It’s a brand new year. Studios are announcing blockbusters. Both Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. have a slate of superhero adaptation coming up, theatrical and televised. Sequels and adaptations are going to dominate the multiplexes. But people have been predicting a collapse for the past few years, people like Steven Spielberg. Collapses have happened before. In 1980, Heaven’s Gate was, if not the catalyst, the nail in the coffin of unfettered directors, free from studio control. The high budget coupled with poor performance in theatres killed United Artists, leading to its sale to MGM. While the film has redeemed itself over time, allowing the audience to see the movie without the raw knowledge of the behind the scenes history, the four hour epic originally fared poorly.
Studios have not been known for being risk takers. They exist to make money through movies. A film that doesn’t recoup its budget at the box office is considered a failure, though the advent of merchandising and, later, the purchase of personal copies on first video tape and later DVD can help offset that loss. As the cost of making movies have gone up, studios have gone from risk-adverse to risk-phobic. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had, in 1999, a budget of $115 million. In comparison, the 2013 film, The Hangover Part III had a budget of $103 million, with far less of its budget allocated for special effects than The Phantom Menace did. Blockbusters are now regularly reaching $200 million budgets. While one flop won’t destroy a studio, a string of failures will.
There are two ways for a studio to control risk. The first is adapting a popular work. Lost in Translation has been reviewing movie adaptations for over two and a half years. It’s not a new approach, as an upcoming series here will show. The difference now is that the original works aren’t the high-brow sources as in the past. From the 20s through to the 60s, adaptations were taken from literature, from the Bible, from theatrical plays. Adaptations of family fare came from children’s books or fairy tales. The adaptations of today are more low-brow, coming from popular works – book series, comics, cartoons, video games, and toys, all the purview of the masses. This difference leads to the perception that studios are in the middle of an adaptation boom, where original works fall aside. However, Alfred Hitchcock adapted several works into movies, including To Catch a Thief, from the novel of the same name by David F. Dodge, and Psycho, from the novel by Robert Bloch. The upcoming series will go into more details, but the perception that all that studios produce comes from two decades where original works were the norm in popularity lists.
The second way studios use to control risk is the Save the Cat formula. Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, goes through the steps of screenwriting, placing the story beats, fifteen key events in a movie, down page by page. Snyder called his work a structure, but studios latched on to the method as a formula after the book’s publication in 2005, leading to movies feeling the same, no matter who starred, who directed, what genre the film was, or even the budget. With all films following the formula, one variable is nailed down if a film fails. It can’t be from the script; it followed the structure. Sometimes, though, that structure harms the movie. Battleship was blatant about the check boxes. With studios risk-phobic, though, don’t expect a change in how a script is written.
Studios are relying more on blockbusters. With the success of Marvel’s The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, studios will stay on the blockbuster bandwagon. With the auteur period, massive box office flops, like the aforementioned Heaven’s Gate, sent studios into minimizing risks. With studios managing risk, it is unlikely that a number of blockbusters will fail. The failures of The Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D., both adaptations*, provided different lessons. With The Lone Ranger, the lesson was that an older property that hasn’t been seen in at least a generation may not have the best way to attract an audience. The failure of R.I.P.D. showed that studios can’t adapt just any comic.
With franchises becoming the core of studio income, can studios survive an implosion? Universal Studios’ 2014 lineup had no blockbusters, yet the studio had a record profit. The linked article goes into greater detail, but the vast majority of Universal’s releases were made for under $40 million. Universal’s franchise films, Fast and Furious 7, Minions, and Jurassic World should appear in 2015. There were only two adaptations, Ouija, a horror movie based around the Ouija board, and Dracula Unbound, featruring Bram Stoker’s vampire. The result – Universal didn’t lose as much money on failures and made amazing profit on unexpected hits, all from keeping budgets down. It is possible for a studio to thrive without a tentpole blockbuster.
The year ahead won’t see a collapse, not right away. Individual big-budget blockbusters might fail, which will get insiders talking about an impending collapse, but no one studio will see a string of failures. Universal’s lesson won’t be learned right away, but will be around. An underperforming franchise may be an indication that it’s time to let the franchise lay fallow for a few years, giving fans time to miss the series and demand a new film. Studios will make excuses for the failure of a tentpole blockbuster, blaming factors beyond just yet another formulaic movie. It will only be when a number of big-budget films underperform that studios will panic.
* The Lone Ranger was originally a radio series before being adapted for television and film. R.I.P.D. was based on the comic, Rest in Peace Department.