3 September 2014

Summer 2014: In Remembrance

About a month ago I penned some articles  examining the financial standing of this summer's cinematic slate, rounding up its bigger hits and misses, before, importantly, making a few predictions of my own.

I'll deal with those first.

BREAKING: Mel Gibson no longer box-office star
On the red end of the scale, I foresaw big things for “The Expendables 3”, now understood as the season's defining under-performer. Granted , I made the call prior to a DVD rip of the film leaking online, but even that pre-release nightmare can't singularly explain such a lacklustre showing. I anticipated the film would top out at around $300 million. Three weeks into its release and “The Expendables 3” is actually totalling only 27% of that number. Yikes. I also underestimated “Guardians of the Galaxy”. The well-reviewed sci-fi is now the season's biggest domestic victor, with $280 million state-side and a worldwide total that healthily doubles the haul. I expected the movie to close at around $400-450 million globally, but it's now on track to finish well north of 600.

Get your digs in now.

On the other hand, I was one of the few people brave enough to anticipate “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” might not flop (which was the common consensus for months leading up to release). The feature held the #1 spot for two consecutive weekends, a rarity for a poorly reviewed, specialist demographic release. It hasn't done “Guardians” levels of business, but with $274 million accumulated and a lot of international markets left to exploit, a sequel seems likely.

With “The Expendables 3”, everything that could have gone wrong did. The third entry in the action franchise not only marked a qualitative low-point for the series (an impressive limbo when you consider parts one and two were met with what could generously be described as mixed notices), but also appears to be the precise juncture at which the punch-line fuelling this nostalgia blast flattened. What was funny in 2010 & 2012 now feels trite, like a comedian undergoing a third arena tour with the same jokes that carried his initial forays. You can fool the public once, but you won't get them a second time. Viewers often vote using their wallets, and with “The Expendables 3” the consensus read “been there, done that”. Time to move on. Of course it doesn't help that the film's core audience had the opportunity to see it for free nearly a month before theatrical exhibition.

Blowing a hole in your wallet. Geddit?
“Guardians” is even simpler to decode, much of my miscalculation stemming from ignorance. I felt the film would fall in line with the 2011 d├ębuts of “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”, but the game's changed since then. The Marvel brand counts for more in a post-”Avengers” landscape, and with its impressive marketing pull and excitable response “Guardians” boasted enviable register on the hype-o-meter. Fundamentally, being a good movie does help with bank, and when quality aligns with brand awareness, the results can be lethal. Audiences are often iffy about opting for fresh material, but when it's presented under the banner of proven comfortability (the Marvel empire), they're more adventurous. Cash gets stumped up for something they know, and word of mouth spreads because the product delivered new pleasures. It's a potent cocktail, tapping at once into people's open desire for familiarity, and innate, often subconscious delight when art playfully subverts expectation. “Guardians” is far from a radical work, but it packed just enough unique tonal deviations and memorable characters to imprint a sense of distinction. People like when that happens. They don't always know it, but trust me, when it goes down they get eat it up. After all, good bar chatter doesn't come around from recounting the mundane, it grows from anecdotes which promote what we understand as remarkable. When a blockbuster opens, and it does something a little barmy, the film gets discussed; often under the veil of a recommendation. It's probably this sort of behaviour that's pushed “Guardians” to such illustrious financial heights.

The real inspiration for this crudely compiled article comes from Variety reporting that 2014 will be the lowest grossing summer since 2006. That was a time before 3D had become widely implemented, and it wasn't a strong year anyway. The big releases included comic-book turkeys like “X3” and “Superman Returns”, unenthusiastically received remakes “Poseidon”, “The Omen” and “Miami Vice”, early evidence of Tom Cruise's declining popularity with “MI:3” and of course the first recorded instance of Pixar dropping the ball in the form of “Cars” (after “Brave”, “Cars 2” and “Monster's University” that film suddenly looks a little under-appreciated, eh?). Was 2014 similarly weak? Maybe. The superhero outings were all at least competent (“X-Men: Days of Future Past” and the aforementioned “Guardians” indeed much better than that) and a few surprises like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” set up welcome shop for mature blockbusters (even if the former semi-tanked). Family films seemed admittedly weak, the highlight being DreamWorks' over-praised and under-performing “How to Train Your Dragon 2”. Pixar were absent (here's hoping the break leads to a recharge of creative prosperity following a handful of disappointing years for the studio), and the R-rated comedy (a revived summer staple) performed almost directly in correlation with critical opinion. The badly received “Sex Tape” was a major loser, but “22 Jump Street” and “Neighbours” both barrelled toward solid totals. For me, despite the unmentioned presence of several high-profile misfires like “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” and Gareth Edwards' preachy “Godzilla” revamp (which many people liked, I just wasn't among them) that's not a dismal year. Certainly no worse than most. So quality can't entirely be the reason.

