By Vincent Schroder
Of the highest grossing movies of all time, 19 movies made over 1 billion USD at the box office, thirteen of which have been released in the last five years. Of those thirteen, all but two movies are part of a franchise (though technically Avatar wasn’t a franchise at the time).
The effect of this is studios moving to make more of these hopeful blockbusters. After all, if so many of them make over 4 times their budget (at the box office, not counting home video sales, tv rights, merchandise etc.) that’s a shitload of money to be made.
Let’s rewind a few decades. Until 1975, movies were released through the US (and worldwide) gradually. It’d play at a few theaters and make its way through the country gradually depending on how well it’d do. The more successful a movie, the longer it’d play in a city.
1975 saw the birth of the summer blockbuster. Steven Spielberg (or rather, Universal) released the film in June in 464 theaters simultaneously, something that really wasn’t done at the time. And that with the intention of having the film run all summer. The film became the highest grossing movie up to that point.
Two years later, Star Wars cemented this type of marketing as the way to go for movies of the type. Long, simultaneous theatrical runs became the new business model of big studios and of “real” movies. And by that I mean it killed cult movies’ chances of reaching a bigger audience.
In the 1970s, it was pretty common for “regular” people to see a movie like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (a.k.a. Zombi 2, a.k.a. Zombie Flesh Eaters) in theaters. Dawn of the dead, at a budget of $650,000 made $55 million worldwide. Can you imagine that movie even getting a theatrical release nowadays?
Weird horror movies, weird sci fi movies, weird kitchy cult schlock of any sort was being pushed out of theaters. One could argue that those are the laws of supply and demand, except that at the time anyone could make a movie and have it released in theatrically. Starting in the ’70s, the big corporations were muscling everybody else out of business.
Movie theaters only have so many screens, so naturally they’ll pick one Star Wars over three Roger Corman movies. Screens are booked months in advance, so when exactly would you get a chance to screen the movie you made? This has a historic background, as studios had their own theaters that only showed their own movies. Anti-trust laws put an end to that in the 1930s, levelling the playing field and busting up the old studio system. This new change was really just a return to the old studio system under the guise of a free market.
Thank god for the rise of home video in the 1980s.
So now we’re back to the present where studios really only want to release movies that make obscene amounts of money. This not only keeps small movies out of theaters since they can’t compete with major studios bankrolling their movies. It also makes for an increase in blockbusters. Until recently, the blockbuster had its time in the summer. With more of those movies being made and released they’re being spread out over the year to prevent having to compete with each other. For this year alone I’ve counted seventeen of these movies. Compare that to 1996 that had six.
Not only are movies like this being released all year long, release dates are booked years in advance now. Just have a look at this list from Warner Brothers (owned by Time Warner Inc.):
Untitled DC Film - 08/05/16
Untitled DC Film - 06/23/17
Untitled DC Film - 11/17/17
Untitled DC Film - 03/23/18
Untitled Warner Animated Film - 05/25/18
Untitled DC Film - 07/27/18
Untitled WB Event Film - 11/16/18
Untitled DC Film - 04/05/19
Untitled Warner Animated Film - 05/24/19
Untitled DC Film - 06/14/19
Untitled DC Film - 04/03/20
Untitled DC Film - 06/19/20
Untitled WB Event Film - 11/20/20
See? They called dibs, so Lucasfilm, Marvel (both owned by the Walt Disney company), 20th Century Fox (owned by 21st Century Fox, formerly Newscorp) and Columbia Pictures (owned by the Sony Corporation) better steer clear. Hell, why even bother competing? What they really should be doing is work together to slice up the pie.
So if six corporations are booking up all the screens, when exactly are you able to screen your movie that is not budgeted at 150-250 million dollars and therefore not likely to make 1 billion dollars at the box office? In fact, why should those corporations’ subsidiaries even bother funding other movies? This may sound dramatic but what we’re looking at is a homogenization of art (and yes, I’m counting even the dumbest blockbuster movie as art). After all, aside from post production movies take comparably equal amounts of time to make. Why bother with a movie that only makes 1.5 times its budget? Especially if that budget was a mere 10 million?
The worst thing is, most of these movies aren’t even good enough. If quantity increases, chances are quality goes down. Jurassic Park blew people away in 1993 and still does. How impressive is another giant robot or superhero blowing up massive airships and buildings to save the world when it happens five times a year? Or ten?
Criticism of Spider-Man or Transformers and the like is rebuked with the statement that it’s only entertainment. It’s just a popcorn movie, turn off your brain and enjoy it. If you spend 200 million on a movie (plus another 100 million on advertising), hire hundreds of visual effects artists to render CG Ninja Turtles fighting a cyborg Shredder only to have the audience not remember the movie hours later aside from “Eh. It was fun entertainment,” is a waste. Even if the movie almost makes back its budget on opening weekend and the audience will go see the sequel, if they’re not blown away the movie just wasn’t worth making as a spectacle. The audience doesn’t care, they don’t even dislike it enough to not spend their money on it.
Should we stop going to see these blockbuster movies? Yes we should, but it’s not going to happen. Not with six Star Wars sequels announced.
Small weird movies still get made. Optical media is dead since it was way overpriced, which has opened the way for digital distribution through paid downloads and streaming. Pretty much everyone can get their movie distributed now, but getting paid and especially finding an audience is extremely difficult. Financing is another matter. Studios need to move away from focusing on blockbusters. If less money is spent but more movies are made, will audiences really be that less entertained? They don’t seem to be that wowed now either.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas agree, at least from the business side of things.