardians of the Galaxy 3 from the fate some feared just a little while ago. Still, it is not a good sign, and I find myself looking again at the prediction I made in response to the first BoxOfficePro projection, suggesting $700-$850 million as the plausible range for the film's global gross. If the movie opens to $70 million, if it does better than that but fails to interest the broader audience that stayed home opening weekend, we might see the movie fall far short of the $200 million BoxOfficePro over its domestic run. Should the movie, like Aquaman, make 70 percent of its money overseas, that would leave it well short of the $700 million mark, while if it merely matched its domestic take internationally it might even end up under $400 million.

This would mean that the highly touted "best superhero movie ever" (a very, very big claim to make in superhero-saturated 2023) would make Ant-Man 3 look like a winner by comparison.

The result is that the film's trajectory in the weeks ahead will be interesting--though hopefully not more interesting than the movie itself (in which case this movie really will be in trouble).

Of "Armchair Movie Executives": Some Thoughts

Not long ago I read an article (which I refrain from naming or linking) remarking--frankly, lamenting--what its author saw as the transformation of the moviegoing public--of people who have no personal stake in how films do whatsoever--into "armchair movie executives," endlessly gabbing about the business of movies, to the point of overshadowing the movies themselves, while also expressing befuddlement at the development.

I think his sense of this was exaggerated. I suspect that those who pay much attention to what movies cost and make are a small minority--but it so happens that small minorities tend to be a lot more noticeable than silent majorities, here as in other areas of life, and the Internet has permitted them to be much more noticeable indeed. I also suspect that those who are interested mostly pay attention to just a very small proportion of the films that are produced. (Those who do care what movies make are much more concerned with blockbusters than small dramas such as Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and with some blockbusters rather than others--the evidence, apparently, that they care much more about how the Marvel superhero films will do than, for example, how Fast X will do.)

Still, I do think that, all things considered, more people are paying attention, and individually many of them are paying more attention, than before--and that the author of the piece in question was right when he suggested that easy access to the relevant data played its part. But this only permitted it to happen, rather than compelling the armchair executives to use the data.

It also seems that the situation is substantially of Hollywood's creation, specifically how it makes and markets films these days.

If it appalled the author of the article in question that the public speaks of "franchises," that is because just about every big movie is a franchise movie now--as was not the case before, with key to the plan cashing in on name recognition, and relentless invidious comparison of the new with the old. "Didn't you just hate that?" they'd say in that gratingly wheedling way as they run down that older film while trying to talk up the new. Many of us would say, "No, we didn't hate it," but they did raise the issue all the same, and thus induced us to think about the relationship of one to the other.

If more people know more of the numbers, that is because the studios' claqueurs are always tossing them about, with reports of big salaries, big budgets, big grosses intended to make them think "This is something special. This is something I have to see," to the point of using a movie's being a hit, or even just having the makings of a hit, to make more people go see it, just like the practice of persuading people to buy books by telling them they are bestsellers--which, unavoidably, makes them attentive to the matter of what is selling.

Of course, some people are more responsive to all this than others. Those who belong to a particular "fandom," for example, tend to be interested in everything to do with the work of which they are fans, and are famously attentive to history and detail--with this not necessarily excluding the economics of the matter--which tends to be a factor in the heightened interest in them, all as Hollywood is making so many more movies that come with a fandom attached (as with its superhero comics-based films).

It also matters a great deal that they so often offend those fans--who are so inclined to seize on the now more available than ever evidence to support their arguments that what they did not like, no one else did, either.

There are also those who have had more than a purely "fan" interest--for example, anyone who has ever fancied themselves writing a screenplay, maybe studied up on it a bit, maybe read the trade publications in the hope of learning something. The number of such persons relative to those who actually make a living in Hollywood is not small, and they do not all live in the Los Angeles area by any means. It is quite possible to gain an interest in the financial performance of films this way. (Indeed, even before the Internet you could read Variety at your local library, and be presented with a wealth of financial minutiae.) And even if such interest was never very serious or very lengthy one does not necessarily give it up. Quite the contrary, the fantasy of being in Hollywood can play its part here, the whiff of "insider information" another way the publicists have of getting a hold of the audience's imagination as it makes its sales pitch.

