Critic's Notebook: On Tentpole Turkeys, Franchise Fatigue and Blockbuster Imitators, Then and Now

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures; Courtesy of Disney
From left: 'Transformers: The Last Knight,' 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales' and 'Cars 3'

For industry observers with historical perspective, the current phenomenon of movies being made with ever-bigger budgets, but to diminishing box-office and critical returns, has made for a major deja-vu moment.

After a lackluster Cannes Film Festival and a handful of would-be blockbusters that turned out to be franchise killers, June gloom settled in over Hollywood in a big way. How could the latest editions of Transformers, Pirates and Cars all underwhelm and underperform so significantly? Isn't Tom Cruise surefire in a big movie anymore? Why did the critics have to go and dump all over Baywatch and make it flop? All the conventional-minded industry-watchers were having fits over the fact that the public could smell these turkeys a mile away and decided to save its money.

As it happened, the masses didn't stay away for long: Baby Driver and then, spectacularly, Spider-Man: Homecoming restored box-office order, the excellent and commercially surefire War for the Planet of the Apes will further bolster summer returns and Dunkirk is waiting to be unleashed.

Still, the specter of ever-more expensive franchise extensions continues to loom over us. And, for industry observers with historical perspective, the increasing phenomenon of such films continuing to be made on ever-more-egregious budgets, but to decreasing box-office results, harks back to the late '60s, when similarly bloated and costly pictures were made to fill the perceived need for more mass-appeal “roadshow” films, but to diminishing returns.

Spurred by the 1950s success of Cinerama and giant-grossing spectacles such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, roadshow bookings were earmarked for prestigious, expensive productions with long running times that were presented in the manner of live theater engagements, with single nightly shows, matinees on Wednesdays and weekends, and runs that lasted as long as business warranted. In the cases of big hits like West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia and How the West Was Won, films might run for a year or more in just one big-city movie palace per territory before entering general release.

Many of the biggest grossers of the era — My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Doctor Zhivago — went this route, and seeing some of these films in 70mm under “special event” circumstances in gorgeous theaters indisputably added to the experience. And these were the films that, as often as not, won the most Oscars, so prestige-hungry executives put a great deal of their time and money into these productions (roadshow releases won the best picture Oscar eight times between 1956 and 1968).

But as sequels were impossible to such the-hero-dies-in-the-end films as Spartacus, El Cid and any life of Jesus (of which there were two giant-budget roadshow versions within four years, King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told), as well as to stand-alone adaptations of Broadway musicals, imitations became the order of the day.

Keen to follow their smash The Sound of Music (with box-office returns adjusted for ticket price inflation, still the third-biggest grosser of all time, ahead of E.T., Titanic, Jaws, Avatar and all Star Wars films other than the first one), Julie Andrews and director Robert Wise rushed to find another musical to do together and the result was Star!, an utter disaster.

The occasional musical, in the right hands with the right stars, continued to connect with audiences — Barbra Streisand's screen debut in Funny Girl, Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof all scored — but the list of botched, misguided, money-draining and, today, essentially unwatchable musicals made for the wrong reasons is head-spinning: Half a Sixpence, Camelot, The Happiest Millionaire, Finian's Rainbow, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Paint Your Wagon, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Song of Norway, Darling Lili and Man of La Mancha. Even The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales may be more tolerable than some of these.

The same syndrome afflicted other genres that lent themselves to epic, roadshow-style films. After a run that extended from The Robe in 1953 to Ben-Hur, Spartacus and Cleopatra, the public infatuation for Roman spectacles collapsed with The Fall of the Roman Empire and would not return for another 35 years, with that film's unofficial semi-remake, Gladiator (which proceeded to win the best picture Oscar). And no sooner did the public's Russian ardor spike with Doctor Zhivago than it was laid to waste by Nicholas and Alexandra.

Too many expensive films like these imitative versions of previous successes not only led to the radical change in release patterns — away from exclusive downtown big-city runs in favor of wide simultaneous release in hundreds of theaters — but also to a kind of industry fossilization that spurred studio regime change and the beginning of corporate takeovers by outsiders. And as the old, dinosaur-type projects and filmmakers faded away, a new generation quickly seized the day.

So the issue then and now is the old gambler's problem of knowing when to quit. When you're on a winning streak and it looks like there's pots more money to be made — as seems to be the case with the much-reviled latest Pirates and Transformers editions thanks to overseas and ancillary revenues — it's hard to resist staying at the table. But there's another bromide that advises quitting while you're ahead. There's little doubt that the bottom-line bean counters will always endorse playing a string out until the till is empty, while artists who care about their reputations might prefer not to keep playing the same hand until the public tires of it.

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