This Week in Box Office History
One Year ago, we at Deluxe Video Online began this feature, taking viewers through movie history. After more than 50 stops in the time machine to see what was big at the Box Office, we’ve come full circle. We’ve covered a lot of movies and movie watching trends over that time. Looking at nearly 500 films, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. To commemorate our first year, we’ll highlight some of the most interesting, aggravating, and intriguing discoveries we’ve made about what movies get made, and what movies get watched. Order up an extra large popcorn this week, there’s a lot of ground to cover.
The Trends: Good.
1. We Make A Lot More Movies. Looking back over the last 30 years of Box Office history, the number of major releases has climbed dramatically. 1982 saw about 420 new movies hit the theaters. As of this month, 2014 has seen 330 new films, and we’re just now entering the major summer months. With six more months to go, we are on pace to nearly double 1982’s release schedule. With a few wobbles here and there (the last major recession in 2010 saw film output shrink to around 500 pictures) we’ve been steadily adding more and more movies to the count. Major movies of the past may have lingered longer in the theater (E.T., I’m looking at you) not only because of their perceived quality, but also because they were scattered more lightly through the year.
2. We Watch More Movies, Too. Going hand in hand with the above point, we can see a marked increase of participation from audiences, even in the face of stiffer competition. As we’ll see below, Television has reached a new level of parity with Hollywood, and new technology has made it possible to watch (and create) cinema quality productions on other mediums. Despite all of this, ticket sales have steadily increased over the decades, even in the face of the huge increase in movie budgets (and the resulting rise in ticket prices.) More movies are making it to the cineplex, and more viewers are in turn able to see those films. Films that would have missed us completely (or never even been made) are now available for consumption. This weekends Snowpiercer, from South Korea, and recent titles like The Raid, from Indonesia, have demonstrated a more robust market, and a greater demand from viewers for variety.
3. More Movies, More Variety. There is certainly truth to the belief that Hollywood loves a sure thing, and as such does not stray far from existing, proven markets, but the new global economy and alternative sources of funding have made risky titles more appealing. And if Hollywood is hesitant to make a film outside of its comfort zone, then new studios and new film-makers are increasingly able to go to market. This robustness in the market has led to older genres finding new homes. This year we have already seen two Westerns (despite how badly they have fared in recent years.) Documentary films are increasingly popular and sustainable. Shots in the dark, like Pacific Rim, can weather a less than stellar opening in US markets, because foreign markets and alternative venues can bridge the gap. Films can also skip the box office entirely, as Man of Tai Chi and others have opted to do. If the common wisdom is that a kung-fu movie won’t put butts into seats, streaming services that allow opening day rental are helping to recoup the cost of filming, instead of seeing the project cancelled altogether. Add crowd-funding into the mix, and the viewers come out on top, getting more niche films on demand.
The Trends: Bad.
1. We Get Stuck in the Sequel Rut. The downside of the explosion of money invested into movies is the staggering amount of sequels to existing franchises we see. Of the thirty #1 films since 1982, sixteen have been sequels, and several more have been spin offs from existing material. With budgets ballooning, Hollywood has been extra careful to shepherd their earnings by flooding the market with tried and true experiences. Summer is especially bad, as we see 6 more major sequels are set to launch, with two spin-offs and two reboots. Not a ton of original material coming out of the major studios during the warmer months.
2. And Genre Ruts, too. Like a dog with a bone, studios are increasingly willing grind every last cent out of a successful formula. Currently the Super Hero genre and Young Adult Adaptation mills are turning out new knock-offs nearly once a month. In the past, the Espionage genre, the Sword and Sorcery genre, and even the Political Thriller have all dominated their decades, leading to over-saturation. We’re currently in the midst of what I believe to be an CG Animation Saturation (copyright on that one) where movies that would have been sure winners even 5 years ago are completely failing to catch interest at the Box Office. This feast and famine cycle leads to the next problem…
3. Some Genres are Functionally Extinct. The laser focus on only a handful of genres leads to a dearth of certain types of films. There are long lulls where only one or two movies of a type get made. Before the flops that were The Lone Ranger and A Million ways to Die in the West, the Western was on life-support, with only one or two films having been made in the entire preceding decade. Hand-drawn animation would be completely absent from the picture if not for Miyasaki and Studio Ghibli. Musicals, once the only game in town, are now mostly absent. Near and dear to my heart, Kung Fu and Martial Arts films seem to have retired with Jackie Chan and Jet Li (he was supposed to be retired, right?) While Hollywood eventually will dig up an old bone, as it recently has with Giant Monster movies, the lack of new material can leave fans of a genre with decades of dead time on their hands.
The Trends: Weird.
1. Old Action Heroes Never Die… Everyone seems to love to root for a star to make a big comeback. The Expendables series has made big money rehabilitating old and defunct stars. We all get a kick out of seeing Stallone do his thing one last time…you know, one last time…OK, OK, Stallone! Knock it off! With a new Rocky and Rambo under his belt, everyone acted like we hadn’t seen the guy in decades. The guy has made a movie nearly every year since 1976. His longest hiatus was for TWO FULL YEARS in 2004-5. Let’s look at a less charming example: Steven Seagal. Despite his law-man fiasco circus, the guy has been in a movie every year since 2001. No time off for bad behavior. Makes Stallone look a bit camera-shy. Jet Li, despite talking about retirement after 2001’s Hero, has also made films every year this century. And that slouch Dolph Lundgren. He’s only made 38 movies since 2000. Guys, we can’t miss you if you don’t ever leave.
2. Movies and Television Blur. When I was growing up, you very rarely saw Hollywood stars on TV outside of a commercial. The occasional lucky bastard like Tom Hanks or Tom Selleck (hmm…a Tom trend?) would make the jump from the little screen to the big screen, but the jump was always one way. If you saw a big Hollywood star on TV, it was either a cameo appearance, or you could hear the sound of their career flushing away in the background. TV was where an actor or actress went to die. If you ever wanted to do another motion picture, you avoided TV like the plague. You’d see hilariously out-of-place stars making a mockery of themselves on Broadway rather than the idiot box. That era is over. Now stars come and go as they please. Shows like House of Cards, True Detective, and Game of Thrones are becoming more frequent, and are drawing big stars whose careers are very much alive. Series like Agents of SHIELD are blurring the lines between TV shows and their bigger brothers at the Box Office, and streaming services are starting to resemble cinemaplexes…
3. The Movie Theater Comes Home. A couple of years ago, something very interesting happened. An adaptation of a horror-comedy called John Dies at the End let viewers at home get a jump on their movie-going brethren. A one month jump. The film, by an established director with a respectable cast featuring Paul Giamati, opted to go straight to the computer in advance of a full theatrical release. With that, a new era of movie consumption had dawned. Major productions on multimillion dollar budgets, though still a minority, have chosen to release to the home market, either simultaneously, or in advance of the movie theater. Man of Tai Chi and The Last Days on Mars are just a couple of films to jump on this bandwagon. If competition is fierce, or the genre is currently tepid, or even just to duck distribution costs, a film can find another outlet. I am whole-heartedly in favor of this solution. It gives audiences more power to see a film, and to still support the studio willing to gamble on smaller films. It also gives pirates no excuse. The film is available same day, in any location with internet, and is priced competitively with a movie ticket. I wish more films would adopt this strategy. There have been nearly a dozen films this year I would have gladly paid full price to see, had they only been available in my area. With this method, they would have been, and I would have been able to give you, gentle reader, yet another review of a movie with Tilda Swinton in it. We all would have won.
Information courtesy of Box Office Mojo. Used with permission.