And there are also the factors that let all this loom larger next to the interest of other sides of film and their interest. Hollywood, notably, has long relied on the "star" system to interest the public in movies--but the star system has long been in decline, which means that other ways of catching people's interest more conspicuous. There are times when Hollywood has seemed exciting artistically--and others where it has not, with our period falling into the latter category, making it the easier for the economics to overshadow the art. (Indeed, film critic David Walsh, no worshiper of high film grosses or lover of gossip for gossip's sake, who is at least as attuned to cinema as art as any critic working today, titled his review of Marvel's Black Widow "Black Widow: The Surrounding Controversies are More Interesting and Revealing Than the Film.")

Those who would lament the decline of interest in film as an art form--I would like to make it clear that they have my sympathies--would therefore do better to see in the proliferation of armchair movie executives not the problem, but only a symptom.

The '90s Feature Film-Based-on-an-Old-TV-Show Craze

There were adaptations of old TV shows into films before the 1990s--as in the late 1970s when, amid the Hollywood studio executives being stunned by the success of the George Lucas project they had all sneeringly rejected, Paramount made its contribution to the stream with a big-screen version of Star Trek that proved a major hit and launched a screen series that has continued down to the present, or , or Twilight Zone: The Movie, or the ironic Dan Aykroyd-Tom Hanks Dragnet, or the un-ironic Brian De Palma The Untouchables.

There have certainly been such adaptations since the '90s--as with the decisions to make big-screen versions of The Equalizer, or The Man From U.N.C.L.E., or ChiPs.

However, such efforts seem to have been especially numerous in the '90s (and the years immediately afterward, up to say about 2005, which given how long such projects take to come to fruition, can be thought of as a natural extension of them). Thus did we see the period produce hits out of '60s and '70s-era television shows like The Addams Family, The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible and Charlie's Angels, and S.W.A.T., and Starsky & Hutch, with live-action adaptations of The Flintstones and George of the Jungle and Scooby-Doo likewise successes, as Lost in Space and Wild Wild West, if not quite the hits some hoped for, still sold a lot of tickets, and The Brady Bunch Movie did well enough to rate a sequel of its own. However, the list gets positively staggering when we remember the ones that were less well-received--like the big screen Leave it to Beaver, or Sgt. Bilko, or The Avengers (those other Avengers), or The Mod Squad, or The Honeymooners.

There simply did not seem as much enthusiasm for this afterward, this fashion waning just like the brief '90s boom in the Western (Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven) and other kinds of period pieces (Braveheart, Titanic, all that "Greatest Generation"-singing World War II stuff).

I am not sure that the flops came to matter more to Hollywood decision-makers than the successes. Rather, in an important moment in the history of the evolution of "high concept," became more focused in its approach to this game, Hollywood zeroing in on the sci-fi action-adventure genre as the big moneymaker; while being a little more attentive to the fact that a movie version of an old TV show has little high concept cachet if their audience has never heard of that show, as is now increasingly likely with ever-exploding electronic entertainment options meaning that reruns of old TV shows are not the staple of people's pop cultural diets they used to be. Thus Hollywood enthusiastically made big movies out of shows like The Transformers and G.I. Joe (and even the Chipmunks and Smurfs), but these decision-makers became more cautious when looking at dramatic fare, to say nothing of those sitcoms that even TVLand and Nick at Nite stopped running ages ago. Were their caution perfect there would never have been, for example, Dax Shepard's ChiPs, or Elizabeth Banks' Charlie's Angels. But all the same, such things are rarities now--while confirming the change is the way that yesteryear's big screen hits, rather than being remade for the big screen, are now made over into small screen TV shows. Hence Fatal Attraction is now a show on streaming--while if we ever get a new edition of Cheers or Seinfeld (I very much hope that we don't, but to all evidences the typical Hollywood Suit is as shameless as he is stupid) it will probably be coming to your streaming service, rather than to a theater near you.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

The James Bond Franchise's Trajectory and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

With Phase Three's routinization of billion-dollar grosses (and $5 billion off just the two-part Avengers battle with Thanos!) the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) recently represented the epitome of what a popular franchise could achieve at the box office. (Snobs snickered about "Marvel envy" as they watched Warner Bros., Universal and others try to have similar success, but there were excellent reasons for the envy, from a business standpoint at least.)

