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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: With so many expensive movies sinking this year, will Hollywood step back from the blockbuster?

Men in Black III Jermaine Clement

Today’s question comes via reader gensing, who sent in this essay from The Daily, in which Jonathan V. Last suggests that “Hollywood’s costly bombs may be good news for viewers”:

Hollywood is scared, and we should be grateful. Over the weekend, “Men in Black III” grossed $55 million ($70 million if you include Monday’s holiday). That may sound like a lot of money, but “MIB 3” cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $375 million to produce and market. Which probably makes it one of the three most expensive movies in Hollywood history.

And it’s not just “Men in Black.” Disney spent $275 million on “John Carter” (not counting marketing, which likely added another $100 million). The movie grossed a scandalous $72 million domestically. Warner Bros. spent $150 million on “Dark Shadows” and Universal spent $209 million on “Battleship.” Those movies have grossed $63 million and $44 million, respectively. Paramount’s low-tech Sacha Baron Cohen comedy, “The Dictator,” saw its budget balloon to a reported $100 million, and will be lucky if it breaks $50 million at the box office. (James Cameron couldn’t have spent $100 million on that movie if you made a “Brewster’s Millions”- style bet with him.)

One bomb during a summer is routine. Three epic bombs would make for a very bad season. But five of them before Memorial Day? It’s such a cataclysm that it suggests the laws of nature are unraveling. And what has Hollywood so terrified isn’t just the hundreds of millions of dollars it’s lost so far — it’s that it has 10 more big-budget tent-pole movies in the pipeline between now and Labor Day. Paramount is so panicked by this environment that last week it pulled its “G.I. Joe” sequel from its June release slot and rescheduled it for next March.

Last is focusing on North American box office, but how do things look globally? Actually, not much better. John Carter has just barely earned back its production costs globally, which means the marketing costs are still unrecovered. Dark Shadows is looking iffy, as far as global profitability. If Last is right about The Dictator’s budget, that film is unlikely to turn a profit. With marketing costs considered, Battleship could sink, too. Only Men in Black III will be profitable worldwide. But not by much.

Hollywood doesn’t work on just squeaking by. It needs big, clear profits not only to justify the expense of these huge films but also to underwrite smaller films with even narrow margins. The Daily’s Last wonders if this abysmal blockbuster season — which still has a long way to go and isn’t looking terribly promising — might have Hollywood reconsidering its ways.

What do you think? With so many expensive movies sinking this year, will Hollywood step back from the blockbuster? Or will the industry double-down and take even bigger gambles with $500 million movies in coming years?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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