The Vanishing $200 Million Blockbuster
In an increasingly stratified box office landscape dominated by Disney, not a single film this year so far has topped out between $200 million to $300 million domestically.
Around the turn of the century, there was a magic number at the box office: $100 million. Any movie crossing that mark domestically was a hit; anything falling too far short (except indie and art house releases) was, if not quite a flop, at least a disappointment.
I remember the palpable sense of relief Paramount felt in 2001 when the much-troubled Lara Croft: Tomb Raider made it to $131 million in North America (a fraction less than it earned internationally). That was enough to confirm Angelina Jolie as an unequaled and inimitable star — and also for the studio to misguidedly greenlight a sequel; you could sell a movie the first time out of the gate, it discovered, but you couldn’t convince an audience to return for the follow-up.
By the end of the decade, the magic number had changed: $100 million was chicken feed; $200 million was now the figure a movie had to surpass. You might suspect this was just a logical progression, an obvious reflection of inflation. But the numbers were way beyond anything inflation could account for: Box office of $100 million in 2000 was equivalent to $127 million in 2010; it is equivalent to $149 million today.
What the change represented was something else: Hollywood’s willingness to take risks. The bets were getting bigger and the rewards had to be commensurately huge. Singles and doubles no longer counted; everything was about the home run.
You’d think as corporations increasingly muscled into the studio landscape, they’d want to play safe. But playing safe, they believed, meant investing in sequels, even if their budgets soared to astronomical levels. Inevitably, the more $200 million became established as the measure of success, the greedier everyone became.
Now — surprise, surprise — $300 million has sometimes become the dividing line between failure and success for tentpole pictures. Earn more than that in North America, and you’re a bona fide hit; earn any less, and there’s a question-mark hanging over your performance. Or at least there would be, if the domestic market weren’t a mere loss leader for foreign revenues.
If the U.S. and Canada matter at all, you wouldn’t know it. Sequels are sometimes greenlit from pictures that make just over $100 million in the home market (Pacific Rim), and ones that earn only a bit more can find redemption internationally (like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which took in $110 million domestically and $275 million foreign).
That’s the status quo. If the domestic take figures into the equation, it’s for bragging rights and prestige, and perception rather than reality. And perception says: $300 million is what separates the winners from the losers.
Now here’s the really bad news: the borderline between the two has become bigger and broader than ever before, judging from the latest box office numbers.
Back in the days when $100 million defined success, a host of movies would regularly come close to that target: they’d bring in $80 million or $90 million and still be considered “modest” hits. But now there’s no such thing as a modest hit.
In the first eight months of 2019, not a single motion picture has topped out between $200 million to $300 million domestically, the “gray zone” that can separate failure from success.
Six movies in the same time frame made more than $300 million domestically, and some did massively more than that (topped by Avengers: Endgame with $858 million, Lion King with $473 million, Captain Marvel with $427 million and Toy Story 4 with $420 million — all Disney releases). And this year will have a record six films grossing more than $1 billion apiece, when Toy Story 4 crosses that milestone in a few days.
But consider the gap between the top six domestic box office hits and the seventh: Aladdin came in at No. 6 with $353 million in North America; next, after a whopping gap, was Jordan Peele's Us with $175 million — a hugely profitable film, but not even close to the big boys.
The question is, why? Is it because the studios simply aren’t making movies that are expected to do OK stateside (unless they’re genre pictures like Us)? Or is it because audiences themselves are steering away from the middle ground, conditioned to think as big as the movie manufacturers?
My guess is the latter. Just as the majors have stopped caring about pictures that only do all right, so have ticket-buyers, taught to think big by news reports and a marketing machine that endlessly touts what’s at the top of the box office to the exclusion of everything else.
It’s a vicious cycle: the more the studios put their eggs in one basket, the more audiences look at that basket and don’t bother to seek elsewhere.
That all-or-nothing strategy is dangerous. It’s only a matter of time before one too many tentpoles falls short — and not only falls short but with a thudding, thwacking, bone-cracking cacophony. And when that happens several times over, the consequences will be brutal. Studios will collapse, entire fleets of employees will lose their jobs.
Fox has already seen those consequences. For all intents and purposes, as a movie studio it’s ceased to exist. Disney recently made clear how disappointing its numbers were and shunted its sole mid-range division, Fox 2000, off to the sidelines, effectively to become part of Sony. Inevitably, other companies that bet too big will disappear, too.
We’re at a turning point. Hollywood is allowing great chunks of box office real estate to fall into the sea, as surely as the cliffs where the moguls love to build their homes. But that real estate has value and needs shoring up.
The entire industry has to step back and consider the long-term results. Massive gambles don’t simply result in massive wins but also massive losses — perhaps not this year or even the next but at some time in the near future. And when those losses come, they’ll be catastrophic.
Unless the business aims to retake the middle ground — the ground that has been ceded altogether at the box office this year — there may not be an industry at all.