Of course, no reasonable person could expect Phase Three-caliber success to go on forever, any more than any other comparable pop cultural sensation (or business success) can go on forever. The pandemic probably did quicken the end of the good times (my own prediction in 2019 was that Black Widow was 2020's surest bet for a billion dollar gross, and I think it probably would have grossed a billion in today's dollars if it had not been for the pandemic), but all the same Phase Four was pretty anti-climactic after that the big Avengers two-parter, while Phase Five has yet to show much sign of restoring "Marvel supremacy." Indeed, I wonder if there is not already a rush to end it and get on with Phase Six--though even allowing for the prospect of recovery getting the MCU's box office draw back to its Phase Three level is a tall order, with nothing quite like the boom years of 2016-2019 to be seen again (because, commercially at least, they really were that spectacular), and that those years will continue to be recognizable as Marvel's commercial peak.

Of course, that fact does not spell the end of the MCU by any means, with the James Bond series--because this was not only the first of the high-concept action-adventure blockbusters as we now know them, but because having run so long it has probably already gone where the other franchises eventually will (as consideration of the handling of Star Wars, for example, demonstrates)--a useful point of reference here. As it happened the Bond series peaked in the mid-1960s, with Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, after which there was more caution in laying out the money, because grosses were not what they had been (Twice, the highest-cost film made to date, and the first to bring in less than its predecessor, such that points of comparison afterward would be few). But the franchise went on cranking out new Bond films. For a half century, and counting.

It is a reminder that a series can go on for a very long time indeed after ticket sales slip. Still, the Bond series did so in a different time, when the economics of filmmaking were different, and the market was different. Through the late '60s, and well into the '70s, there was nothing quite like them from the standpoint of action-adventure spectacle, which probably helped a great deal in their lingering on. Moreover, if when such competition arrived the series suffered for it (the '80s, certainly, a low point for the series commercially, especially but not just in the U.S.), there was even in the '90s more room for the franchise to rally than it enjoys today. Moreover, after a mere four films, and a quashed attempt at a spin-off (in the unmade Jinx Johnson adventures), the producers thought a reboot in order--which was to see a mere five films cranked out between 2002 and the present, with the disappointing response to the last of those films giving the producers pause about a next attempt likely to be many more years off.

It is all a far cry from the MCU's cranking out three $200 million+ headline movies year in, year out in the expectation of takers, with a vast patchwork of tie-ins also going (as in the streaming TV series). Still, for the time being the movies, if not pulling in what they used to do, are among the more profitable films around, with Doctor Strange 2 #4, Black Panther #2 and Thor 4 #9 on Deadline's list of money-makers last year (even the last delivering a cash-on-cash return of over $100 million), which would seem quite enough to have the other studios still suffering from "Marvel envy." The issue, though, is how long the MCU's films can go on doing that well, with the trend of the returns on an immense investment so evidently downward--and I would add, more at issue than the fate of this one franchise. I cannot say for certain just how much "superhero fatigue" is out there (I actually expected it to have finished the wave of superhero films long before this point), but it seems to me that the broader pattern of blockbuster filmmaking may well be in trouble--like the old-style Hollywood musical in the late '60s. If that proves to be the case then the MCU's problems will be of a nature far, far more fundamental than the mismanagement or overexploitation of a single franchise.

"The Hollywood Franchise in Winter"; or, "The Studios Have Run Every Franchise into the Ground!"

A little while ago it occurred to me that it was entirely possible that no live-action movie this summer, or this year, will break the $1 billion barrier (a failure the more glaring as at least a half dozen such films managed the feat in 2019, at a time when a dollar was worth $1.17 today). This is not for lack of big franchise films of the kind that we are endlessly reminded are just about all that gets people to the theater these days--but because the films from which the franchises hail are long past their best days. I have written a lot here about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) lately, but it would be unfair to treat it as unique in this. The truth is that, for all the intensity of its prolonged exploitation, they're still, after hitting truly extraordinary highs, doing better than all their rivals, as one is reminded looking at the offerings of the summer of 2023, be it the already officially dead DC Extended Universe, the Fast and Furious, the Transformers, Mission: Impossible, etc., etc.--they are all a decade old or older (in most cases, much older), with many, many entries behind them. (Fast and Furious 10? Seriously? Transformers 6? Or is it 7? Back to the Future II's joke about Jaws 15 looks less and less like satire and more like prognostication all the time.)

