NEW YORK (AP) — On and off screen, it’s been a bruising summer for Hollywood. Every weekend, the multiplex has been under siege like it has rarely been before. One after another, they have come: Big-budget, globetrotting blockbusters backed, like goliaths with air support, by marketing budgets in the hundreds of millions.
Some of these films have succeeded. Some have flopped. But more than most summers, the content of this year’s seasonal crop of spectacles has felt like a pummeling, leaving both moviegoers and some in the industry dazed from the onslaught.
Zombies swarmed over much of the planet in World War Z. Sea monsters rose from the ocean and battled giant robots in Pacific Rim. Superman’s Metropolis was haphazardly laid to rubble in Man of Steel. For the third time, Roland Emmerich destroyed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in White House Down. A fiery Rapture engulfed This Is the End.
Studio balance sheets have been hardly less volatile.
The latest bomb came over the weekend with R.I.P.D., in which Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds star as ghost cops. The poorly reviewed Universal film opened with just $12.7 million, suggesting it won’t come close to recouping its $130 million-plus price tag.
The failure was all the more pronounced because of the robust opening ($41.5 million) for Warner Bros.’ The Conjuring, an old-fashioned horror film made for under $20 million.
It’s become a recurring theme of summer 2013: Non-sequel, big-budget films have struggled to find audiences. Most striking was Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, which Disney had hoped would ignite the same interest as the Pirates of the Caribbean series that also teamed Verbinski with Johnny Depp.
But although The Lone Ranger was an admirable attempt to update the Western, the film’s imbalanced tone fell extremely flat with moviegoers.
Made for some $215 million, it has earned $81.3 million domestically in three weeks.
Also underperforming, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, has been:
White House Down ($68.5 million domestically in four weeks, despite its silly popcorn fun and Channing Tatum’s rising star); After Earth ($60 million domestically in eight weeks, despite Will Smith’s steady history as a box-office draw);
Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim ($68.2 million domestic, despite its well-crafted pop sensibility). Launched with franchise aspirations, Pacific Rim may end up in a better situation, since it has quickly made $110.3 million overseas.
So what is working? Many of Hollywood’s classic genre standbys:
Low-budget horror (The Conjuring, The Purge); Animated family films (Monsters University, Despicable Me 2); Some A-list-star vehicles (Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 3, Brad Pitt in World War Z, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in The Heat). Of course, Reynolds, Smith and Tatum would be the exceptions here.
RISK VS. REWARD
Certainly, Hollywood — a perpetually fickle industry built on the rare megahits — has often been a victim to over-the-top “the-sky-is-falling” worries. The box office to date is, after all, up 12 percent from last year.
But the movies are undergoing yet another period of transformation. With the increasing appeal of cable and digital entertainment, and the bottoming-out of the home video market, Hollywood has tried to lure moviegoers with bigger (and more expensive) 3-D extravaganzas.
As usual, there’s rebellion in the works from filmmakers who feel marginalized by the studios’ shrinking purview. Spike Lee has announced that he would seek financing for his next feature film through the online crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter.
“Super Heroes, Comic Books, 3-D Special EFX, Blowing up the Planet Nine Times and Fly through the Air while Transforming is not my Thang,” wrote Lee on his film page, where he’s asking for $1.5 million. “To me it’s not just that these Films are being made but it seems like these are the only films getting made.”
Some filmmakers, most notably Steven Soderbergh, have fled to cable television, a medium that in some cases offers more creative freedom.
Yet, there’s plenty for Hollywood to be proud of right now. The summer’s smaller counter-programming has included Ryan Coogler’s devastating debut, Fruitvale Station.
The summer isn’t over yet. If audiences have any stamina left, there are several big action films coming before Labor Day, including Hugh Jackman’s X-Men spinoff The Wolverine; cop thriller 2 Guns with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg; and Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi epic Elysium.
Blombkamp, whose latest film cost $115 million to make, broke out with the $34-million sci-fi smash District 9.
That and the recent success of The Conjuring, Monsters University and The Heat show that sometimes a movie doesn’t need to cost $200 million-plus, run 2½ hours or put the fate of the world in peril. Thankfully, human-sized tales with a little wit or a bit of fright still get the job done.