Tom Jolliffe looks at some of the box office bombs in 2019, and whether studios will learn from their mistakes…
2019 has been an interesting year. There have been the expected successes with Marvel (particularly Avengers: Endgame), and unexpectedly gargantuan success with Joker (which was expected to do well, but that well?). Like every year though, there have been a line up of films which haven’t done so well.
There have been all manner of excuses in recent years over what kills certain films at the box office, and usually the most insular and deluded accusations get thrust out into the spotlight to point fingers everywhere bar where the problems actually lay. Elizabeth Banks may bemoan the fact her Charlie’s Angels reboot has bombed and lay some of the blame at the feet of evasive male audience members who don’t like female action heroes (conveniently forgetting the box office success of a J-Law headed Hunger Games franchise she appeared in). No, men aren’t to blame for the disappointing returns of Charlie’s Angels. Not even Banks, whose film may have only managed middling mediocrity in its audience and critical responses, is to really blame.
The truth is that this was a film no one asked for. It was a film that gathered no buzz. It was seemingly a film, judging by the dreadfully mundane trailers that didn’t even move the formula away from the irksomely styled world McG created in his early 00’s double whammy of groan worthy action physics, girl-power shtick and light hearted japery (they were sort of fun for the time but have dated horribly). What was the difference though? Why did it succeed for McG and not for Banks? Well, firstly, back then, bankable names had a certain… bankability. ‘Name’s’ don’t mean quite as much now (compared to concept/franchise), but even so, Cameron Diaz and to a lesser extent Drew Barrymore were reliable headlining names in 2000. A return from Indie obscurity for Kristen Stewart was never going to bring in the punters. Secondly, audience tastes have changed drastically since 2000.
Did audiences actively rebel against Terminator: Dark Fate because it had a leaning towards a female-centric plotline? (A few idiots aside) No. It failed because anyone with half a brain cell could see the idea of a new mega budget Terminator film was akin to that scene in The Dark Knight when Heath Ledger’s Joker wilfully sets fire to a vault full of money. The only difference was, he knew what would happen and didn’t care, whereas the studio bankrolling another unwanted Terminator sequel thought they might get a neat return. They haven’t (and won’t). Do the people gambling so much on these old, stale ideas do any research in development? Do they check audience desires, demographics, tastes, pop culture buzz? The successful studios know what works. Well…that’s to say, Disney and their subsidiaries, seem to know what works (and guess what, those do actually include female lead pictures). Whoever thought a new Charlies Angels, Terminator, Point Break, Predator, Rambo, were good ideas? Now in the case of a Rambo, they’re not exactly gambling crazy money (in studio terms). It’s a calculated risk certainly, and it didn’t really pay off. Granted, Charlie’s Angels didn’t over gamble given its moderate budget, but even so, is the dire opening weekend really any surprise? To anyone?
However, when you put 185 million dollars into production of a Terminator film, rather than perhaps stripping your reboot back to the core minimalist approach the whole franchise spawned from and maybe making a $50million film that would turn a tidy profit, you’re asking for trouble. Just the same, the Banks helmed Charlies Angels reboot was always doomed to disinterest. It wasn’t just men who didn’t care. Women didn’t seem too compelled to go watch. Such has been the relentless outpouring of box office poison of late, that people are still putting good money into Joker. That’s a film people wanted though, which was interesting, which allured with good marketing and enticing trailers. It’s still in the top 10 after 7 weeks. Only last week’s Ford vs Ferrari release has seemed to offer up some inspiring box office post Joker.
One slight surprise was probably Doctor Sleep. People were intrigued. It had decent reviews. The trailers were pretty good, but ultimately, I and many analysts just oversold the allure of something that was essentially over-saturating its connection to Kubrick’s, The Shining. The more that came out with promotion and trailers, the more they bigged up the reference and nostalgic connections to Kubrick’s masterpiece. In the end, the new film seemed less interesting, less appealing by release week. The promotions were intriguing but come the push to get us into the multiplex, I probably wasn’t the only one who stayed at home and watched The Shining instead.
In the end this boils down to studios needlessly pissing away money on tired ideas without much audience demand there. It’s hardly surprising either, that none of the recent bombs have been particularly great films. None good enough to garner a second wind through word of mouth. Audiences, hopefully, appear to be drawn to more original material. Jordan Peele’s recent success in the low to moderate budget range shows that, whilst Netflix Originals offer some fresher ideas than the multiplexes, and whilst they’ve been a mixed bag in terms of quality, they don’t require the time, effort and money to get down to your local cinema and remortgage your house for a tub of popcorn and a ticket. It would seem perhaps, that aside from the assured spectacle you know you’ll get from Marvel, when it comes to watching T-800’s, or Angels, or Predators etc, you might as well pull on your Blu-Ray, or streaming device of choice and watch the classic one at home, rather than the pale imitator nobody wanted on the big screen.
Money will hopefully find it’s way to more engaging material, more original ideas and perhaps open up a wider spectrum of those lower-to mid level budget films, that middle ground between your low end straight to VOD films costing 1-2 mill and those 200 million dollar budget films that Disney put out. In between? Not actually that much. As John Wick 3 showed, even on a modest budget you can amp up plenty of spectacle. Audiences need to be attracted to the cinemas in the gaps between Marvel releases, and more options need to be put out for the cinephiles among us who agree with Scorsese’s sentiment of blockbuster over-saturation. When a majority of these are bombing, it seems ultimately like a waste of theatre space. As for Banks, she’s got talent to burn (both sides of the camera) and could certainly find the kind of project that has an audience in wait, rather than something that was better primed for TV reboot rather than film.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has several features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019/2020, including Cyber Bride and Scarecrow’s Revenge, both available on Prime. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/