Franchise Fatigue or Bland Blockbusters?

Why big-budget films are under-performing, and what studios can do to fix it.

Another summer weekend, another round of box office disappointment. In a summer where Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Dark Phoenix, Men in Black: International, and Shaft have performed abysmally, the internet is claiming that franchise fatigue has set in. Yet, Avengers: Endgame just proved that a blockbuster sequel can still dominate the box office. Aladdin, based on a pre-existing IP, is putting up some serious dollars. And both Toy Story 4 and Spider-Man: Far From Home, two big-budget sequels, are looking to make a lot of money. So what’s really going on with these tentpole films?

It’s Disney. They’re always successful.

No, not really. The Disney banner doesn’t guarantee success with critics and success. For proof, just look at the poor reception and low box office receipts for last year’s A Wrinkle in Time and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Oh, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, while making a profit, wasn’t the runaway success Disney was probably hoping for.

Meanwhile, Lionsgate’s John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum had a franchise-best opening, and has had great legs going forward. Paramount’s Rocketman has been doing exceptionally well for an R-rated “musical fantasy biopic” as eccentric as its subject. Low budget movies such as Glass and Escape Room have also found success at the box office — and Glass was indeed a sequel.

The truth is, Disney does have a lot of IP right now, and it’s only getting bigger. It’s upsetting for a number of reasons, but it’s not the reason that everything else seems to be failing at the box office. Disney simply has more at-bats, so their home runs are more frequent and publicized.

Okay, fine. Critics are targeting these movies.

No, not exactly. The poor critical reception certainly doesn’t help these films at all, but there’s more to it than a green splat on Rotten Tomatoes. Both Glass and Escape Room had middling to downright negative critical reception, but still found success with the public. Granted, movies in the horror/thriller genre tend to be slightly more critic-proof; it doesn’t take away from their success in the slightest. It’s also worth noting that Aladdin received a mixed response from critics, and is doing very well with the public.

Furthermore, critics aren’t “targeting” any of these movies. The reason that these movies are getting mediocre and poor reviews is because a large majority of people find these movies mediocre and poor. Men in Black: International was a corpse of a film with no energy or reason to exist. While I haven’t seen Dark Phoenix, nothing in its marketing or press tour suggested anything better than the picture its reviews are painting. The respective marketing campaigns for those two films did nothing to shed positive light on either of them.

So, it’s bad marketing then.

Nope. Once again, it’s more complicated by that. Marketing is a contributor to the failure of these films, but there are the outliers. Godzilla: King of the Monsters had a marketing campaign that was universally praised; the internet ate up every trailer, television spot, and still image leading up to the release. Yet, once the movie came out, public interest dropped like a Beyoncé album (that is to say, overnight).

Also take into consideration two of the year’s animated sequels: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and The Secret Life of Pets 2. Both had marketing campaigns that were perfectly acceptable, promising the same fun, family-friendly entertainment as their predecessors. Yet, both under-performed when it came for audiences to come out.

Okay, then, what is it?

It’s a complicated situation. Basically, general audiences are getting wiser. With social media and the internet as a whole, filmmaking is no longer a secret process. People are wise to behind the scenes turmoil, and can smell a troubled project from a mile away. These films are flopping because they are uninspired, overcooked disasters, and the stories behind them are leaking into the public perception. This creates self-fulfilling prophecies. Dark Phoenix was doomed as soon as that dreaded “re-shoots” report surfaced. It immediately set a tone for the X-Men finale, that unfortunately carried through to the reception of the film itself.

Meanwhile, movies like Hellboy and Men in Black: International did little to convince audiences they had a reason to exist. Both felt like shameless cash grabs released simply because their respective studios could do so. Not only that, both had reports of infighting between directors, producers, and stars. It begs the question: how many of these “too many cooks in the kitchen” narratives do studios have to see play out before they take the hint?

Audiences are tired of bland, paint-by-numbers films, and now they have the resources to figure out which films fall under that category. And they’re not going to waste their time on it. Not when they can stream The Dark Knight from the comfort of their couch.

So how does Hollywood fix it?

They can look (and I mean really look) at what Marvel Studios is currently doing. Warner Bros.’ DC division seems to finally be taking the right lessons from Marvel, and hopefully other studios will start following suit.

See, while Marvel has a formula that all of their films adhere to, they also allow their filmmakers agency within that formula to put their own spin on the IP. It’s telling that some of Marvel’s most successful non-Avengers films are James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy duology, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. All of these films stick to the Marvel formula, but are undoubtedly the product of their respective directors’ visions. They offered something different and took some necessary risks.

Audiences appreciate movies that give them interesting flavors. Studios that offer the same made-by-committee, vanilla-flavored entertainment will start to see that audiences won’t show up for them. Instead, they’ll see a movie like Aquaman, which is very clearly a passion project for director James Wan. They’ll see something like Glass, that, while flawed, is undoubtedly an M. Night Shyamalan product.

Here’s the thing, Hollywood. You hire these directors for their abilities. Stop trying to stifle them. Trust that your hired talent will bring a vision to life and respect that vision. At the very least, you’ll have a product more interesting than the sky-beam third act tripe that the public has no interest in seeing anymore. At the best, you may have a surprise hit on your hand. Just keep your budgets low and hold your talents high.

A film critic with a taste for genre fare, living in Sioux Falls, SD. If you love movies, we’ll get along just fine.

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