With no Tony Stark, audiences perhaps stayed at home to watch TV with friends.
A better experiment might be to draw comparison with 2013, which was a record breaking summer at the flicks. What did it have that 2014 lacked? Well for a start, 2014 failed to provide an enormous behemoth of “Iron Man 3” standard. That feature tipped the scales at a massive $409 million domestically (compared to this summer's counterpart in “Guardians, which will likely finish in the States with about $320 mill) and blew well past the billion dollar mark internationally (the big global winner of 2014, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” just about slithered over that line). 2013 also offered an assortment of left-field sleepers, including “The Great Gatsby”, “The Conjuring”, “We're the Millers” and “World War Z”. It's hard to point to any obvious equivalent for 2014 except “The Fault in Our Stars”. Family comedies were at a high standard, with “Monster's University” and “Despicable Me 2” doing vast business whilst franchise favourites like “Fast 6” performed in line with expectation. In 2014 a lot of big releases fell short of initial projections, including the domestic performance of “Age of Extinction”, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and Adam Sandler's “Blended”.

Still, studios will be the first to point out that 2014 has lacked misses of “Lone Ranger” or “White House Down” stature, blockbusters from last year that posted major losses.”The Expendables 3” won't be making anybody rich, and might even sadly lead to a re-evaluation of several iconic stars' stock in the system, but it's hard to see much being made of the issue beyond 2014. By contrast, both of last year's aforementioned bombs lost enough capital to be considered legendary failures, the sort of colossal duds which fill out pages in the Guinness Book of Records. Enough has been written about the reasons for last year's crop of steroidal flops, but I'm still curious as to why no film this summer replicated their ignoble fates. I suspect it too has something to do with quality in relation to scheduling. In 2013 the alternatives were simply too strong, the tepidly received “White House Down” was scalped by similar genre fare (“World War Z”) and smartly timed counter-programming (“The Heat”), whilst “The Lone Ranger” fell victim to bad buzz and an over-saturated market. There was simply too much other stuff, and it was generally fare with a fresher conceptual hook or sounder critical backing. 2014 never felt that packed. There were some notable clashes (“Edge of Tomorrow” wasn't tracking spectacularly, but it's hard to imagine the film not crossing $100 million more confidently had it avoided an opening spar with “The Fault in Our Stars”), but generally the season gave its releases a little breathing space. In the UK that was tested by the FIFA World Cup (which incidentally 2006 also boasted), but I don't think the soccer proved compelling enough to seriously dissuade cinema attendance among American audiences, even with Tim Howard earning enough plaudits to convince as the nation's temporary secretary of defence. The calendar was kinder this year for sure, meaning that fewer films had to suffer purely on the back of competition. I have no doubt that “The Lone Ranger” would have performed better this year than it did last. I genuinely suspect it and “Maleficent” would be fairly interchangeable. Both packed special effects and a big star, and whilst the latter may have provided a smidgen more brand awareness, they both garnered see-sawing reviews. The financial difference? In 2013 “The Lone Ranger” chugged its way to $260 Million. “Maleficent” has generated nearly three times as much. The latter opened alongside a poorly reviewed, R-rated spoof of the Western genre (aka box-office poison). “The Lone Ranger” bowed beside the staggeringly successful “Despicable Me 2”, and just days after “The Heat”. Doesn't take a genius to understand which window presents a tougher challenge.

Last year there were more tent-pole films crammed into fewer weeks, and thus casualties emerged. For me, that's as simple as it gets.

Cruise ya lose. 
But where'd the extra money go in 2014? Why in a more sensibly structured diary did the box-office drop 15%? That's a better question, and it's here quality enters the equation. Movies this year, generally weren't as good, or at least audiences weren't as beguiled. “Spider-Man” seemed stale, comedy was in a very patchy state (for every “22 Jump Street” we got a “Tammy” or “Let's be Cops”) and punters seemed equally unappeased by both new and old. “Transformers” (whilst still a hit) came in on the low end of expectations and“The Expendables” had to take their hardest rejection since the straight to video market dried up around 2001. It seems audiences have grown tired of formula, but they weren't particularly accommodating to outright change either. “Edge of Tomorrow”, probably the year's best reviewed and most audacious event picture stuttered, and less enthusiastically received stuff like “Into the Storm”, “Earth to Echo” and “Hercules” followed by regrettable example. The key seems to rest in offering something new under the guise of an established brand. “The Fault in Our Stars” turned the frenzy surrounding its paperback source into coin, providing even to the uninitiated something lacking in the market (GOOD YA fiction). “Guardians” rode the James Gunn wave under Marvel's protection and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” continued to enchant by mixing known genre values with remarkable leaps in the integration of technology and storytelling. Audiences clearly want new things, they're just afraid to order them unless its from a tested purveyor.

A lot of this is speculation; it is a thought piece after all. I spent more than a few moments compiling research and data, but ultimately what's spilled forth are my own feelings concerning the stunted 2014 crop. Personally, this class weren't quite clever enough to register a deep impression (despite a few gifted students) and ranked too many in number. Audiences had to move from one dunce to another, unable to distinguish the known offenders from the freshly pumped crap, probably missing a few gems along the way. It doesn't help that the customer currently lacks bravery, letting superlative science-fiction cum critical commentary like “Edge of Tomorrow” flounder, whilst an old shoe with some deceptive polishing (“Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles” anyone?) rolls its way to profitability.

What's the point of all this? I don't know. But what can't be denied is that summer 2014 will thin the pockets of Hollywood notably, and they will want a reason.

Also, I really fucked up that “Expendables 3” predication, didn't I?  

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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