The dust has settled after the typical weekend clash; tentpole after tentpole, soaring budget after soaring budget coming for each other’s throats and the number-one slot at the box-office. Prestige is in the numbers, and it’s clear that the box-office titans of years past have little sustainable clout with the contemporary audience.
Tom Cruise is one of those hardened box-office warriors whose armor is beginning to crack. His Edge of Tomorrow, which reportedly cost around $178 million to produce, earned an estimated $29 million this past weekend, well below what a film of this caliber should be hauling in. Cruise isn’t the only megastar to fall short of expectations as of late; Johnny Depp hasn’t carried a film to more than $80 million in the U.S. since he last rode the waves of the Pirates of the Caribbean series back in 2011, and Will Smith’s After Earth earned only $60 million from American audiences just last year. It’s becoming ever-apparent that:
1) The age of the “movie star” and box-office success going hand-in-hand is dead
2) The American industry is driving itself into the ground with a stacked slate of tentpoles that never have a chance for survival
There’s nothing wrong with shifting away from individuals toward broader appeal and familiarity (with a young adult novel, a comic book, a long-standing superhero franchise, etc.) to secure box-office success, but it’s hard to let it go nonetheless. While Depp, Smith, and Cruise—whose last film to ride past $100 million domestic without the help of pre-established series popularity (the Mission Impossible series) was 2005’s War of the Worlds—find their films doing well in overseas markets (Depp’s The Lone Ranger earned $170 million in foreign receipts, while Smith’s After Earth raked in $183 million), their domestic fall from grace isn’t due to an indifferent general public. The worldwide appeal is there.
Quality is something audiences still value; Edge of Tomorrow received near universal acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike. Warner Bros. pushed a major pre-release campaign that hinged the film’s success on good word of mouth; the studio held at least three preview screenings in many major markets over the last few weeks, and the reaction was largely positive. If you build it, they will come in droves—if it’s free, as most word of mouth screenings are.
The problem with today’s film industry is not that that the tentpoles (for the most part) are inferior works (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are just a few examples of 2014 blockbusters with stellar critical reviews), it’s just that the industry is overcrowding its own shell and pushing itself out of every orifice.
Edge of Tomorrow never had a shot; riding between Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent last weekend and the YA adaptation The Fault in Our Stars this week, Cruise was sandwiched in between two event pictures with a much higher profile than his—which rode on his star appeal alone. Maleficent is Angelina Jolie’s first live-action turn in four years and appeals to the grossly-underrepresented female audience, and The Fault in Our Stars comes pre-packaged with an audience comprised of fans of the novel it’s based on. The market for Edge was satiated only two weeks prior with X-Men and Godzilla. In short, Cruise didn’t have a home in the crowd.
If we look back to the beginning of the blockbuster—let’s just use Jaws, for example—the films themselves were an event that rode through to success simply on being an event. From its opening on June 20, 1975 through the next 30 days of release, Jaws never made more than $7 million per weekend. Let’s jump to 1997, when Titanic—which went on to hold the record for top-grossing domestic release until Avatar in 2009–opened to $28 million in December, followed by a steady stream of weekend grosses ranging from $35 million to $1 million when it fell out of the Top 10 exactly six months later.
Sure, the blockbuster was a new concept in 1975, and the 1990s were heavy on action-oriented films, but the success of films with astronomical budgets was not entirely dependent on how top-heavy a studio could make a film. Blockbusters are becoming so frequent that they’re the norm, not the event.
So far in 2014, we’ve seen approximately 13 major blockbuster releases; that’s an average of nearly two per month thus far, though the majority of them have fallen in the summer release window. Seven films with budgets of over $100 million (some coming in at nearly $200 million) have been released since April; 5 more uber-expensive tentpoles will release from now until August. That number would have been 6, but Warner Bros. pulled Jupiter Ascending from its original July release date and re-slated it for February of next year (they cite issues with post-production and visual effects, but it seems like the studio was feeling burned from the heat of competition).
When blockbusters are released in rapid fire succession like this, there’s bound to be ones that slip through the cracks. It’s simply unwise to create an industry where bloated-budget films fail not on quality, but because they’re no longer capable of being “event” pictures because the event is now the standard.
The fact remains that we’re seeing consistently-underperforming films with budgets of over $100 million. Foreign audiences (namely Asian markets) have shaped American productions for quite some time now, but something needs to be said for the American audience becoming an afterthought.
There’s nothing that separates a film like Edge of Tomorrow or Pacific Rim—two quality productions deemed “flops” because their budgets far outweighed their American grosses—from each other or from other action-oriented an event that makes them worthier of the general audience’s dollar. Audiences would rather save their money for a brand they’re familiar with (Marvel, DC, etc.) instead of risking it on a title they have no prior relationship with.
But, as the top-heavy numbers get bigger, the studios get more ambitious and the competition gets stiffer; this would explain why May box-office hit its lowest levels since 2010; the drop-off for huge openers is part of the equation when you go bigger, harder, and faster on tiny little legs trekking up a mountain of buzzy pre-release anticipation. If we take a look at the Top 100 opening weekends of all time, 80 of them were released between 2004 and 2014, 18 of them within the last year alone. Of the Top 20, only one was released before 2006 (and it was still a superhero film, 2002’s Spider-Man). Nearly all of the contemporary top-grossing opening weekends are sequels, animated family films, superhero films or, yes, sequels to super hero films.
Again, the movie star used to be that point of familiarity. A movie star could really make something out of an adult-oriented narrative that would have found little success otherwise; now we rely on broader concepts of appeal to drive our box-office, but it’s all front-loaded. Even the front-loaded are front loaded, as The Fault in Our Stars earned nearly $25 million on its opening Friday, but dipped to $12 million and $9 million on Saturday and Sunday. In fact, since the last weekend of March when Noah premiered, every film that opened to more than $40 million (aside from Neighbors and Maleficent) dropped over 57% of their audience in their second weekend. Why? Because they don’t have room to breathe. Noah faced Captain America the week after; Spider-Man faced Godzilla 14 days after opening; Godzilla faced X-Men, X-Men faced Maleficent, and Edge of Tomorrow faltered in the wake of Angelina’s box-office reign–all within seven days of each other, respectively.
It’s no surprise, then, that films like Edge of Tomorrow aren’t reaching their audience the way blockbusters used to. It’s a film that, 15 years ago, would have waltzed past the $150 million domestic mark in three or four weekends. Cruise will be lucky if Edge limps to $80 million in North America. When the “movie star” was a business, an industry unto him or herself, films like Edge of Tomorrow were given room to spread their wings and soar. When audiences have a film like this to choose from at least once or twice a month, it’s harder for them to justify spending money on a something they’re unfamiliar with when they know they have 10 superhero flicks to catch just around the corner.
Perhaps Warner Bros. is on to something, here; the studio dumping months have turned into an ideal, wide-open space to drop big-budget films at a time when they’re all crowding toward the summer slate like never before. Just this year, their The Lego Movie soared to nearly $250 million domestic with a February release date, while the studio’s Gravity rocketed to $270 million from American markets in October of last year.
Everyone loves a good event picture here and there, but the battle for weekend supremacy and who can go bigger is a tired one, and the tentpoles aren’t going to stop. It’s hard to find a slot in the picture for gargantuan puzzle pieces, and we’ve created a crack in the armor of the titans. The implosion is imminent unless the air supply increases for those who can’t breathe.
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