The movie blockbuster bubble

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marqueeAt the opening of a new building at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles, Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying that the era of the movie blockbuster may soon be over:

“There’s eventually going to be an implosion, or a big meltdown… where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

George Lucas—between he and Spielberg, producers of most of the biggest movie blockbusters in American history—agreed that the movie industry was due for a reversal of fortune, where the huge movies of the past will no longer carry the mega audiences they once did, and studios will be stricken by the sudden unprofitability of big movies.  Both of them also lamented about the “lesser” movies they made, which almost weren’t accepted by the studios for theatre releases because of their non-blockbuster status.  That’s right: Spielberg and Lucas both had trouble getting their movies into the theatres.

And what they are suggesting is that, at present, lesser movies are hard to produce for movies… but that in the near future, big blockbusters won’t get the automatic greenlight either.  Does this mean Hollywood will have to turn back to the lesser movies, and a different profit expectation?  If so, what should we expect?

In the past, Hollywood wouldn’t throw all its eggs in one basket; it would produce many movies at once, with carefully-trimmed budgets, throw them all out there, and hope they’d attract a large enough segment of the population to make profit for the studio.  The odds were longer for any single movie to be a big hit… but the studio’s odds to make profit were still pretty good, because of the number of flicks they produced.

This is in contrast to today’s films, which are fewer and less diverse than those of the past, designed to hit all the hot-buttons of their target audience—in other words, today’s movies don’t try to target just those comedy fans who like screwball comedies… they are designed (or marketed) to draw all of the comedy fans.  But if a movie flops, you don’t just lose a segment of a genre’s fans… you lose all of them.

So it might seem that Hollywood would do well to go back to the “studio factory” system of knocking out movie after movie, and overwhelming us with choices… right?

Not so fast—because there’s a new aspect of movie selling that alters the old paradigm totally… home video.  Once Hollywood had gained control of television stations to provide an in-home source for their entertainment, they began to develop to-buy versions of their products for home use.  Studios have already discovered new audiences for old films that they couldn’t even get on television anymore, thanks to videotape, DVDs, On-Demand and rental services, and now, digital delivery.  Movies that are deemed not good enough to make it in theatres are being produced direct-to-DVD, making them available to genre audiences and still bringing a profit to the studios.

So, if Hollywood can no longer make the big bucks on blockbusters, the most sensible thing for them to do is to evolve towards smaller and more direct-to-DVD productions, which can be more reliably targeted at lower cost.  Those productions will likely see lower production values than their predecessors.  Thank goodness those TV screens, tablet screens, cellphone screens, etc, are a lot more forgiving than movie screens.

But what about Hollywood’s life-long partner in crime, the movie theatre?  Theatres these days see thinner and thinner profit margins, and practically live from blockbuster to blockbuster as they suffer through the lean times with special productions, renting out their spaces to meeting promoters and evangelists, and hosting birthday parties.  And theatregoers are more likely these days to reconsider the cost of seeing a movie on the big screen, especially if it doesn’t take advantage of that big screen to present big, impressive cinematography and special effects, and opt to see it at home or on their portable devices when it becomes available.  Without the big blockbuster, do those theatres stand a chance of surviving?

For most of them, the answer will unfortunately be “no,” or to be more specific, “not as theatres.”  The end of the blockbuster will bring about the end of the theatre—or most of them, at any rate.  While some will transform completely into meeting places for any groups willing to pay for the space, most will fade away.

This might turn out to be a good thing for live entertainment, however.  A theatre space is well-suited for any number of things, like live theatre, music venues, presentations, clubs, theme restaurants, gyms… a multi-screen theatre could conceivably offer all of these things, and more—or, like my local big theatre a few years ago, simply be repurposed into retail space.  The old theatre could evolve into a multi-venue entertainment complex, offering something for almost everyone to enjoy.  They could even reserve a room for showings of old blockbusters… if enough people will come to see them.

Though Spielberg and Lucas’ comments are not gospel, there is a strong likelihood that they are not wrong, and that Hollywood is on the way to its biggest change since they broke into television.  That change may even involve finally leaving behind the big screen, a long-time-coming divorce that will be messy and painful… but mostly for them.  There’s a good chance the public won’t bat an eye.

Read more about Hollywood’s present dysfunction: Hollywood’s completely broken

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4 thoughts on “The movie blockbuster bubble

  1. Donn

    Steve, I will admit to going to a cinema maybe only 4, or 5 times a year, and yes, it is to see the big “spectacular”.

    Often I just feel let down. Case in point is Into Darkness. There was some great performances there, and the effects were marvelous, but the story was crap. It had no emotional life. I don’t know who to blame, was it the editing, the direction? Or just the bean counters, and demographic specialists.

    If Hollywood would just put more emphasis on storytelling, rather than CGI, I would be happy.

    That is just as true with Science Fiction. You can put all the eye candy in the world on the screen, but I came to see ideas. Conflicts, Stories. Characters talking to each other, figuring stuff out.

    Maybe this is why I prefer books. The writer provides the emotions, the conflict, the characters interacting. I provide the special effects in my own mind.,

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  2. This is obviously what Spielberg and Lucas are inferring about cinema’s future. Their disappointment at having their “less blockbuster” movies struggle to get into theatres reflects their opinion that, sooner or later, audiences will react as you do, and instead of sitting through expected disappointment, retire to their homes to watch Downton Abbey.

    And as long as the studios continue to set themselves up with vacuous blockbusters, they increase the odds of their movies hitting a critical level and being snubbed by audiences. Sure, there will always be people who will go to such a movie, just as they go to fireworks displays every fourth of July. But eventually, the masses say, “Ahh… when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all… what’s on TV tonight?”

    I’m also one of those people who look at the previews and automatically rate them according to whether I’ll see it in a theatre, or wait for it to hit my living room. It used to be that spectacle was enough to get me into a theatre; but these days, not so much. I’ve avoided seeing Into Darkness, and I don’t plan on seeing Man of Steel right away either, and unless I get really bored one afternoon, I’ll probably manage to wait until they’re on On-Demand.

    Hollywood’s attempts to drag us back into the theatres with bigger effects, 3D, etc, are staving off the popping of that bubble… but when TV gives us incredibly ingenious productions like Orphan Black, we increasingly ask ourselves: What did we need those big screens for, anyway?

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  3. Interesting how soon after Spielberg and Lucas’ prognostication that we experienced a five-blockbuster meltdown (The Lone Ranger, After Earth, R.I.P.D., White House Down, Pacific Rim)! I’d like to think most of Hollywood was saying, “Oh, there’s no way… it’ll never happen… IT HAPPENED! What now?!?” But in reality, I’m sure it’s more like: “Yeah, we know it’s coming… but we’ll fix it next year with 4-D stealth reality show tie-ins!”

    Sigh.

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  4. BUT… 2014 saw some successful blockbusters, including Captain America 2, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Hunger Games: Mockingjay and Guardians of the Galaxy. Don’t crank up that funeral dirge just yet, movie-goers.

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