Blockbusters are failing spectacularly, but how that changes Hollywood is anyone’s guess

When describing this year’s box office offerings, “excitement,” “anticipation” or “interest” would probably be the wrong words to use. Instead, think “schadenfreude.”

Most recently, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny — reportedly, the most expensive movie of the franchise — utterly failed to excite audiences with the once-reliable promise of further adventures of a beloved character. Instead, the $300 million US film did so poorly it’s unlikely to earn its studio even half the money it spent making it. 

Elsewhere, Dreamworks saw its worst opening weekend of all time with Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken — as the lack of a media campaign tanked any interest generated by its fairly positive critical reviews.

And The Flash bombed so spectacularly it gained the unfortunate title of biggest comic-book movie flop of all time

WATCH | Summer blockbusters are supposed to be back, but so far it’s a season of flops: 

This year is supposed mark the post-COVID return of the summer blockbuster at the movies, but many big titles with inflated budgets have underperformed. Experts speculate this could change what Hollywood produces in the future.

“Just the amount of consecutive disappointments that are coming out from these major movies with these very inflated budgets,” said Nicholas Janzen, a film commentator and content creator in Toronto. “I think that’s what’s making it so jarring.”

It’s a string of flops continuing off of last year’s, including everything from Shazam! Fury of the Gods to Dungeons and Dragons and — to a degree — Pixar’s Elemental, which saw the studio’s second-worst opening weekend of all time. These busts come at the same time as two concurrent strikes. Writers walked off the job in May, followed by actors this week. Both groups say streaming and growing risks from AI threaten their livelihoods.

That’s not to say that the film industry itself is tanking — far from it. As of this week, Cineplex reported its earnings have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, with box office revenues reaching 98 per cent of 2019 numbers. Meanwhile, upcoming heavyweights Barbie and Oppenheimer have already lit a fire under fans: in an email to CBC News, the theatre chain reported over 130,000 presale tickets sold, earning both films over $1 million already.

And other movies have found, sometimes surprising, success: Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One set a franchise record for its preview screenings, Asteroid City beat Grand Budapest Hotel as Wes Anderson’s highest -grossing weekend, and the independently distributed Sound of Freedom astounded by crossing the $50-million mark earlier this week, more than tripling its budget.

When it comes to what succeeds and fails, the movie industry has never been more unpredictable, Janzen noted in a video he made after noticing the trend.

“My video was kind of just like, ‘What’s going on here?'” he said. “It’s these movies that seemed like surefire hits kind of tripped out of the gate.”

Bloated summer schedules

The reason behind Hollywood’s strategy for success coming undone could partially lie in bloated expectations. The concept of blockbusters originated in the 1940s, with the term originally used by newspaper reporters to describe “the new, large, 4,000-pound bombs dropped by Allied forces on enemy cities,” wrote Canadian pop culture researcher Charles R. Acland.

In the Hollywood context, the jargon became a marketing device used to turn the once-dismal summer months into a draw for audiences and make a film seem worth seeing — regardless of how good it was.

The idea of marketing movies as big-budget events grew in the 1950s, during what University of Bologna associate professor Marco Cucco called Hollywood’s “worst crisis.” In the post-war years, a baby boom, reluctance to spend money on luxuries such as movie tickets and the invention of a new, easier way to watch media — television — kept audiences out of theatres.

Investing in big, expensive productions separated studio films from TV, and a relatively large number of epic-historical dramas capitalized on that.

“Everything revolves around the idea that a big production gives a better performance at the box office,” Cucco wrote.

WATCH | How will the Hollywood actors’ strike impact your favourite shows?: 

How will the Hollywood actors’ strike impact your favourite shows?

Martin Katz, a Canadian producer and frequent collaborator of director David Cronenberg, spoke with CBC News to shed light on how the SAG-AFTRA strike will impact your favourite TV shows in Canada and abroad.

But after Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws and George Lucas’s Star Wars in 1977 proved how successful adventure and science fiction could be, blockbusters began to slowly transform into releases based around spectacle.

