Why Hollywood Keeps Making Sequels to Rebooted Superhero Films

superhero-fatigueAccording to the Guardian, even superheroes may not be able to save Hollywood’s desperate summer. I’m beginning to think they helped cause it.

When the ticket stubs for summer are totaled up, they will paint a bleak picture: takings are expected to be down by as much as 15% year-on-year to an estimated $3.8bn. The heroics of summer hit Wonder Woman have failed to shore up a take for the period – the Hollywood summer typically runs from the first Friday in May to the Labor Day holiday in early September – that is $600m lower than last year.

Things aren’t quite as bad as they look, since a couple of big winners were released earlier in the year, so the year-to-date is only down in the single digits, but its still a huge loss.

The true scale of the potential problem facing the industry can be seen in the precipitous drop in movie attendance this summer, down 52% year-on-year to 385 million at the time of writing. It is the lowest level of attendance since the summer of 1992, when Batman Returns ruled the US box office. So what has caused one of the most dire summers in modern US film history? And what can Hollywood do about it?

Exactly the right questions. Let’s see if the Guardian has the answers.

Superheroes have continued to be invincible at the box office with Wonder Woman, the second installment of Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming accounting for almost a third of the US summer box-office take.

This is a big part of the problem. If only three films and one genre are compelling people to pony up, the industry is in trouble indeed.

“Superhero flicks are the only thing firing on all cylinders in terms of a specific genre right now, so don’t expect to lose those codpieces and breastplates just yet,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at industry analyst Exhibitor Relations. “In fact, with Wonder Woman shattering the glass ceiling this summer, plan on a whole new wave of female heroism over the next few years.”

This is exactly the wrong lesson to take from the success of Wonder Woman. The reason Wonder Woman succeeded was largely because it was fairly well made, unlike Batman vs. Superman. Cloning it will likely fail. When Star Wars became a huge hit, many studios tried to cash in on the phenomena, assuming that suddenly people wanted science fiction. Dozens of terrible clones were made in the years that followed: The Black Hole, Buck Rogers, Battle Beyond the Stars, Flash Gordon, Saturn 3, Krull, Space Hunter, Yor, Ice Pirates, …

The superhero genre has flourished and Hollywood has started to develop a potentially dangerous overdependence on its continued success. It is striking to recall that, little more than a decade ago, more often than not superhero films were box-office kryptonite.

Agreed. If all you make are superhero movies, people will get sick of them. This is already happening. Look at the poor reception of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Look at how Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool have bent the genre by introducing much more comedy into the mix. While I love both of those films, taking a comedic turn won’t work on all comic book properties.

By 2019, it has been estimated that there will be something like 25 superheroes appearing in individual and ensemble films, raising the question of when the superbubble will burst. “About then, we must be hitting peak superhero,” says David Hancock, a film analyst at data firm IHS Markit.

I’m guessing we’ve already hit it. Marvel is moving toward a huge climax in the MCU with the infinity war. What will they do next, and will anyone still want to see it? Meanwhile the DCU has been rocky, especially when compared to Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful Batman trilogy.

This year, Warner Bros is looking to ape Marvel’s Avengers success by bringing together its DC Comics heroes – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – in an ensemble film, Justice League. This follows the introduction of the antihero cast of characters in the Will Smith-led Suicide Squad.

Suicide squad was hardly a raging success. If Justice League fails as badly as Batman vs. Superman, the DCU will be severely damaged.

Universal is quasi-copying DC with its “dark universe” of monster films, ranging from this summer’s The Mummy to forthcoming attractions The Invisible Man, Dracula and vampire hunter Van Helsing.

At least these are not superheroes. Universal is trying to create something more like Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The dark universe has potential, if done right, to be an original take on classic horror films. With the Mummy, it’s off to a rocky start.

The issue has been building up for years, but 2017 could well mark the point of peak sequel, with the market awash with over 40 sequels, reboots and remakes scheduled throughout the year. With almost one a week to watch, Hollywood’s safety-first approach of attracting a repeat audience, or reviving a built-in fanbase, is facing the law of diminishing returns.

