The general thought running through social media right now about the failures of the summer movie season has little to do with the actual movies, and everything to do with their costs. In terms of box office, it looks like it’s going to be the biggest movie summer of all time, while the movies themselves are fairly typical of the summer: All spectacle, little substance. That spectacle costs a lot of money, and with every summer movie trying to outdo the last (see: Man of Steel vs. The Avengers), the studios are running up the costs, but they’re getting the same returns.
The Lone Ranger is the perfect example of that problem. The film has made $175 million so far worldwide (and it’s still opening in foreign territories), and yet it looks like Disney is going to lose $190 million on the film.
That’s insane. A movie that makes $200 million at the box office should not be $190 million in the red. That sounds like less a failure of the movie and more a failure of economics. Mark Wahlberg, in the Los Angeles Times, succinctly addresses the failure.
“They’re spending $250 million for two dudes on a horse?” he said incredulously. “Where’s the money going?’
Well, exactly, right? Much of Wahlberg’s success as a movie star can actually be attributed to the fact that his movies are modestly budgeted. He’s the fourth biggest movie star of all time not to make a sequel (yet; he has two in the works), and when his movie budgets are $50 to $60 million, there’s not as much pressure to have a $75 million opening weekend. 2 Guns costs $61 million; it’s made more than half of that back in the first 10 days, and once worldwide grosses are eventually accounted for, there’s no way that 2 Guns doesn’t eke out a profit.
Where’s the money going? Again, Wahlberg speaks to that:
“They are spending so much money to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes with these effects-driven movies,” he said. “It’s not like ‘Jurassic Park,’ where you saw something groundbreaking and innovative and said ‘Holy … I gotta see that. Every end-of-the-Earth movie kind of feels the same.”
That’s where we will begin to see some pull back from that. There is a brilliant interview with Damon Lindelof over on Vulture this week, where he addressed that very problem.
“Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world,” explains Lindelof. “And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there. In the old days, it was just as satisfying that all Superman has to do was basically save Lois from this earthquake in California. The stakes in that movie are that the San Andreas Fault line opens up and half of California is going to fall in the ocean. That felt big enough, but there is a sense of bigger, better, faster, seen it before, done that.”
“It sounds sort of hacky and defensive to say, [but it’s] almost inescapable,” he continues. “It’s almost impossible to, for example, not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake. You basically work your way backward and say, ‘Well, the Avengers aren’t going to save Guam, they’ve got to save the world.’ Did Star Trek Into Darkness need to have a gigantic starship crashing into San Francisco? I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.”
But again, audiences may be getting weary with the scale, those stakes. That huge, massive end-of-the-world fight scene in World War Z was scrapped, for instance, and Lindelof was brought in to tone it down, give us a smaller, Ocean’s 11 kind of ending. It wasn’t entirely successful, but it did at least demonstrate that audiences aren’t insisting the the fate of the free world lie in the balance. We don’t need 28-mile runways in Fast and Furious 6. We are OK with smaller scale stories on smaller scale budgets. I’ll tell you, in fact, what a perfect example of that was: Now You See Me, the Jesse Eisenberg/Mark Ruffalo magician movie: It costs $75 million to make, and has quietly brought in $225 million worldwide, and the free world was never even at stake. It was also a lot more fun to watch than Man of Steel.