The Summer is Over Already?

It is barely July and the first batch of mid-year box office reports are sounding a strange note of dread. Yes, dread. Heck, some of these reports are threatening to make me sound like a cheery voice of optimism, and that is never a good sign.

<a href=””>The Hollywood Reporter</a> and <a href=””></a> have spent most of the 4th of July weekend writing an early eulogy for the 2014 box office. I especially like the report in The Hollywood Reporter since they do a breakdown of box office drops from the various studios as well as the major theater chains. Gosh, I have never seen so many negative percentage figures in my life. Almost makes me want to dash immediately to the nearest concession stand and weep. I shall salt my popcorn with my tears.

In all of these reports, 2014 is found lagging way behind the perceived increases of 2013. Actually, 2013 wasn’t that great of a year. One of the better assessments of 2013 can be found in a Forbes article by Mark Hughes entitled “<a href=””>Hollywood’s Best Investments</a>.” Hughes wrote about what types of movies were (at that point in 2013) working and what weren’t, and gave a detailed view of the actual rate of return on specific titles.

More importantly, the 2014 decline isn’t exactly an unexpected drop from what was really happening in 2013. In fact, the <a href=””>mid-year reports</a> in 2013 were none too rosy compared with 2012. Actual ticket sales in the American market have been dropping steady for years. This decrease has continued. It has, perhaps, even escalated. But it is not a new phenomenon and it will continue. As the American market drops, the foreign market has become the main lifesaver to the Hollywood system. That is why the gigantic opening weekend for <a href=””><em>Transformers: Age of Extinction</em></a> in China is big news. The Chinese weekend gross rivals the US domestic opening. Eventually, for this type of movie, the Chinese box office will surpass the US.

Meanwhile, the cost of making and promoting this sort of tent-pole production is pretty much outstripping any realistic prospect of returning anything in the way of profit, no matter how much the sucker earns. There has always been a kind of funny logic behind the tent-pole film. The core idea is that the more you spend on special effects and explosions and PR, the more people will want to see the spectacle. This is the bread-and-circuses model of show business.

It is a time-honored approach that dates to the days of the Coliseum. Basically, it works. But even the ancient Romans would tell you that you need to keep an eye on the budget. If you don’t, you will eventually reach the tipping point where the cost cannot be matched by the financial returns. Until recently, this problem was corrected by DVD sales and cable TV release. With the <a href=””>major drop in DVD sales</a>, it is now barely handled by cable.

Which is why it is interesting that in his article, Hughes says that a broad range of modestly budgeted movies have a track record for maintaining a better flow of profit. He basically feels that the studios need to keep a solid slate of medium-priced items that will pick up the financial slack for a few tent-pole productions. The theory sounds good, though the most recent list of box offices for <a href=””>small-budget indie movies</a> from IndieWire mostly supports Hughes’ adamant insistence on medium- not low-budget items.

But it just doesn’t matter. Ironically, current studio wisdom half agrees with Hughes. Unfortunately, the half they do agree with is the idea that they only need a few tent-pole productions and then they will save money by completely skipping everything else.

Either way, the current picture for Hollywood looks a tad gloomy. But tomorrow is always another day and everyone is looking forward to the boom time ahead in 2015. It will be <a href=””>the banner year</a> for tent-pole productions. In fact it is already so crowded that every title is open to sudden schedule changes as the studios struggle to make room for it all. It will also be the year that <a href=”″>Disney becomes dominant</a> through its aggressive policy of buying virtually every franchise in sight.

2015 is also the year that <a href=””>Hollywood might implode</a>—and yes, I am quite aware that the link goes to an article at the satire site The smart alecks over there have done their homework. I am not really interested in spreading rumors of doom, but I have already heard murmurs of extreme doubt from some fanboys about such movies as <em>Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice</em>. And a quick note to Warner: Next time you want to do something radical, try doing something really radical. Maybe cast Melissa McCarthy as Wonder Woman. The fan outrage is free publicity and she just might give the role a more modern, earthy touch.

So despite the illusion of success with certain titles, this has become the summer of Hollywood’s vague sense of discontent. It may all work out. Maybe not. The whole thing reminds me of a story an old friend once told me. He had a brother who lived in Los Angeles and with every earthquake, the main staircase in his house moved a few fractions of an inch to one side. Instead of getting it fixed, the brother was using it as a study guide to the increasing severity of the earthquakes. He was toying with the idea that it would somehow predict the Big One.

Hollywood is right now doing the same thing.

<em>Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved</em>