Is 2016 the worst year for movies in recent years? It certainly seems that way. The month of August is now over, drawing the summer movie season to a close and people everywhere are already having trouble listing anything noteworthy that has come out since January. In particular, the summer movie season this seemed to slump – scratch that –crash and burn. Financially, this was one of the poorest summers in box-office numbers ever, with only a couple stand-outs (“Captain America: Civil War” and “Finding Dory”) managing to reach any kind of blockbuster heights. Even more troublesome is the fact that many of these movies simply did not stand-up. Throw away the fact that many of these movies ether underperformed or flopped at the box office and one is still left with feeling that many were disposable.
Of all the movies that have come out since January, only a select few (“The Witch,” “Everybody Wants Some” and “The Lobster”) felt truly great. There hasn’t been a big blockbuster that everyone seemed to unify behind, an entire middle tier of movies that have big stars but no “save the world” action sequences seem to be disappearing and even the small indie-scene seems unusually barren. So what’s happened? Is 2016 just a weird bump in the road on our movie going journey? Or is this year a result of a larger systematic problem facing the industry? The idea of what kind of movie will emerge as a hit seems to have been shattered as studios such as Sony and Warner Bros. deal with the disappointment of supposed “too big to fail” blockbusters. Both pored astronomical amounts of money into films such as “Ghostbusters” and “Batman v. Superman,” which were expected to be sure-fire mega hits.
However, many of these films have them underperform at the box-office, due to the extreme amount they would have needed to make back in order to be considered a hit. Take “Batman v. Superman” for example. The superhero flick made a little over $800 million at the box office, but needed to reach close to a billion dollars, due to its massive budget and high marketing cost, in order to be deemed a hit. At the same time, films such as the superhero comedy “Deadpool” and Jon Favreau’s live-action remake of “The Jungle Book” have managed to be bigger hits than anyone expected going into the year. Family films as well, especially animated, have managed to hit high financial marks on a fairly consistent basis.
This streak of big-studio disappointments has brought to mind a theory given by two legends of the blockbuster industry. A few years back, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas gave their thoughts on how the industry seemed to be heading for a massive bubble burst. They spoke on the growing pressure by studios to invest in projects with a larger mass appeal. These projects would likely fall under franchises that the studio believed have an already large fan-base or previously established I.P. Because of this, studios become more willing to throw massive amounts of money to something that, formulaically, should be a hit, rather than throw even a modest budget toward a riskier niche project. However, as the two filmmakers addressed, all it would take is the failure of several big franchise pictures to completely collapse the system.
Studios finding themselves in a hole after a massive franchise flop will likely result in doubling down on these same kind of movies and leaving an entire middle ground of movies to go extinct. These mid-budget movies, such as “Money Monster” or “The Nice Guys,” which both flopped this past summer, constantly find themselves overrun by the larger franchise pictures, causing studios to further shy away from them. More and more, the kind of stories we used to see as mid-budget movies are moving to television. Five or six years ago, something like “The Night Of” would have likely been something playing at the nearest theater, but these days plays on a channel like HBO.
Perhaps the greatest piece of irony is that television seemed to out-blockbuster the big blockbuster movies this past summer. Netflix’s sci-fi series “Stranger Things” took its inspiration from classic films of Spielberg and John Carpenter and managed to be more talked about than any big franchise picture. In a sense, “Stranger Things” was the summer movie we deserved but never got; the kind of blockbuster of a lost age. “Game of Thrones” is yet another example of a TV show that seemed to overtake the cultural conversation, managing to offer all the scale and thrill we want to see in a summer movie, but with greater substance and depth. So is television where we have to look now for great stories? Many filmmakers have already begun the transition to television as it seems to offer more freedoms and movies deemed to “non-commercial” for theaters might find the nearest cable network or streaming service a more welcoming home. Consider this, the best movie of the year, thus far, might be a nearly 8-hour documentary on the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson that aired over the course of five nights on ESPN.
So ok, the movies this summer were awful, more people were excited about what was on their TV sets rather than at the multiplexes and things are likely to just get worse. But what about the fall? Yes, the fall is where a bad movie year can make a big turnaround. Just look at 2013. Many bloggers and critics that year complained of the underwhelming choices during the summer blockbuster season, even if there were a couple of great indie-flicks. However, that fall brought a rush of fantastic movies (“Gravity,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Her” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”) which helped turn the perception of that movie year around.
But let’s be real, few movies are garnering any large attention this fall. Marvel will likely have another hit with “Dr. Strange” because…well, they’re Marvel. Both “Rogue One” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” standalones set in the universes of “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter,” will likely walk out fine as well. After all, those three blockbusters have brands with a large fan base to help ensure ticket sales. But if the fall is supposed to be a time for a more “serious” movie-going experience, one full of hopeful award winners, then the pickings still seem slim. Does anyone really expect Clint Eastwood to have anything to say about Captain Sully other than, “He’s a hero, look what he did?” Does Oliver Stone know that there was already an Edward Snowden movie that came out a few years ago, one with the actual Snowden instead of Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing a bad impersonation?
That’s not to say everything will be terrible or uninteresting. Both Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” and Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” have already gotten high praise on the festival circuit, even if the latter’s writer/director/star is currently plagued with controversy. And hey, maybe “Rogue One” will open up new possibilities for the “Star Wars” franchise. Maybe, Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” will actually get a fall release instead of being pushed back to next year. Maybe, something not yet mentioned will come along and get everyone excited about going to the movies again! For now, 2016 stands as an unusually dull year for cinema lovers. Perhaps, if anything, the disappointments of the last eight months will allow us to re-examine the industry as a whole and predict what might be in store for the future. Oh well, here’s hoping 2017 is better.