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Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of Movies As We Know Them.
Movies As We Know Them enjoyed more than a century of prosperity, beginning with a whimper and ending with a CGI-laden bang that can barely recoup nine-figure budgets. The expiration of Movies As We Know Them led to great strife for many innocent bystanders: the smell of fresh popcorn, the animated roller-coaster rides that told you to silence your phone, and the landfills where all those plastic 3D glasses were discarded.
We regret America's loss. As a temporary antidote, we recommend bouts of nostalgia. It's hard to imagine, but there once was a time when "Independence Day" was an exciting cultural touchstone. Consider the quaint memory of a tragic period piece like "The English Patient" grossing $232 million worldwide and winning Best Picture without spawning a single sequel. Note that the first movie based on a Marvel comic -- 1987's "Howard the Duck" -- bombed to the infamous tune of $38 million.
You hear this funeral dirge because mild panic is sweeping Hollywood. The Force may have awakened, but it's already going rogue.
As franchises became the film business' linchpin throughout the 2000s, mid-budget adult movies (costing roughly $10 million to $60 million) steadily grew extinct. We can date that shift back to the 1980s, when the landmark auteur decade that preceded it slowly folded into the more business-minded Reagan era. Marketing became key, but at least summer blockbusters still told original stories like "E.T.," "Back to the Future" and "An Officer and a Gentleman."
Fast-forward two decades, and the major studios responsible for green-lighting and distributing big-budget spectacles are now hellbent on exploiting our nostalgia-obsessed culture.
"It's true at every studio," Dan Jinks, who produced "American Beauty" and "Big Fish," told GQ in 2010. "Everyone has cut back on not just 'Oscar-worthy' movies, but on dramas, period. Caution has made them pull away. It's infected the entire business."
Disney, for example, paid $4 billion to acquire Marvel Studios in 2009 and began plotting its ass-kicking superhero offerings several years in advance. Today, it's not uncommon for a top-tier film factory like Universal to issue press releases touting an "Untitled Universal Event Film" slated for 2020. This is the new normal. Whatever it is, it's guaranteed to be big (in theory). Capitalism!
Yet, despite the intended bankability of never-ending sequels and spinoffs, this summer's box-office profits have dipped by 15 percent. Look at these numbers:
- "Neighbors" took in $49 million on its opening weekend in 2014. "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" took in $22 million on its opening weekend last month.
- "Alice in Wonderland" took in $116 million on its opening weekend in 2010. "Alice Through the Looking Glass" took in $27 million on its opening weekend last month.
- The previous "X-Men" movie, "Days of Future Past," took in $91 million on its opening weekend in 2014. "X-Men: Apocalypse" took in $66 million on its opening weekend last month.
- "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" took in $66 million on its opening weekend in 2014. "TMNT: Out of the Shadows" took in $35 million on its opening weekend earlier this month.
Those stats aren't just anecdotal. Before summer began, sequels were already floundering. "Ride Along 2," "Zoolander 2," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2," "The Divergent Series: Allegiant," "10 Cloverfield Lane," "God's Not Dead 2," "Barbershop: The Next Cut" and "The Hunstman: Winter's War" all earned less than their predecessors.
The well-publicized but critically reviled "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" debuted to heftier returns than 2013's "Man of Steel," but the dark knight suffered a near-historic revenue drop in its second weekend in theaters. By the time its theatrical run ended, trades like The Hollywood Reporter were analyzing whether a mammoth $863 million in global grosses meant it was a success. Oh boy. Where's Martha to unite us now?
The eulogy doesn't end there. Much ado has been made about the proverbial Death of the Movie Star over the past decade. Fewer and fewer A-listers not named Melissa McCarthy can draw crowds on name alone, à la Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis in the '90s. In April, McCarthy's "The Boss" opened to $24 million -- a modest number that's considered a certifiable hit because it isn't associated with a known brand.
As for all the other supposed star vehicles? Big ol' stinkers: George Clooney and Channing Tatum didn't coax holy numbers out of "Hail, Caesar!," the beloved Tina Fey wasn't much of a selling point for "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," Sacha Baron Cohen's "Grimsby" didn't recoup its $35 million budget, "Keanu" struggled despite being the inaugural big-screen collaboration of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, "Mother's Day" became Garry Marshall's first ensemble holiday bomb, onetime box-office mainstays Julia Roberts and George Clooney didn't do much for "Money Monster," it's been a rocky road for "The Nice Guys" despite Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, and the Lonely Island-fronted satire "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping" debuted in a measly eighth place.
What gives, America? It's hard to say precisely. There are the obvious platitudes about the "Golden Age of TV" and how no one wants to pay for overpriced movie tickets anymore. But 2015 was a banner (if erratic) year at the box office, and (semi-)original offerings like "Mad Max: Fury Road," "Inside Out," "The Martian," "The Revenant" and "Straight Outta Compton" outperformed expectations. People did go to the movies, yet studio execs were still reportedly unhappy with 2015's ticket sales because a select few tentpoles (read: dinosaurs) dominated the summer.
