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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

a record summer for the box office — be afraid

It’s Labor Day weekend, which means summer is officially unofficially over, although the only people who care are those for whom the unofficial change of seasons is really important. Like kids, who have to shuffle back to school. And people obsessed with movies, because now we move from the season of Big Stupid Blockbusters into the season of Serious Filum. Which also means it’s time for we movie people to listen to excitable wrapups of how the box office performed this summer. It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly the box office did: the money people will be excited one way or the other in their attempts to explain it all to us.

As it turns out, the Hollywood bean counters are very happy this week, according to Bloomberg.com:

Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) — Sony Corp.’s “Superbad” pushed Hollywood’s U.S. summer box-office sales to a record $4 billion this past weekend, surpassing the industry’s previous high established in 2004.

With a week left until Labor Day, the traditional end to the movie-going season, sales from May 1 through yesterday exceeded the $3.95 billion record for the entire summer set three years ago, according to Media By Numbers LLC.

Hoorah! Or not! Anyone who cares about movies — who really believes that creativity and originality are part of the equation that go into making a movie entertaining — should be worried. Cuz look at what the top money-making movies of the summer are (via Box Office Mojo):

Spider-Man 3
Shrek the Third
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Only one isn’t a sequel. Spidey and Shrek are the poorest showings, creatively speaking, by far, of their franchises; some would include Pirates in that category too (I was in a minority in thinking the film brilliant). All these movies cost between $150 and $300 million to produce ($300 million for a movie? that’s simply obscene… and that’s Pirates, which I loved), and they earned between $284 and $336 million domestically. That’s not a great return. POTC:AWE did the poorest, barely earning back its budget.

What does this mean for movie fans like us? Hollywood execs will be celebrating this long holiday weekend, congratulating themselves for greenlighting movies that, on paper, look like they made a ton of money, no matter how crappy or boring or worn out they are. They’ll ignore the lesson of the flopping of the $200 million Evan Almighty because it was a sequel, and sequels will now be perceived as a “good risk.” Never mind that whoever allowed the spending on that one to get so out of hand has no business working as a studio executive; any fool could have seen the movie was a disaster in the making, even if it had cost “only” $100 million. But these same execs will take the flopping of Stardust as an indication that taking a creative risk is a bad move; the quality of that film is, to be fair, debatable, but as an adventure in creative risktaking, though, it should be applauded, particularly since its $70 million budget is modest in terms of the cost of many a film these days, and extremely modest for what got up on the screen with that budget.

BusinessWeek, which is all about the money, misses this point. Josh Tyler and Scott Gwin at CinemaBlend, in their summer box-office wrapup, get it. Who do you think the studios will listen to?

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  • I’d be interested to see a breakdown of what that $300 million was used for.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, wouldn’t that be interesting. Absent the presence of mega stars, I’d guess that much of it went to technical things, like FX and sets and the like.

  • So setting records for revenue means we won’t have to sit through any more obnoxious advertisements before the trailers chastising us for being a bunch of filthy god damn movie thieves and bankrupting all of the studios with our illegal downloading, which are only ever seen by the people who legitimately pay for the movies and go see them in the theater anyway, right? …Right?

  • That BusinessWeek article is pretty obnoxious.

    Thank God the rest of this year looks pretty strong for people who actually like movies. Even next weekend features two surprisingly good-looking action flicks (Shoot ‘Em Up and 3:10 To Yuma), which is weird for early September. Of course, maybe that’s a sign that they actually suck, but…

  • Moe

    Josh and Scott do get it.
    Everything except their love for Knocked Up, right? ;)

  • MaryAnn

    Right. :->

    So setting records for revenue means we won’t have to sit through any more obnoxious advertisements before the trailers

    Oh, no. Because all that money went to the studios. The multiplexes get next to nothing. On opening weekend, 90 percent of the ticket price goes back to the studio — it’s only much later in a movie’s run, like perhaps by the sixth or eighth week, that the theater takes as much as 50 percent of the ticket price. (This is part of why the studios put so much emphasis on getting butts in seats on opening weekend.) So blockbuster opening weekends aren’t so good for theaters. That’s why we won’t stop seeing ads in theaters (the multiplexes get that dough) or why concession prices will never drop.

    Prankster: *Yuma* and *Shoot ‘Em Up* are freakin’ awesome.

  • No no, I know that, I understand why the ads are there. I’m specifically talking about the ones where the poor movie stars tell us how they’re starving because we’re all downloading movies off of the intertubes instead of paying for them. Somehow, to me, that just doesn’t jibe. I can’t see how Hollywood is losing billions to movie piracy online, so much so that they need to arrest a teenage girl for recording 20 seconds of Transformers on her digital camera to show her younger brother, while at the same time they’re making record profits. Can they honestly say with a straight face that if it weren’t for all the pirates online, that they would have made $20 billion this summer instead of just a record $4 billion?

  • MaryAnn

    No, Hollywood can’t say that. That said, studio accounting is so corrupt that they can show that a movie that made a billion worldwide is still “not profitable,” and hence not yet sharing profits with stars and others who might have a stake in profits.

    Movie stars are not poor. It’s true. And yet, if we really, really like their work, we should be willing to pay a fair share for it… but I think that’s already happening. People who watch pirated movies either weren’t going to go the multiplex anyway, or have already gone to the multiplex. So there’s really no revenue lost.

  • Well exactly, and I do pay for things to support artists I like (I’ve donated to this site, for example). But my point is, they’re running around screaming that the sky is falling because of online piracy while at the same time pulling in record-breaking revenue. So somehow people are going to the movies in record numbers, but at the same time staying home and bankrupting the industry because they’re just downloading movies off the internet? What are we, Schrödinger’s moviegoers?

    And then to top it all off, they insult the people that are their actual paying customers by putting obnoxious commercials before the movies telling them what filthy, thieving scumbags they are for downloading movies, and the only people who will see that are ones who’ve paid to come see a movie instead of downloading it. It’s like a black hole of super-dense stupidity from which no rational thought can escape.

  • MaryAnn

    What are we, Schrödinger’s moviegoers?

    You’re funny, Count. And you’re right. But how is this different from how any other mega corporation behaves? They treat their customers like shit and they keep getting away with it because politicians and lawmakers are on their side.

  • Any in-context reference to Schrodinger or Heisenberg gets a laugh out of me, so good job, Count. But it’s just like oil companies making record profits while pump prices rise due to “shortages.” Of course, oil is much more serious, but it’s roughly the same model.

    Maryann, I think it’s a little odd to say that “Transformers” is the only one of the top five movies that isn’t a sequel. While it’s not technically a sequel to another movie, it is part of a mega-franchise. So the lesson for Hollywood is that sequels and “updates,” or whatever the hell they call them, are the way to go, and they continue plundering our childhood franchises to make cheap knock-offs. It’s only a matter of time before Penny Arcade’s posited “Ruxpin: The Movie.”

  • MaryAnn

    It’s not a franchise that has ever made any kind of impact at the box office before. Plenty of supposedly hot properties from TV or comics or other media don’t transfer successfully (box office wise, that is) to film. So I stand by my characterization.

  • I suppose, but adapting old franchises into shoddy remakes (not that TF was necessarily shoddy- I haven’t seen it, so I refrain) is just as much a sign of the lack of creativity in Hollywood.

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