Of course, that raises the question of why this is the case--why the studios are so determined to feed the public not only installments in booming franchises, but increasingly risky offerings from increasingly aged and run-down film franchises. There is an undeniable disinterest on their part in doing so that bespeaks their management's laziness, cowardice or stupidity, to the point of being eager to throw hundreds of millions away on sequels no one asked for. (Thus did we get a Terminator 6.) Meanwhile, where they have been willing to make the attempt, they have displayed extraordinary incompetence. (Would you believe that Will Smith's After Earth was supposed to launch a cinematic universe?)

Yet even fully acknowledging the stupidity and incompetence involved one has to admit that the Suits have not been given so much to work with as they might have, depriving them of material that had some possibility of helping inject some freshness into their production.

Consider, for example, publishing. When did we last see a literary blockbuster really suitable for their purposes? The YA fantasy/sci-fi boom of the late '90s and early 21st century gave us such colossi as Harry Potter, Twilight, the Hunger Games. But that was a long time ago, such that the studios have gone on trying to exploit them (with the awkward Fantastic Beasts spin-off of Harry Potter, with a Hunger Games prequel coming your way this year) to questionable result.

TV? Alas, TV is these days living off of what it can derive from, besides its past (with remake after remake after remake after revival of old TV shows), film, taking more than giving (thus are films of yesteryear that are not big action blockbusters endlessly remade for the small screen, like Fatal Attraction). Meanwhile the market is ever more fragmented, stuff that would bring a general audience to the theater elusive--which is why we still traffic in references to the Simpsons and Seinfeld and Star Trek all these years later, because that is the only thing those of us of a certain generation have seen that we can expect others to recognize. This means not only a lack of ready-made franchises they can turn into the next Mission: Impossible or Transformers, but a smaller chance of new ideas in a more general or abstract way gaining any traction.

The result is that, while by no means letting the folks in Hollywood off the hook for their failure, their failure has been a matter of a broader failure on the part of a generally stagnant pop culture industry in which the technological and commercial INNOVATION on display ("How do we squeeze the customer for a few more pennies?") have far outstripped the creativity of the "content" that is their raison d'etre.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Indiana Jones 5 and Top Gun 2: Revisiting the Comparison

The expectation some have that Indiana Jones 5 will play like Top Gun 2--dominating its summer's box office with a bigger-than-expected opening, followed by stronger-than-expected legs leading to a gross towering over those of its rivals--has been much discussed in the press on account of the two films both being revivals of major '80s-era "feel good" hits with the kind of stars "Hollywood doesn't make anymore" that even seem comparable in getting a big screening at Cannes prior to their worldwide release.

There has, of course, been less comment, or even acknowledgment, of the undeniable differences in the circumstances of their release. The Rah-Rah attitude the media took toward Top Gun 2 meant that pretty much no one talked about the advantage it derived from having relatively little box office competition from other action-oriented blockbusters; or the Rah-Rah attitude itself, which is to say, the media's cheerleading for the movie.

It was always clear that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny would not have such a clear run at the box office--the summer of 2023 packed with big movies (even if audience enthusiasm for the particular films may be shaky in this era of numerous aged, run-down franchises). Now, in the wake of the premiere at Cannes it seems clear that the movie will not have the media cheerleading for it. (Indiana Jones 5's Rotten Tomatoes was score was, in fact, "rotten"--a mere 50 percent as of Friday, as against the 77 percent that even the not-so-well-received Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull managed.)