You were nice while you lasted, Movies As We Know Them. In the studio-system days of Old Hollywood, people often showed up at the theater and caught whichever film was playing next. Once the medium matured, they were lured by certain stars, or because something like "Star Wars" or "Ghostbusters" or "Beverly Hills Cop" seemed attractive on its own merits. Now they go, for the most part, to see the continuation of their favorite franchises. If those things are no longer baiting viewers, how does the industry thrive?
In China, apparently. Now, the major players are reliant on foreign grosses as a chief marker of success. That's why pre-packaged franchises are so attractive, even if they garner ghastly reviews. Audiences abroad are already familiar with Iron Man and Harry Potter and "The Jungle Book" (a bona fide and deserving hit domestically and overseas), so the marketing pitches write themselves.
But Hollywood's ability to find success stateside can't be an afterthought. As the ninth installment in the "X-Men" franchise has some wondering when these mutants will finally take a nap, here's one strategy: Maybe try green-lighting sequels after the originals have become successful, and only if there is an authentic next chapter to the story. "Event" movies don't feel like events anymore because there's always another installment around the corner. For all its brilliance, the original "Neighbors" feels like a self-contained story. When multiplexes are flooded with umpteen sequels on any given weekend, why pay to see one that wasn't quite needed in the first place, even if it's great?
To make matters worse, movies are long these days. So long. Is it because the $250 million that Warner Bros. spent on "Batman v Superman" made it seem necessary to clock the flick at an oppressive 151 minutes? More bang for your buck, sure, but it's obvious when films need another few trims in the editing room. Sorry to keep picking on "X-Men," but if you were lukewarm on the 144 minutes that you devoted to "Apocalypse" -- the series' longest entry yet -- how likely are you to submit to yet another one in the future? At 133 minutes, this weekend's "The Conjuring 2" overstuffs its plot in the third act. A little discernment goes a long way, Hollywood. Your grosses may still look flashy on paper, but nostalgia wears thin when it loses its glitter.
That may explain the success of February's "Deadpool," an "X-Men" chapter that didn't feel like an "X-Men" chapter. Given its lengthy gestation period and a tone that dodged the self-seriousness of most comic-book movies, "Deadpool" felt like a long-anticipated event. The box office reflected that. The same goes for the well-reviewed "Zootopia," which recently crossed the coveted $1 billion mark.
In an ideal world -- and this is no cut to blockbusters, which are rightfully capable of being fun and relevant -- moviegoers would flock to the indie market. To a small degree, they have: "The Witch," "Eye in the Sky," "The Lobster" and "Love & Friendship" -- all excellent -- have, relatively speaking, seen impressive revenue without a ton of star power or marketing gimmicks. But those titles are only booked in so many theaters, and they aren't given much time to become cultural pillars before their shelf life ends. Last year's highest-grossing domestic indie, the Helen Mirren drama "Woman in Gold," stalled at $33 million, and none of this year's independent films have matched its grosses.
With ample "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, "Fast and the Furious" behemoths, live-action Disney adaptations, "Star Wars" offshoots and other franchise properties programmed through the end of the decade, we are now caught in an infinite cycle. It would take an arduous effort on the studios' part to recapture what seem like moviegoing habits of yore, and there's no signal that will happen anytime soon. Their solution is to release blockbusters year-round. But it's not a lot to ask for franchises to be steered by audience demands instead of studio heads' nebulous calculations. Lionsgate -- a company that once released art-house dramas and now makes "Hunger Games" leviathans -- has teased the possibility of seven(!) "Power Rangers" movies, even though the first one wrapped production less than two weeks ago.
Verifiable audience interest be damned.
And now the trend has oozed into anything with mainstream popularity. Last month, it was "The Angry Birds Movie." In 2017, it will be "The Emoji Movie." (No, this is not a joke, but thanks for laughing anyway.)
Movies As We Know Them -- in other words, driven by solid storytelling and bankable stars -- are no more. Money reigns supreme in a more rapacious way than ever before. For a case study in how the industry has evolved over the past five decades, check out "De Palma," the new documentary about "Carrie" and "Mission: Impossible" director Brian De Palma. He's watched the studios shift priorities and business models from the inside. The movie, which opens this weekend and will probably earn four pennies at the box office, doubles as an ode to an era when critics drove audiences and directors' ingenuity was the key to quality cinema. Just because we enjoy franchises doesn't mean we have to forego substance and discretion.
We loved you dearly, Movies As We Know Them. You are, in many ways, a couple of defibrillators away from revival. The success -- or lack thereof -- of "Finding Dory," the 20-years-later "Independence Day" sequel, the female-centric "Ghostbusters" reboot and the star-studded "Suicide Squad" will be telling, as will the money that Oscar-bait projects earn during the phantasm of prestige that arrives every fall.
The bottom is dropping out on everything. Maybe it's time to remake "The English Patient."
Follow Matthew Jacobs on Twitter: @tarantallegra