Is Summer 2017 a Hollywood Disaster?
Summer 2017 at the box office was memorable for a few exciting releases. Wonder Woman, an exceptionally enjoyable film led by a female protagonist superhero, succeeded beyond the collective wisdom of the Hollywood studio patriarchy. In short, it made money. It appealed to all genders and age groups. It delivered something original and unexpected without a proven box office star to lead the way. It was female driven and it worked. On the other hand, Universal’s reboot of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise with Russel Crowe, was a 20 pound lead ballon. How could a hackneyed premise turn off millennials? The Mummy, previously revived as a Brendan Fraser vehicle, somehow kept viewers glued to Netflix. Perhaps it just didn't feel original.
Summer is not a time audiences shy away from the box office. It’s traditionally a money making bonanza, a sure thing for the studio, a guaranteed success, but 2017 failed to deliver. In fact it failed hard. Between May 5th and Labor Day, the collective domestic box office hit a 25 year low. Was it due to competition from streaming services or a down economy? Baseball didn't seem to have a problem with profits. Concerts made money. So what was the problem, Hollywood?
Past summers brought us iconic blockbusters, the stuff of sequels and must-own DVD’s and downloads. Films like Star Wars, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, and Forest Gump were not only summer money makers, they became Hollywood classics. What about Back to the Future, Caddy Shack, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Top Gun? You might also toss in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy for recent blockbusters that bested an evening of “Netflix and chill.”
How could the golden goose of summer movies turn into a dead duck? A 25 year box office low now has the studios talking. How could they bomb with played out franchises and aging box office stars? The answer is too difficult to admit. The answer is too frighting to imagine. After a decade of the bean counters running the show, Hollywood’s long standing bet on preexisting summer titles and CG dazzle has been thwarted by original content. — (Pause for a huge thunderclap!) — Studio hostility after the 2007 writer’s strike, led the best and brightest writers and directors to digital streaming and cable. Talented artists wanted to tell original stories and Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Showtime, and AMC were happy to oblige.
Summer films in the past were successful because the brought original content to the screen. That requires the talents of original artists and thinkers. That requires an equitable arrangement. So why are original ideas so frightening to studio execs? It’s because original content implies risk. Studios are willing to spend buckets of gold on summer releases but they need reassurance of a profit. After the enormous costs of production and distribution, failure is not an option.
Perhaps films should be more cost effective? Maybe smaller indies built upon great scripts might increase the chances of a hit. Maybe the risk is still too great to chance it. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, an April 2002 release, took a chance on an original script with an unknown star and a 5 million dollar budget. It was an indie art house flick that played for five straight months and grossed 241.5 million. No stars. No vast advertising budget. No expectations that it would ever be a hit. Generating a word of mouth campaign, My Big Fat Greek Wedding delivered an original comedy with heart and laughter. It was relatable. It was real. It defied the Hollywood odds. So was it a fluke? MGM doesn't think so.
Reviving the Orion Pictures brand as a stand-alone indie studio, MGM expects to produce and distribute 4 to 6 original, moderately budgeted films each year. That’s great news for filmmakers but even better news for fans. With an inkling of success, other studios might just follow along. A studio owned indie division is not a new idea. It's how classic films used to be made. It’s what saved Hollywood in the 70s and 80s.
Choking on the dust of a 25 year box office low, Hollywood will adapt. Heads will roll. Then again, maybe it’s just time to make moderately budgeted original films. Maybe that’s worth the risk.