Thursday, July 17, 2014

Summer cinema: talking monkeys, giant robots, dumb comedies & superhero sequels = dismal box office

By Steve Evans

The summer movie blockbuster season hits the midway mark this week and box office results show audiences are saying, "meh."

The top three films in America, as of this writing, are a Planet of the Apes sequel, a Transformers sequel, and "Tammy" starring Melissa McCarthy, the vastly overrated comedienne whose sell-by date soured almost a year ago.

Variety reports a shrinking domestic box office this year, as raunchy R-rated comedies fill theaters bereft of family films and provocative adult dramas that might give more people a reason to go to the movies. At this point, there's no way Hollywood will top the record $4.76 billion box office from last year.

Hollywood, of course, skews product toward teenage boys and occasionally their dates. As a result, superhero movies dominate screens and sequels rule the summer. Except this summer, it ain't necessarily so. Lackluster results for Spiderman 2, Michael Bay's execrable Transformers series and other summer 2014 sequels pale in comparison to last year's record movie attendance. Why?

Analysts and studio execs are tripping over themselves to explain away these dismal results. They claim irregular production schedules and competing entertainment such as the World Cup peel off potential ticket buyers.

These are smoke screens.

The reality is that the slate of summer 2014 films is of such poor quality and ticket prices have grown so exorbitant that people exercise more caution with their entertainment dollars. Social media plays a big role in advancing word-of -mouth about the merits of a movie. Low social engagement with a film on Facebook can cost a production millions in revenues.

Film critics fancy themselves an indispensable part of the dialog on contemporary cinema, but their influence is negligible compared to the power of a social media post gone viral.

So here's a post:

This year's summer blockbusters just aren't very good. And irritated ticket buyers are quick to post their dissatisfaction. Films that might surge on opening weekend lose 60-70 percent of their business the following week. It's a numbers game: you cannot recover a $200 million budget on a film that makes $75 million on opening weekend and gets bad-mouthed on the Internet to the point of extinction in the following weeks before the picture is pulled from screens to await a Blu-ray release and possibly a second life on Netflix.

Video on demand and streaming services like Hulu catch a lot of the blame for poor ticket sales at theaters, but that doesn't tell the whole story.

America excels at a great many things, none moreso that the creation of popular entertainment. As much as I love world cinema, the simple truth is that when it comes to making movies, Hollywood is the center of the universe. Until the Hollywood studios curb their desire to repeat past successes with formulaic films and endless sequels, people will remain wary of the noisy product on sale at multiplexes throughout the country. The harder the marketing push, the more reluctant the buyer.

It's simple, really. People crave strong narrative; it is inherent in all of us from childhood. Please. Tell me a story.

Present a story fundamentally well-told, both original and with characters worth caring about, and people will pay to hear it. Or watch it with sticky 3-D glasses at the theater.

For now, studio executives are content to engage in a high-stakes crapshoot with loaded dice. Even then, they still roll snake eyes. The results are boring. Predictable. And we deserve better.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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