I think peak sequel may also have come and gone. Look at the poor performance of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, Alien, and Transformers films. With so many bad sequels and remakes, I suspect people will more than ever be looking for positive reviews before spending on seeing films on the big screen.

“There are a number of franchises that are clearly waning – and sequels, which are a different beast, drop off about 10% to 15% each time on average,” says Hancock. “But you need to remember that the industry is about much more than just the US these days. So a Pirates or a Transformers may have pulled in a lot less in the US than previous incarnations, but globally they have done well – which prompts another one to be made.”

The reason that the MCU has done so well is that they’ve made a string of very good movies. They’ve now mined a lot of the best material from their comic books. Are there enough good stories left to tell at the rate that they’re now telling them? I expect that in general, poor sequels will begin leading to sharper drop offs as people become more willing to wait for films to be release on streaming services, blu ray, or DVD.

In a typical summer season, about 250 films – from studio blockbusters to independent movies – are released. This year there were just 208. In recent years the major Hollywood studios have dramatically cut back the number of films they make annually and focused on spending more on fewer blockbusters that they believe represent the best chance of achieving big box office returns.

This is understandable. One hit can bring in what a half dozen mildly successful films do, at a fraction of the cost. The question is, what if you don’t get the hit?

Over the course of a year, 100 films take 92% of the US box office, and the other 650 releases fight for the rest. Fans of smaller films and non-blockbuster fare are increasingly finding less and less to entice them to the cinema.Over the course of a year, 100 films take 92% of the US box office, and the other 650 releases fight for the rest. Fans of smaller films and non-blockbuster fare are increasingly finding less and less to entice them to the cinema.

This is the Pareto distribution, and is seen over and over again in the social sciences. Out of those 100 films, there are probably 10 that earned 41% of the money. The problem is, you have to make a great film that is also a film that a lot of people want to see in order to hit the jackpot. For every Wonder Woman, there is always going to be a Pirates of the Caribbean, and a priori, no one can be sure which one they’re making.

The boom in popularity of streaming services such as Netflix, which has more than 100 million global subscribers, is beginning to pose a real threat to the Hollywood movie model. Big-name writers, directors and actors that viewers are more accustomed to seeing in cinemas are now regular fixtures on the small screen – from Brad Pitt in Netflix’s War Machine to Nicole Kidman, Reece Witherspoon and Laura Dern in an all-star cast in HBO’s Big Little Lies.

While high quality television is certainly doing well, I think it’s going to take more eyes from other broadcast and cable TV programming that it does from film. Early releases of films on streaming services is far more dangerous to theaters, IMO.

“Hollywood is no longer in just a skirmish with streaming content, but an all-out battle for viewership supremacy,” says Bock. “Yes, there will always be room for both, but the tide is definitely turning towards online distribution, and Hollywood needs to fight back.”

I don’t see the two as fundamentally competitive. In fact, if you look at Netflix/Marvel’s TV series, they are complementary to Disney’s MCU. So far, this article has been short on the promised answers.

What can be done? The short answer is: nothing. The year-to-date figures for the US box office show it is down only about 5%. That is not going to be enough to set off the alarm bells, even if the dire attendance numbers should.

Five percent decrease in the market is not going to cause alarm? This seems ludicrous. Remember as well that revenues are not evenly distributed among studios. Disney did well. Others will have done far worse.

Bock says that there needs to be a move to more high-quality film-making, as exemplified by the Marvel and Pixar films. “They spend time incubating their projects, most notably in the script stage,” he says. “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the screen. Sequels aren’t the death of Hollywood, but rotten, stinking, middle-of-the-road continuing sagas could be.”

Finally, some sound advice. I question, though, whether Marvel and Pixar have stuck to their high quality principles. Pixar especially seems to have fallen into mediocrity of late.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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