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Tent Poles: A Firm Foundation?

As the summer season begins, industry analyst Michael Gubbins warns of the dangers of placing too many eggs in the blockbuster basket…

The summer blockbuster season tends to have its own tabloid narrative, which veers drunkenly between triumph and disaster. A stroll around the Internet reveals how each week’s figures are interpreted as signs of a shift in public taste or a portent of impending doom — and that’s even before you get to the bloggers.

The exhibitors who recently gathered in Amsterdam for the annual first screening of the major films tend to be more phlegmatic, well aware of how a range of factors from weekend competition between films to the weather can distort numbers. But even then there is something hypnotic about the weekend box office, and it takes a force of will to see a bigger picture. And even year-on-year comparisons can be misleading; a single film can come out of left field to create a sensational boom in any single year that creates an unmatchable spike, such as the unexpected $400m global success of The King’s Speech.

Nearly 170 years after the guillotine business closed, Mao said that it was too early to tell whether the French revolution had had any effect on history. Maybe we should take a leaf out of the embalmed leader’s little red book, which too rarely gets a mention in box-office analysis these days. So, when looking at this year’s blockbuster crop, it is wise to be very circumspect about identifying long-term trends.

It is also important, however, not to be fooled into a false sense of security. It was only five or six years ago that film was seemingly on an unstoppable upwards trajectory, powered by an unprecedented hedge-fund boom. The reality check was painful.
Today, there are also clear areas for concern. The first is that we are reaching the end of some of the most profitable franchises in cinema history—notably the biggest of all, the $6bn magician, Harry Potter. The sun has also gone down—or is that come up?—on the Twilight series. And the superheroes, who have powered up the box office in recent years, are looking decidedly threadbare.

American satirical news site The Onion had a great bitchy take on The Green Lantern under the headline ‘Green Lantern’ To Fulfill America’s Wish To See Lantern-Based Characters On Big Screen, and carries a spoof quote from star Ryan Reynolds, as saying, “I have been a Green Lantern fan ever since I was told I would be the person starring in the Green Lantern movie.” The box-office takings may not have quite added the punchline but they have been below expectations in the US and well below par in territories such as the UK (opening on £2.47m).
The film also sheds some light on the second big issue: the future prospects for 3D. Some commentators suggest that the public has become more discerning about what will work in the extra dimension. In retrospect, Avatar was the wrong way to kick off a revolution because few, if any, films can be said to have lived up to its 3D promise. It is also true that the initial hype tried to position 3D as a permanent game-changer on the scale of sound, whereas it is becoming clear that 2D will continue to co-exist. The extra dimension has been a reminder of what a highly immersive format we already had, with the imagination filling the dimensional gap.
While all of these arguments are interesting, the real issue for 3D is much more mundane—it has to justify the extra ticket price when public spending is tight. At the moment, the premium price is a critical factor in the economics of 3D, not least given the still limited access in many countries to 3D-enabled screens.

The industry focus on this summer’s box office, therefore, needs to be firmly on the underlying economics. The studios could not be more aware of this, given that they are generally pursuing a policy of putting most of their eggs in a small basket of 3D global blockbusters. It was always a risky call and the redundancies that most of the studios have seen over the last few months, including the most recent cuts at Walt Disney this month, show that the margins of success are tight. Harvey Weinstein recently made the point with characteristic bluntness, saying the film business was “working without a net right now”.

The huge investment in blockbusters is coming at a time when the cash cow of DVD is in decline—down 18 per cent for the first quarter of 2011, according to industry trade organisation Digital Entertainment Group. Digital alternatives are simply not filling the gap and at least part of the promise of faster broadband, Internet-enabled television and Cloud services will be eaten up by piracy. So whatever happens at the box office this summer, the success of a film can be judged only when the home entertainment numbers are in.

This new digital world may require a reassessment of the blockbuster business model. The discussion about change, however, is tough; it’s hard to make room for serious discussion when there are so many elephants in the room, from release windows to territory rights. Nonetheless, there is no reason for panic. Blockbuster cinema has always been risky business and reliant on finding rich seams that can be hacked away at until finally boredom takes its toll. Westerns, musicals, swords and sandals, comic-book heroes… Something generally comes along, whether it’s an inspired mum like JK Rowling typing away at a magical book or, going back, Rin Tin Tin the super dog, who famously saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy in the 1920s.

Indeed, Weinstein’s analogy of the high-wire walk is perhaps a melodramatic image, but one worth bearing in mind when looking for the real story of the summer. •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 23 (July/August 2011)

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