Niagara Gazette

July 30, 2013

CALLERI: Box office misery has studios on edge

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The latest movie from the X-Men universe was expected to be a beast at the box office. It was going to shred the competition and attract more than just the comic book-loving fan boys. The publicity drums beat loudly. “The Wolverine” came with so many guarantees of success that it could not miss. But it did.

Since opening on Friday, “The Wolverine,“ with Hugh Jackman again on view as the title character, a furry ball of anger with razor-sharp metallic claws, hasn’t lived up to expectations. It had an okay opening of $53-million, which is not spectacular. It may limp into profitability when you add world-wide figures. Its soft opening has been attributed to a number of things.

First is the bad taste left over from the uninteresting “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” from 2009. The new Wolverine picture scored 35 percent less on its opening weekend than the previous incarnation. Another problem is that the marginally effective movie, set in Japan, seems less an action film and more a personal melodrama. The scattershot story relies on a mysterious woman, Yakuza gangsters, a strange and labored blend of mythology and modern science, and reflections on an old romance. Through it all, Jackman looks more muscle-bound but much less interested in the goings-on. Instead of animal magnetism, call it animal fatigue.

The wobbly open of “The Wolverine” is not an isolated box office quirk. Failures are littering the movie landscape. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

What the world knows as “Hollywood,” the glittering landscape of the six major motion picture studios, was looking forward to a sizzling summer at the box office. Optimism reigned supreme. Studio executives and their marketing teams needed only to convince potential audiences that its mega-budget release was the must-see event of the season.

These costly features are known as tent pole movies, meaning, in effect, that they create a protective tent, a financial covering for everything the studio releases for much of the rest of the summer and, in some cases, for much of the rest of the year. Studio bosses ask this question: Would you rather spend $200-million on one movie that brings in upwards of a billion dollars worldwide, or would you rather spread the budget money around; therefore, making smaller films that might not attract the attention of the target audience: young adult males?

Hollywood has been mired in a tent pole mentality for quite some time, and it looks as if this strategy is weakening. Studios try to keep the mega-budgets a secret, but there are always employees willing to leak that information to the press. In addition to the actual production cost of a film, there’s also a 30-40 percent add-on for publicity and promotion. A $100-million movie could cost a studio as much as $140-million before it opens in the United States. Even if a film grosses its production and promotion budget, approximately half of that take goes to the theaters. So, to be precise, a $140-million movie has to score $210-million just to break even.

It was reported that director Steven Spielberg recently issued a warning about the reliance on movies that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, especially in a world saturated with myriad digital entertainment choices that would have stunned the studio executives who built the Hollywood machine. At a media event in June at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Spielberg said, “there’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

In addition to the less than stellar opening of “The Wolverine,” other highly-anticipated summer blockbusters have walked into a wall and crumbled. The truly awful and misguided “The Lone Ranger,” with an overall cost some say was $375-million, has limped to a pale $85-million. It’s a certified disaster.

Also flopping were Will Smith’s boring sci-fi epic “After Earth,” the derivative action thriller “White House Down,” the Godzilla meets Transformers copy “Pacific Rim,” the weird and watered-down “Men In Black” imitation known as “R.I.P.D.,” and “Turbo,” which had one of the weakest openings for DreamWorks Animation.

What is keeping audiences away? Overall, the quality is lacking this season. Familiarity really does breed contempt, as well as boredom. How many robots or White House shoot-outs can you handle? Even “Man Of Steel” lacked originality, but its strong foreign ticket sales have compensated for the low North American box office. High ticket prices and steep concession costs certainly add to the reluctance of moviegoers to sample films without positive word-of-mouth.

What has worked? The entertaining haunted house movie “The Conjuring” cost only $20-million to make, and it’s a smash hit. Spielberg might be on to something.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.