Cinemapocalypse Now?

Let’s talk box office! Because it’s one of my pet obsessions; I’ve long been curious how the rise of new entertainment tech (Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Pokémon Go) will impact movies, our oldest and most storied cultural commons. And because I was trawling through Box Office Mojo’s numbers, as you do, and happened to stumble across something which makes me fear for Hollywood as we know it.

(Stipulated: that might be no bad thing.)

On the one hand, it’s been a great year for Hollywood: Gross revenues are up a sizable 5 percent from last year. On the other, though, the drumbeats of doom grow ever louder. Variety quotes analyst Hal Vogel: “The theater business has weaker prospects going forward than at any time in the last 30 years … It’s a superhero, mega-blockbuster, tentpole strategy run amuck.”

That piece (worth reading in full if you’re interested in movies) goes on to hit one downbeat after another:

It’s a looming disaster … a business that feels increasingly irrelevant … That raises questions about whether the business can continue to sustain this many studios … The club of actors and actresses who can open a movie with their name above the title has plunged in recent years … studios have banked increasingly on sequels and spinoffs, with diminishing returns.

Can confirm. Do you want to guess how many of 2015’s top-grossing 20 movies to date were not part of a franchise and not a family-friendly animated movie? (Which I would argue are all members of a single massive meta-franchise.) Go on, guess. I’ll wait. Or, if you like, go look at BOM’s year-to-date grosses and count for yourself…

Two. Two. A pair, a brace, a couple. (The Revenant and Central Intelligence.) That is not typical. Run through releases for the last 10 years, and all but one of those years saw six or more original movies in the top 20 through August 31; the exception was four in 2011 … which had 16 more in the top 40, as opposed to a mere eight in 2016.

In short, the latest numbers back up that article’s claims: Almost all hit movies are part of existing franchises nowadays. Blame it on the audience; blame it on the studios; but accept that if you want something new, something fresh, something innovative, something exciting, these days you turn to TV, and you probably stream it. Breaking Bad. Mr. Robot. Bojack Horseman. Stranger Things. True Detective. (Well, season 1, anyhow). The movies? You go to them to reify your existing fandom, and that’s all.

But wait. It gets much, much worse. Far more damning than those numbers, from a studio’s point of view, is this one. More competition for attention means:

But wait! There’s good news. Worldwide box office is way up, led by China. In fact, if you look at the worldwide year-to-date grosses on Box Office Mojo, you’ll find two movies in the top 20 that were basically not even released in the USA — The Mermaid and Monster Hunt — plus Warcraft, which (rightly) flopped in America but was redeemed by its massive Chinese box office.

That would have been unheard of as recently as a decade ago; but it’s not at all uncommon these days for movies to gross more money in China than America … and, as a result, for American-made movies to be increasingly targeted at Chinese audiences. Chalk that up as yet another unexpected side effect of tech-driven globalization.

An interesting inverse of this is the forthcoming The Great Wall, feature Matt Damon. There’s been outrage over the “whitewashing” of a Chinese movie with Damon, but it seems that the marketing within China features Damon as just one of five co-leads, with Andy Lau in the primary role. Perhaps real cultural imperialism is the inability to imagine that Matt Damon is to a Chinese movie what Fan Bingbing was to X-Men: Days of Future Past: a sop to a foreign audience, made purely in hopes of boosting international ticket sales.

That may or may not be the case with The Great Wall — but it’s coming, as China becomes the economic focus of more and more movie making. Which means a focus on movies that play well worldwide; big-budget action movies with already recognizable characters. Which is to say … even more of the same. No wonder Variety is worried. The status quo is fraught, and the trend is only accelerating.