Happy New Year!
Last week, I looked at what happened in 2013. This week, time to figure out what could happen.
This year coming, 2014, will be the make-or-break year of the blockbuster. There are a number of forces acting on movies right now, including the need to use the foreign market to make a film profitable and the growing number of financial flops from 2013. Sure, not every movie will succeed, but big budget failures can force a studio over the financial cliff.
First, the foreign markets. Several recent blockbusters, such as Battleship and Pacific Rim relied on international sales to turn a profit. A few others, notably The Lone Ranger, bombed in both domestic and international markets. International markets introduce additional problems in making a film. What will sell an American audience on a movie could very well turn away audiences elsewhere. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra turned the all-American special forces team into an international effort because the international market gets turned off by American-style patriotism. At the same time, the international market, in particular, China, wants to see familiar characters. Original works like Pacific Rim don’t generate the interest as The Amazing Spider-Man or Man of Steel do. The Lone Ranger, as mentioned last week, isn’t on the pop culture radar anymore.
Second, budgets. Big budgets lead to big expectations. The Hangover Part III had a US$100 million budget, the same budget The Phantom Menace had. The latter had extensive special effects, pioneering some CGI techniques. The former was a loud comedy with some special effects but not as extensive. The Hangover 3 brought in US$200 million less than The Hangover Part II, which had a lower budget. A quick look at some of the movies of 2013: Man of Steel had a US$225 million budget; Pacific Rim, US$190 million; Gravity, US$100 million. Expectations for each of these movies were high. Battleship had a US$200 million budget, but the writing was formulaic, Save the Cat-style. For US$200 million, people didn’t want a series of checkboxes, they wanted a proper story with proper characters.
Several adaptation sequels are already being delayed. City of Ashes, the second in The Mortal Instruments series has been pushed back to 2015 because of the poor reception of City of Bones. The 50 Shades of Grey adaptation has been moved from August 2014 to February 2015, because of casting problems.
Casting may cause problems for other movies. With 50 Shades of Grey, the fans weren’t enthused with either choice for Christian Grey, nor with any of the other cast members; they wanted the actors E.L. James had in mind, whether or not the actors would agree. Over at Warner, the choice of Ben Affleck as Batman in the World’s Finest movie had Twitter exploding; fans were citing Daredevil as a reason the Batfleck was a bad idea. Will disagreement over casting make a difference? Time will tell. I suspect that the Batman-Superman movie will have a audiences about the same size as Man of Steel. With 50 Shades, it gets harder to predict. Movies rated R don’t perform as well as those rated PG; the audience is limited by age, and 50 Shades will not be a movie for the under-10 set. The studio, though, is hedging its bets; it will release the NC-17 version a few weeks afterwards, trying to get audiences to return for a second viewing. Theatres will have to decide if they want the hassle of showing an NC-17 movie; unlike the R rating that allows accompanied minors in, NC-17 bars anyone seventeen and younger completely, even with a parent. The nature of 50 Shades, though, should give most people an idea of what to expect, R or NC-17.
Studios won’t be as quick to adapt novels, especially debut novels. Even though neither The Host nor City of Bones were big budget movies, both floundered at the box office. The problem was that neither book were known to the general public* in the way Harry Potter was. Given that studios are risk adverse and prone to following trends instead of being original, both movies were made in the hopes of recreating the success of Harry Potter, or at least Twilight. Author appeal can work when the author has a large body of work, like Stephen King or Tom Clancy, but it doesn’t always work. The Bourne movies have more recognition because of the character than because of the author, Robert Ludlum. A flash-in-the-pan author may not see debut novels snapped up, not unless the work seeps out into the general public.
There are some bright lights, though. Marvel has hit its stride, with Iron Man 3 maintaining the momentum of The Avengers. Marvel is also willing to risk making movies of their lesser lights. The company has seen B-level heroes succeed; prior to the Iron Man movie, Tony Stark wasn’t in the same league in popularity as Spider-Man, Wolverine, or the X-Men. The biggest name in the Avengers Initiative leading up to The Avengers was the Hulk, who previously had a TV series. With successes like the Avengers Initiative, trying out Guardians of the Galaxy makes sense and could lead to adapting the Infinity Gauntlet story. Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie to keep an eye on; its success or failure won’t break Marvel Studios, not with the Avengers sequel coming up, but will determine whether comic book movies featuring B- and C-list heroes can be popular. Marvel is also willing to experiment, working with Netflix to create series for their street-level heroes not already licensed out.
This coming year will be a year of change for studios. Any movie already filming will be released; the work is too far along to stop, though delays are possible. However, studios may start looking hard at the bottom line and start questioning whether that $200 million budget could be better spent and force filmmakers to do with smaller budgets. Adaptations will continue; the foreign market is too big and too lucrative to ignore, but the decision about what gets adapted will be scrutinized more. The blockbuster bubble won’t pop in 2014, but the weak points will be seen.
Next week, the first review of 2014.
* The general public could name characters from Harry Potter (beyond just Harry), Twilight, and The Hunger Games before the authors were approached with bags of money. This didn’t happen with The Host, despite sharing its author with Twilight, or with The Mortal Instruments.