The World That's Coming

March 28, 2014 Writingthoughts ,

The Wrong Lessons

A final post, from now, from the “Things I Wrote for WIRED That Were Never Published” vault. This is from August last year.

As the Comic-Con announcements last month demonstrated, 2015 is shaping up to be a pretty big year for genre cinema, with Superman/Batman and [World of] WarCraft being added to a summer line-up for that year that already included Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars Episode VII, Independence Day 2, the reborn Terminator, Jurassic Park IV, the next James Bond movie, Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, Finding Dory, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and the final Hunger Games movie. Pretty impressive, perhaps, but also more than a little derivative.

The swathe of anticipated big budget sequels doesn’t stop there for the year; also anticipated at some point in 2015 are follow-ups to Mission Impossible, Prometheus, Avatar, Snow White and The Huntsman and, somewhat unexpectedly, Pitch Perfect (On the plus side, we might finally have the “Cups” song out of our head by that point). When it comes to “original” genre productions, we seem to be limited to Assassin’s Creed, Ratchet and Clank and Marvel’s Ant-Man, all of which are, of course, adaptations of properties in other media.

This might seem like a sad state of affairs — perhaps one that can only lead to cannibalization given the sheer amount of big budget movies lined up to face off against each other — but you can’t blame movie executives alone for it. The genre movie slate of 2015 is very much a result of what happened this summer at the box office.

Let’s start with the reliance on familiar material. As the 2013 box office to date demonstrates, it just doesn’t pay to create something new in the genre space — or, at least, it doesn’t pay as well as recreating something old. Seven of the top 10 movies of the year in the U.S. have genre trappings, whether they feature superheroes, science fiction or monsters (Yes, monsters in university still count; I’m not counting Fast and Furious 6, even though that is essentially Car Avengers at this point in the series), and each of those movies is based upon an existing property, which isn’t entirely surprising. After all, the majority of genre movies released each year are remakes, sequels or adaptations of stories that have already created a fanbase elsewhere.

From a business point of view, this makes a certain amount of sense: Genre movies tend to be more expensive than non-genre movies — because of the cost of the necessary special effects and visual trickery necessary to make the audience believe in something that, for the most part, couldn’t exist in the real world — so the prospect of investing that increased cost in a known quantity with relatively established fanbase at least appears to be less of a financial risk than putting the same amount of money into something new, unknown and unproven.

The problem arises when the same issue is approached from an aesthetic direction. Simply put, familiarity breeds contempt, and there are only so many times we can see the same stories being told, or the same characters in action, before it gets boring. Entertainment has to be about novelty to some degree, which — by definition — requires something that we haven’t seen before. This is an area where non-genre movies — comedies, dramas and other features which tend towards realism in ways that require less money to conjure onscreen — have the edge on genre: It’s less of an investment, or business risk, to come up with something new, meaning that the ratio of “new” versus franchise outside of the genre space is far greater than it is for genre output.

As much as many would like that ratio to change — and for genre movies to become less dominated by all-too-literal attempts to recapture what has worked before — it can be difficult to argue against the business math responsible for the way things are, especially when those non-franchised movies that do get released end up falling short of the success enjoyed by the alternative at the box office. To wit: 2013 had a handful of “new,” non-franchise genre movies, each with some level of draw to mainstream movie audiences, and none made more than $100 million at the U.S. box office.

After Earth and Oblivion, both of which told similar “Earth is screwed, so we moved on but then we came back and it totally wasn’t what we expected” stories with different massive movie stars attached (Will Smith and Tom Cruise, in that order), stalled out at $60 million and $89 million, respectively. The much-hyped, fiercely-defended Pacific Rim is sitting around $86 million. The most successful of this year’s All-New Apocalypse fiction, This Is The End, is also the cheapest (It cost $32 million to make, compared with Pacific Rim‘s $190 million, After Earth‘s $130 million and Oblivion‘s $120 million); it’s managed to rake in $95 million to date.

If there’s a second lesson to learn from this summer for movie executives besides “stick to what you know,” it’s “when you choose to gamble, make your gambles as cheaply as possible.” Besides Pacific Rim, Disney’s wildly expensive Lone Ranger movie earned just $85 million, despite costing the studio $215 million to produce, never mind market. In comparison, “smaller” — and, tellingly, non-genre — movies like Now You See Me (which cost $75 million) and Identity Thief (which cost $35 million) not only recouped their investment but went on to move into pure profit.

So what, exactly, is going on here? Is there a cap on genre movies that don’t have a nostalgic or recognizable “in” to get audiences past the speed bump of traditionally niche-oriented material where suspension of disbelief in the unfamiliar is required? Are there only so many people who are interested in paying to watch robots, monsters and superheroes when they’re not accompanied by some level of childhood nostalgia?

It’s been said often enough that audiences need to vote with their dollars when it comes to demanding a certain kind of entertainment. That idea is complicated when what’s being offered up is so limited. If the audience wants to see all-new original material, but doesn’t want to see the kind of material that’s on offer in Pacific Rim, Oblivion or After Earth, should they “vote” for it or not? If the kinds of movies they want to see are only available in existing franchises, is paying for a ticket voting for that particular kind of movie in terms of tone and plot, or for “franchise movies” as some kind of invincible monolith?

Based on the box office results of the year so far, it’s no surprise that movie studios are focusing on the franchises as much as possible for summer 2015; they’re as much of a sure thing as is possible for the industry these days, even if the amazing, worrying pile up of Must-See Movies listed above suggests that some will inevitably fall by the wayside.

If, however, the lack of new, original genre movies is the result of the performance of this year’s batch of end of the world flicks, that’s unfortunate, and the result of a skewed test sample. Offer the audience some new ideas with the variety, optimism and invention–not to mention, please, some sense of frugality; no more $190 million budgets–missing from this year’s examples, Hollywood, and see whether or not the mainstream audience is ready to watch a genre movie that they don’t already know the story of. The alternative is simply surrendering to the law of diminishing returns.

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