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When Did Moviegoers Stop Going to Shitty Movies?

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | November 2, 2015 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | November 2, 2015 |

The last couple of weekends — and October, in general — has seen a lot of movies flop spectacularly at the box office, in spite of having big names attached or belonging to a well known property. Bill Murray’s Rock the Kasbah and Jem and the Holograms became the third and fourth worst openings in the history of the modern box-office last weekend, and Vin Diesel’s The Last Witch Hunter and the fifth movie in the Paranormal Activity franchise (Ghost Dimension) had similarly terrible box-office performances. This weekend, we saw Bradley Cooper’s Burnt and Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand Is Crisis bomb, becoming those stars’ two biggest duds since, basically, they starred in All About Steve together (actually, that box-office bomb opened with more money than Burnt and Crisis combined). Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse put the cherry on the floptober cake this weekend, opening in 12th with a dismal $1.7 million, despite opening on the genre-appropriate Halloween weekend.

There’s one thing that all those movies have in common, however, and it is this: They are all bad movies, at least based on scores from Rotten Tomatoes.

The interesting wrinkle here, however, is that bad reviews used to not matter as much. A studio film fronted by Brad Cooper or Sandra Bullock (or the equivalent thereof) with bad reviews may not have made a fortune at the box office, but they could usually eke out a decent opening weekend, anyway (see, for instance, All About Steve).

When this site launched back in 2004, something we often explored was why moviegoers were so willing to watch bad movies even when they knew they were going to be a bad? That year, 12 movies with scored deemed rotten by Rotten Tomatoes made $100 million or more.

This year, so far, only five movies with rotten scores have gone over the $100 million mark, and two of those — Home and Minions — were kiddie flicks, where reviews don’t matter as much if there are no other options available for the demo.

What’s going on here? What happened to the days when a huge budget and/or a big star were enough to propel a studio movie into domestic bliss? In 2005, Fantastic Four made $154 million at the box office, even though everyone going in knew it would be terrible. This year, the Fantastic Four reboot was DOA. Van Helsing made $120 million in 2004; that same movie doesn’t make $30 million in 2015. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days made over $100 million in 2003. The same movie makes maybe $25 million in 2015.

Even once critic-proof films from Adam Sandler and Michael Bay aren’t immune. The most recent Transformers movie made $100 million less than its predecessor, and Adam Sandler could only break out of his box-office funk by starring in Hotel Transylvania 2, one of his better reviewed films in years.

What’s going on here?

A few things, actually. Foremost among them is that major studios just aren’t making as many sh*tty movies. It’s not like they’re making more great movies, but they’ve taken a more conservative, risk-averse approach to filmmaking. There are more franchises, and knowing that those franchises can sink under the weight of one bad film, they’re more cautious about releasing sh*t, lest they end up with a limping franchise like The Amazing Spider-Man or the Divergent series.

Another factor is that — thanks to social media — negative word of mouth is getting out faster and further. Studios used to be able to sneak the occasional turkey past us with strong marketing and a good trailer, and they could put up $50 million before we even realize we’d been duped. Now, even as movies open earlier each week — midnight movies fell out of favor after The Dark Knight Rises, so most movies open by 8 p.m. on Thursday — advanced word is already out, be it from critics or others who have seen it earlier.

The moviegoing culture has also changed. It used to be that I — and others like me — would go see almost anything that opened at the multiplex simply because we felt it made us better equipped to handle the cultural conversation. We might go watch two or three movies in a weekend, every weekend. Now, many of those cultural conversations have moved to television, so more of us are opting in favor of catching up on our DVRs over catching a mediocre film. It’s not just that our options multiplied, it’s that many of the better options are available at home.

There are still plenty of us who will still go see a shitty movie out of morbid curiosity (this year’s Fantastic Four accounts for $54 million in viewers still willing to go watch a trainwreck), but we’re less willing to suffer through a forgettable National Treasure sequel or a Roland Emmerich disaster film simply to fill the time. The problem is no longer in filling our idle hours; it’s in finding enough time to see everything that’s good. In that cultural transformation, shitty movies have fallen by the wayside.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.