That, film critic Rachel Ho explained, eventually led us to where we are today — with studios relying almost solely on franchises such as Fast and Furious, Mission Impossible and the, until recently, indomitable Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

The recent string of failures, however, seems to suggest audiences aren’t willing to subsidize that strategy anymore. Disney CEO Bob Iger recently blamed the high output of shows saturating its streaming service for poor box office numbers

Meanwhile, the expectation that the studio releases a billion-dollar movie once a year — something it has accomplished since 2014, except during the COVID-19 pandemic — means otherwise moderately successful releases such as The Little Mermaid are seen as failures. 

“It will be the first year that they don’t have a billion-dollar movie at the box office, most likely. That’s what the projections are saying,” Ho said of Disney’s performance in 2023. “And it’s kind of astounding to think that a billion dollars has become,’Is it a success or is it a flop?'”

Silver lining of the flop

Historically though, flops have had one obvious silver lining: revealing to studios what audiences don’t want. Take the infamous Heaven’s Gate. The 1980 $40-million US epic (roughly $150 million adjusted for inflation) by Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino performed so apocalyptically poorly it effectively ended the era of big-budget art films. 

More recently, 2012’s John Carter — re-titled from the original John Carter of Mars in hopes to sever any implied connection to 2011’s box-office bomb Mars Needs Moms — failed so breathtakingly that Disney turned full-face toward the then-sure bets of existing intellectual property, pop culture journalist Richard Newby has argued. 

At the same time, the studio also turned away from traditional — yet expensive — 2D animation after the abysmally poor showings of movies such as Treasure Planet and Home on the Range

A film screenshot shows a large monster-like alien attacking a shirtless man attached to a chain.
A film image released by Disney shows a scene from the $250-million action movie John Carter. Disney movie studio head Rich Ross stepped down after the studio lost $200 million on the film. (Disney)

Predictions about the current slate of failures and their effect on the fate of the industry have been around for years. Almost exactly 10 years ago, both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted the “implosion” of the film industry, “whereby,” in Spielberg’s words, “a half dozen or so $250 million US movies flop at the box office and alter the industry forever.”

And back in 2015, New Yorker journalist James Surowiecki predicted Hollywood’s clustering of blockbusters in the summer months would lead to what we have now — too many big-budget offerings for theatre-goers to support or care about, leading to a gradual sinking of the industry. 

But like with the advent of TV in the 1950s, the growing supremacy of streamers is making the modern-day situation more difficult to navigate. 

While traditional studios evolved without the ability to hide box-office revenues and audience numbers, streamers can decide how, and whether, to reveal a movie or show’s poor performance, says Aaron Michael, a St. John’s film expert who researches and documents box office flops,

When studios can say that a movie succeeded on a streaming platform without an independent way to verify the claim, it makes it impossible to identify the true failures.

“‘Big flop’ as a term, or ‘bomb,’ doesn’t mean anything,” Michael said. “They keep those numbers to themselves, and there’s no clear metric like a ticket sale.

“If a studio has a choice, they’re not going to set up a second paradigm where they have to constantly announce that these plans backfire or these embarrassing flops.”

Streaming vs. box office

Treating streaming shows and movies differently than those on traditional screens has other benefits. As the New Yorker recently reported, it has allowed Netflix to pay the stars of Orange is the New Black virtually nothing in residuals, the payments that normally flow to actors after a work first airs as it continues to be distributed.

Residual payments, which are calculated differently in streaming than broadcast and amount to much less, are a key point of contention in the current actors and writers strike. 

“The entire business model has been changed by streaming, digital, AI,” SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher said when announcing the actors’ strike on Thursday. “If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble, we are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.”

WATCH | SAG-AFTRA actors’ union announces strike: 

Fran Drescher, head of SAG-AFTRA, announces that the Hollywood actors union is joining screenwriters in the first joint strike in more than six decades.

Andor showrunner Tony Gilroy told IndieWire this week that the fact that actors can no longer rely on residual payments means those costs are often front-loaded onto productions, distorting the usual financing models and coming close to “ruining this amazing industry.”

“The obscurity of data doesn’t help anyone,” he told IndieWire. “I think it looks like low-hanging fruit and easy profitability for certain corporations, but in the end, it just crushes any kind of free market. It crushes the economics of the business. It means people are being overpaid and underpaid and never properly paid.”

It also means if you were hoping your choice at the box office might discourage studios from making more superhero films and remakes, you’re likely out of luck.