The next ‘Ishtar': Is the film industry nearing “implosion”?
This post serves as a companion piece and extended update to our previous article on rethinking film industry strategy, which can be found here.
“For me, the business of tentpoles is about generating franchises. The more tentpoles that are being made, the more risky the first installment of a potential franchise is going to be. That’s why I think everybody needs to be asking hard questions about what is a real tentpole and what is a faux tentpole.”
– Jean-Luc De Fanti, managing partner at Hemisphere Media Capital
Since our last post a few weeks ago on the need to rethink film industry strategy, when Steven Spielberg publicly predicted an “implosion” in the industry, the subject remains in the zeitgeist. As we referenced in our last post, Mr. Spielberg has some familiarity with the industry’s modus operandi, having created the blockbuster phenomenon way back in the 70s with Jaws. Like a mutant in a film of that genre though, the nature of blockbusters has changed since then. Jaws, were it made today, would look very different (i.e. terrible). Despite Mr. Spielberg’s warnings, studios presumably took some comfort in an animated sequel – Despicable Me 2 – becoming, in the words of NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke, “the single most profitable film in the 100 year history of Universal Studios”, more than E.T., Jurassic Park, etc. Not only did it paint a picture of an industry continuing to grow (though presumably the figure did not take inflation into consideration), it must have also quietened any further calls for originality, safe in the knowledge that it was a pretty lowbrow sequel that had triumphed.
The caveat is a large one though, that any proponents of summer blockbusters need to pay close attention to. Despicable Me 2 has made £437 million so far, with a production budget of just £50 million. While on the surface then Despicable Me 2 seems to prove how successful and profitable summer movies can be, it actually provides a lesson in what commercial success can look like with a small-budgeted film. Instead, the rule of thumb during the summer is more likely to involve investing some $200m+ in a film that fails spectacularly – think The Lone Ranger. Though this Disney production is the most visible disappointment of the season, it is by no means alone. The New York Times count “six big-budget duds since May 1“. It is interesting to note that Now You See Me, “the kind of midrange film that studios have largely abandoned as they focus more on pictures that play globally — has taken in $200.4 million worldwide and is still playing”, after costing $75m to make.
Those responsible try to spread the blame. Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer absolved themselves of wrongdoing for their involvement in The Lone Ranger by blaming the critics. Said Depp, “They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that”. Yet it is easy to see how one might assume the film – created at such expense, with ripe intellectual property to be exploited, with talent involved in the phenomenally successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – had all the appropriate ingredients to make it a blockbuster. Studios meanwhile harp on about Twitter, which lets people instantly share their thoughts on a film and is now considered a worrisome bellwether for box office potential. But this is a reaction to poor filmmaking, not a reason why a bad film exists in the first place. They also cite a tight calendar. As The New York Times elaborates, “One or more cinematic behemoths — those loaded with similar-looking computer-generated effects, films that cost $130 million to $225 million to make — have arrived almost weekly since May, fragmenting and fatiguing the audience”. Again, this is no one’s fault but that of the industry. The idea of launching films in a specific time window, when consumers now enjoy time-shifting and device-shifting with their content, is antiquated. It is just as irrelevant in winter, when back-to-back “prestige” films clutter cinemas, desperate for Oscar attention. It is overwhelming for audiences, reduces choice, and in the case of the winter season implies that the voting member of the Academy have no long-term memory.
The summer product is so derivative that evidently audiences are pushing back, showing indifference to the “clones” that feature so prominently at Comic-Con. Films are either direct sequels / reimaginings, or strongly resemble other recent projects. Again, The New York Times has an excellent article on this, elaborating,
“Studios showcased another Amazing Spider-Man, another Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, another Avengers, another Thor and another Captain America… In addition to Godzilla, remakes teased here in recent days included RoboCop… and Riddick,… Even many of the original movies introduced at Comic-Con this year had a been-there-done-that feeling to them, notably Legendary’s sword-and-sorcery picture Seventh Son, which co-stars Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Ben Barnes. In thundering snippets of footage shown on Saturday, the movie at times resembled Clash of the Titans, Snow White and the Huntsman and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”
Cheering news for Sony came last week when it announced a $35m profit in the last quarter, but turbulence lay beyond that. In our last post, we mentioned the imbroglio that Sony found itself in as investor Daniel Loeb – whose hedge fund owns roughly 7% of Sony – continued to urge Sony to spin off its entertainment assets. Last week, he wrote a third letter to Sony – the most aggressive yet, with the Financial Times calling it “blistering” – comparing the film division’s two recent duds After Earth and White House Down to Ishtar and Waterworld (two of the floppiest flops to ever flop). He wrote that the CEO, Kazuo Hirai was sitting by complacently while the film division remained “poorly managed, with a famously bloated corporate structure, generous perk packages, high salaries for underperforming executives and marketing budgets that do not seem to be in line with any sense of return on capital invested”. It was with some interest then that, this past Friday, Zeitgeist saw that none other than George Clooney had stepped into the fray, calling Loeb an “activist” who “knows nothing about our business”. He lambasted the hedge fund industry in general, saying “if you look at those guys, there is no conscience at work”.
Clooney added that the “climate of fear” Loeb was creating would lead to even more risk-averse productions. It is creative, rather than financial risk, that Hollywood is sorely in need of. Art doesn’t engage audiences when it is timid and derivative. It inspires people when it is innovative, daring and different. Usually such creative thoughts do not spring forth from the mind of a hedge fund manager. Such new thinking – involving a review of a market research firms say is suffering from “overcrowding” – will require a significant course correction, one that is not going to come anytime soon. The summer slate for 2015 currently includes a Terminator sequel, an Avengers sequel, a Smurfs sequel, Independence Day 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 5.