This is the way the summer movie season ends, not with a bang but a whimper – and with Idris Elba fighting a CGI lion, just as T.S. Eliot anticipated.
This past weekend, Hollywood’s attempt to produce a “back-to-normal” blockbuster corridor came to a close, as the Elba-vs.-animal thriller Beast earned a paltry US$11.5-million – a shoulder-shrug of a box-office achievement that underscores just how much audiences and even studios have turned their backs on what was once the busiest time at the multiplex.
Blame the knock-down effects of the pandemic, certainly, but also an industry that has used one crisis to inadvertently create another. By short-sightedly favouring the desert-mirage promises of streaming over the time-tested theatrical-release model (and all its attendant trickle-down revenue opportunities), Hollywood has created a monster of a problem that not even the mighty Elba can tame.
While the next few months promise some sort of cinematic salvation – though not until after a dry-as-dust September – the 2022 summer movie season’s winners and losers provide plenty of IMAX-sized hints as to what the sector needs to do if it wants to make next year one to remember, or forget.
Winner: Tom Cruise
Never underestimate a man who leaps out of planes for both business and pleasure. We all not-so-silently mocked Cruise when he refused to release Top Gun: Maverick digitally during the heights of the pandemic. Surely a decades-late sequel to a cheesy eighties action movie wasn’t worth holding onto indefinitely, right? Just stream it on Paramount+ and get it over with already. Today, the biggest, and one of the best (yes!), films of the year is still going strong at the box office, 12 long weeks after its opening weekend. And Cruise is personally set to earn upward of US$100-million from the film’s unprecedented global haul of US$1.3-billion (and counting). That’s a lot of couches to jump on.
Loser: Movie theatres
Cruise delivered above and beyond exhibitors’ expectations, but many other of the industry’s partners nose-dived in the opposite direction. With about 33-per-cent fewer major titles released this summer compared with 2019, theatre-owners were left with only a handful of sure things and a near-barren August. And they had to endure this all the while their competitors in the streaming world snagged audiences with should’ve-been-theatrical contenders such as the delightful Disney+ romp Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, Prime Video’s star-powered and uplifting Thirteen Lives, and even The Gray Man, which is a terrible action movie but would’ve lured in a healthy amount of paying suckers had Netflix given the movie a genuine theatrical berth instead of a measly seven-day window in a handful of cinemas.
Cineplex may have posted its first quarterly profit since before the pandemic began, but the industry as a whole – including global theatre giant Cineworld, which is considering filing for bankruptcy in the U.S., and major U.S. player AMC, whose stock fell 41 per cent earlier this week – has flown straight into the danger zone, and there is no amount of Cruise control that can help.
Winner: Dinosaurs, both literal and metaphorical
Even though it doesn’t make a lick of sense, is 45 minutes too long and is missing the best scene from its initial trailers (where is that T. Rex attack on the drive-in cinema, I ask?), Jurassic World Dominion earned US$970-million globally and proved that dino flicks are recession/inflation/pandemic/whatever-proof. Speaking of supposedly extinct species, let’s talk about older moviegoers (adults over 35), who came out for Elvis and Where the Crawdads Sing, both of which performed above expectations.
Winner: David Cronenberg
Returning to filmmaking after an eight-year hiatus and serious ruminations of retirement, the Canadian icon proved to be at the top of his game with Crimes of the Future, a masterpiece that can be viewed in a multiverse-worth of ways. The Cannes-certified critical hit afforded Cronenberg an unprecedented flood of global media attention, paving the way for a genuine comeback. The director has already set up at least two more projects: The Shrouds, a thriller starring his former Eastern Promises star Vincent Cassel that is set to film next year, and Consumed, an adaptation of Cronenberg’s own 2014 novel.
Loser: David Cronenberg’s financial backers
Crimes of the Future was never going to be a box-office hit. But with a current worldwide gross of just US$3.4-million, the not-exactly-microbudget movie wasn’t the counterprogramming success that distributors such as U.S. outfit Neon and Canada’s Sphere Films had in mind. The film is set to keep earning as it continues to open in more territories, but as Sphere Films president Charles Tremblay told me in a recent interview: “In terms of box-office performance, we’re disappointed, there’s no denying it. We did a great campaign and it deserved better.” Still, Sphere is already signed up to distribute The Shrouds.
Older audiences might be cautiously inching their way back into theatres, but children – especially school-free children whose vocal demands to be entertained must be satisfied post-haste! – are as adept as ever at persuading their parents to spend ungodly amounts of money on popcorn and tickets. Witness the phenomenal success of the Despicable Me franchise, whose fifth instalment, Minions: The Rise of Gru, blew past expectations, so far netting US$833-million worldwide and remaining in the top half of North America’s weekly Top 10 seven long weeks after its release.
Maybe kids only have a thing for Minions these days. The rest of the summer’s relatively paltry children’s offerings – DC League of Super-Pets, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, Lightyear, The Bob’s Burgers Movie – all underperformed. In some cases you can blame the quality of the movies, in others bad marketing. (Why did Paramount not let anyone know that Paws of Fury was a stealth remake of Blazing Saddles? Why did Disney allow Lightyear’s conceit to be conveyed in such a needlessly confusing manner?) Either way, families are the most loyal friends movie theatres have, and this summer felt like the prelude to a divorce.
Once again, the Mouse House dominated the good-news headlines. Its Doctor Strange and Thor sequels reliably fuelled the company’s unstoppable Marvel Cinematic Universe. The company’s streaming services boasted 221 million customers, more than even Netflix. And its direct-to-streaming Predator prequel Prey earned rave reviews and reports of big Hulu subscription boosts.
Before we all lock ourselves in the Magic Kingdom forever, let’s take a look at the fine print of the successes noted above. Both Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder earned middling reviews and saw huge drop-offs after opening weekend, indicating that poor word-of-mouth is, if not stopping the MCU factory floor, then certainly gunking up the works. Those subscriber numbers also aren’t so impressive once you realize they come from all company platforms (Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+), and that the average revenue per user for Disney is just US$4.35 a month versus Netflix’s ARPU of roughly US$12 a month. And then there’s Lightyear, whose disappointing release puts Disney’s crown critical jewel Pixar in a state of pseudo suspended animation.
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