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Ethann Isidore, from left, Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in a scene from Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. De-aging Ford for the film was costly, as was his shoulder injury.Lucasfilm Ltd./The Associated Press

What a difference a few weekends can make. On July 20, the summer movie box office numbers were glum, down 7 per cent from last year, which itself was well below prepandemic levels. But as of the end of the month, this summer’s receipts are suddenly 8.5 per cent higher than last year’s – thanks to the unlikely trio of a plastic doll (Barbie), a nuclear physicist (Oppenheimer) and a mid-budget right-wing rescue fantasy (Sound of Freedom). Together they have pulled in nearly $676-million domestically (the United States and Canada), and $1.3-billion if you add in the rest of the world. (All figures U.S.)

That’s news good enough to dab some sweat from Hollywood foreheads fevered by the dual actors’ and writers’ strikes: Crowds will still flock to cinemas for the right summer movie event. According to Bruce Nash, founder and publisher of The Numbers, an industry-tracking service, the last event film was Avengers: Endgame, which opened in prepandemic 2019 and grossed nearly $2.8-billion worldwide. “There was a real fear that would never happen again,” Nash told me this week. “For three years now, people have been buying 70-inch television sets and getting a cinematic experience at home. So what a massive relief it is that going to a movie in theatres is what everyone is talking about, at the water cooler and on the evening news.”

“We’re on a sugar high,” is how Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, another tracking service, put it in a separate interview. But like all sugar highs, the crash could hurt. From the first Friday in May until Labour Day Monday, Hollywood earns 40 per cent of its annual domestic box office, so a summer movie that overperforms creates a big impact. A movie that underperforms, though, is devastating.

Studios are facing steep hurdles this summer: the strikes; the rise of home entertainments like streaming, TikTok and YouTube; a decline in international box office caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and escalating U.S.-China tensions. Yet they’re spending like drunken sailors to concoct movie events – $200-million and even $300-million on production budgets, plus another $100-million to $200-million for promotion. We’re at a point where a movie can gross $300-million and be an epic fail; where almost every popcorn flick needs to be the biggest hit in history just to make its money back. Given all that, a film that underperforms is starting to feel less like a misfire and more like an inevitability.

Take Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Its $359-million domestic box office looks like great news – until you realize that its production and marketing budgets totalled $350-million. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny has earned $167-million domestically so far – just over half its $294.7-million production budget.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One cost slightly less to make, $291-million, but it’s earned less, too, $139-million, even with Cruise cross-promoting it on every Paramount platform, from an AFC Championship broadcast to “Mission Impossible Week” on CBS Mornings. Paramount’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts was also a bummer, with a domestic gross of $157-million against a $200-million production budget, despite a cross-Hasbro cameo from G.I. Joe.

Warner Bros. was hoping The Flash would reignite its DC Comics Universe; instead, it’s a historic bomb: Its $268-million box office – worldwide – is less than its $220-million budget and additional marketing costs. Disney can’t seem to catch a break, either: Its live-action Little Mermaid cost $250-million to make and has earned only $297-million domestically. Its Pixar film Elemental cost $200-million to make and took in only $145-million domestically. And its Haunted Mansion, which cost $158-million, grossed only $24-million domestically in its opening weekend. Barbie and Oppenheimer may have lifted each other up, but they crushed Haunted Mansion under their weight.

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Gale, center left, Ember, center, and Wade, right, in a scene from Elemental.Pixar/The Associated Press

They may do the same to the remaining summer releases, including The Meg 2 (Jason Statham battles gargantuan shark), which cost $146-million; Blue Beetle (DC comics superhero), $120-million; Gran Turismo (racing adventure), $100-million; and The Equalizer 3 (Denzel Washington thriller), $80-million. Plus, those films will arrive without any promotion from their stars, who are otherwise engaged walking picket lines.

Every film is its own ecosystem, so each box office disappointment has its own set of excuses. The Flash’s star, Ezra Miller, flamed out. De-aging Harrison Ford for Dial of Destiny cost a ton of dough; so did his shoulder injury – but isn’t that what you’d expect with an 80-year-old action hero? Tom Cruise held out for extra tens of millions for the nuclear submarine in Dead Reckoning Part One. And though COVID protocols added millions to every budget, films with bigger crews racked up bigger costs.

The way I see it, though, blockbusters’ money woes are more systemic than individualized. They’re the product of a Hollywood that’s gone all in on spectacle, to the detriment of everything else. Per this way of thinking, if Fast X is the tenth instalment of The Fast and the Furious franchise, it better have 10 times the thrills. That leads to (nearly) 10 times the budget: The Fast and the Furious cost $38-million. Fast X cost $340-million. The same math holds for the fifth Indiana Jones, the seventh Mission: Impossible and the 478th Marvel film, or however many of those things there are.

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Hayley Atwell, left, and Tom Cruise in a scene from Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning, Part One. The movie cost $291-million to make, but it’s earned just $139-million despite heavy promotion.Christian Black/The Associated Press

Unfortunately, studios can’t calculate the cost of franchise fatigue on moviegoers. However splendiferous – and spend-iferous – a fourth or seventh instalment is, it’s missing the thrill that made Barbenheimer a success: the thrill of the new.

Streaming contributes to the chaos. Netflix, AppleTV+ and Prime also hurl money at creatives, and now second-generation streamers such as Disney+ and Paramount+ are bankrupting their studios to keep up. At the same time, if Disney uses its latest Marvel or Pixar release to drive traffic to Disney+, they’re training audiences that those films aren’t must-see-in-theatres events.

Add to that the fault in our star system. The ubiquity of superhero movies has buried two generations of actors under layers of latex and CGI, and made them interchangeable: Batman became more important than Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale or Robert Pattinson. It didn’t matter if Spider-Man was Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland or Shameik Moore. The franchise was all.

Superhero films also locked talents such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen and Mark Ruffalo into multifilm and series contracts that kept them out of circulation. Which means they never made the range of romances, dramas, thrillers and comedies that allowed earlier generations of stars to become box-office draws for themselves, not their franchises. Iron Man had to die for us to see Robert Downey Jr. finally stretch himself again in Oppenheimer.

A list of the 100 stars that moviegoers most want to see in cinemas, commissioned by the studios from the National Research Group, backs this up: The top 20 actors, including Cruise, The Rock, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, predate the superhero era. Their average age is 57.5. Only 13 of the top 100 are under 40, including Jennifer Lawrence, Margot Robbie and Michael B. Jordan; and only four of those are under 30: Jenna Ortega, Tom Holland, Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet. How can you develop a new generation of moviegoers if you haven’t given them stars to relate to? Hollywood has only one answer: more spectacle.

Now that budgets have hit $300-million, can we ever go back? Perhaps a little, Nash thinks: Studios could use the declining grosses of franchises as an argument to pay their stars less, and AI could soon decrease the cost of lavish special effects. “You can ask AI for 25 explosions and it will produce them,” he said. “All under human control, of course, but you won’t need humans to be drawing every single frame.”

Degarabedian is more skeptical. “Hollywood is always saying it’s going to tighten its belt,” he said. “I don’t see that happening.”

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