This matters all the more because Indiana Jones 5 probably needed critical backing more than Top Gun 2 did. Certainly I remarked the headwinds facing that blockbuster--but I suppose my expectation was that the audience's reception would, if not positive, incline more toward disinterest than dislike. In the case of Indiana Jones 5 dislike seemed a real danger given the skepticism in many quarters about such a project from the start--with this exacerbated by the fact that, in contrast with the do-over of Top Gun that gave its target audience more of what it liked the first time, and was received by it as a "feel good" movie, Indiana Jones 5 looks like the opposite. Departing in significant ways from its predecessors (structurally, aesthetically, etc.), it would seem that those who had doubts about the necessity or desirability of a fifth film, made under Disney management, starring an octogenarian Harrison Ford, helmed by Logan director James Mangold, and costarring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, will, on reading the reviews available now at least, feel they were entirely right to be doubtful. Indeed, while the analogy that occurred to me a few days ago was between Indiana Jones 5 and Daniel Craig-era James Bond 5, No Time to Die, especially in the wake of some of what I have seen on the Internet, I would not rule out a The Last Jedi-level Internet backlash against the film--with all that implies for how the film will perform at the box office, and general feeling toward the individuals and firms involved.

Can the MCU Reverse the Erosion of its Audience?

Guardians of the Galaxy 3 had a disappointing opening weekend, but afterward had surprisingly strong holds for a blockbuster threequel (and still more, for a pandemic-era MCU release with a soft initial reception) given such films tendency to have their grosses very "front-loaded."

A plausible reading of the situation is that audiences coming to the movie are genuinely liking what they are seeing--maybe more than anything the MCU has offered them since Spider-Man: No Way Home (with this supported by the 94 percent audience score I see on Rotten Tomatoes).

Of course, the positive reaction goes only so far. Even at my most optimistic I see the film making a final sum closer to $800 million than $900 million--a far cry from the $1 billion+ Guardians of the Galaxy 2 earned in real terms, let alone the $1.2 billion Screen Rant anticipated for the film back in January, which would justify a view of the film as some proof that "The MCU is back!"*

All the same, this does raise the question of whether the MCU can reverse the evident erosion of its audience--and more importantly, do it with the existing slate of projects (as, should the movies already headed their way flop, they will make the task harder for its successors).

What are your thoughts, readers?

Screen Rant has since offered the more modest (but still bullish) prediction that the movie "could still grow its box office to at least $1 billion throughout the summer."

Can Guardians of the Galaxy 3 Still Break the Billion-Dollar Barrier This Summer?

Back in January Screen Rant offered the very bullish prediction that Guardians of the Galaxy 3 would gross $1.2 billion at the box office.

Of course, any such expectation has long since faded, and the web site now suggests instead that the movie might yet break the billion-dollar barrier, at best--which if not quite as good would leave it at least matching the gross of the preceding film in the series in real, inflation-adjusted terms, which is pretty good for a sequel, and especially an MCU movie these days (given their recent trend of sharply declining grosses).

At this point I have already ruled out what a while back looked like the worst-case scenario (an Ant-Man 3-like collapse for the film at the box office, leaving it with a take of under $600 million). But what about this best-case scenario?

Consider what it would require. Even with Guardians of the Galaxy 3 doing relatively better abroad than its predecessors (so far making not 55 but 60 percent of its money internationally) its getting to a $1 billion at this rate would require it to make over $400 million domestically. This would require it to make about three-and-a-half times what it did in its opening three days ($118 million) through the overall run. This would not require Top Gun-like legs, but still very strong legs indeed--considerably stronger than those which have already brought some relief to those hoping the movie would do well after a less-than-hoped-for opening weekend.

Should the film's grosses hold up as they have this past week from the prior week the movie would top out around $330 million--pretty well short of the mark, with even $350 million optimistic. The result is that, unless the overseas earnings get even stronger in some unforeseeable way (the movie came out pretty much everywhere in early May--China included--so no one's waiting on any big markets) this by itself suffices to make that performance unlikely. Indeed, as yet I think not just $1 billion but even $900 million likely to prove out of reach.

Of course, the upcoming Memorial Day weekend will tell us more about the prospects of this film--but I expect it to be more telling still about Fast X, and the weekend's near-certain winner by a long way, the live-action remake of the 1989 film that almost singlehandedly brought animation back to the top of the box office, The Little Mermaid.

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