The lessons of the summer movie season are loud and clear – but Hollywood isn't listening.
This past weekend, as both the industry and the industry faithful gathered in San Diego for the annual marketing activation free-for-all that is Comic-Con, the movie business was coming up against some hard numbers. This summer's North American ticket sales are down about 9 per cent from 2016 (approximately $2.29-billion compared with last year's $2.49-billion, all figures U.S.), largely because of the cratering of such creaky brands as Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Alien and Cars. Even hopeful franchise-starters got off to a rocky start stateside, with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Tom Cruise's The Mummy failing to crack $80-million, let alone the standard blockbuster benchmark of $100-million.
Hope may come in the form of such familiar faces as Spider-Man, talking-ape Caesar and Wonder Woman (as of writing, Diana of Themyscira is the face of the season's biggest movie), but audiences have largely spoken, and it's mostly to shout down Hollywood's obsession with intellectual property.
Not that anything could be heard above the roar filling out the San Diego Convention Center. It was there, mostly in the fabled Hall H outside of which attendees line up overnight for bragging rights and dehydration spells, where the industry unveiled its next few years of offerings: sequels and spinoffs so filthy in IP that you feel dirty just thinking about them.
In addition to the expected sprawl of superhero content – Warner Bros. detailed plans for nine DC films, including this November's still-in-reshoots Justice League; Disney's Marvel unit offered breadcrumbs on five projects, the centrepiece being next year's Avengers: Infinity War – there were pitches for sequels of questionable provenance (does anyone want a Pacific Rim sequel sans Guillermo del Toro?), second helpings of series that exist only to riff off past IP (Stranger Things), and new movies that are original only in how they rearrange overly familiar elements (Will Smith's cops-meet-orcs Netflix project Bright).
The promotional onslaught – if you were anywhere near a computer over the weekend, the trailers and sizzle reels and panel slide-shows were inescapable; if not, there was more than enough post-Con analysis available on Monday morning – was overwhelming but expected. Until cinema-goers literally burn a multiplex to the ground in protest of something like Suicide Squad 3: Joker's On You, these movies will keep clogging the production pipeline.
What was surprising, though, and what indicates that Hollywood is headed toward a more unsettling level of IP exploitation, is what happened when Warner unveiled the trailer for its new franchise hope: Ready Player One.
A caveat before discussing the project: It comes from director Steven Spielberg, who has proved over the past decade, never mind the four that came before it, that he is the most talented craftsman mainstream Hollywood has ever produced. His imprimatur, with a few notable exceptions, confirms commitment to the medium and a cinematic grammar that's unparalleled. So his new film may indeed be an entertaining, expertly made exercise – but it sure also looks like an entertaining, expertly made exercise in franchise madness.
Consider the source material, what the film's Comic-Con trailer trumpeted as novelist Ernest Cline's "pop culture holy grail," even though it is in actuality a hastily written love letter to nostalgia, a borderline unreadable smashing of adolescent fantasies that gives "gush" a bad name. Taking place in a virtual reality in which hopeless citizens battle each other for digital supremacy while adopting avatars of pop-culture past, Ready Player One offers a redefinition of IP, a kind of backward Corinthians where we are actively discouraged from putting away childish things.
To wit, Spielberg's brief trailer features elements from The Iron Giant, Batman, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Back to the Future, Akira, Lord of the Rings, The A-Team and Knight Rider – all in the span of two minutes and 20 seconds. It is less a traditional repurposing of IP, as in a reboot or sequel, and more an unnerving smooshing of familiarity, an uberfranchise engineered to appeal to everyone, anywhere, any time.
Warner is something of an old hand at this type of brand mutation, as it cautiously explored such a mad-scientist experiment with 2014's The Lego Movie. There, it was slightly less revolutionary, as the disparate brands it assembled brick by brick – Ninja Turtles, DC vigilantes, Star Wars heroes – were all in cutesy animated form, removed from movie reality so much as we know it. Ready Player One, on the other hand, looks to up this IP gambit, so much so that it will be impossible to turn down a chance to revisit one or a dozen of your childhood obsessions. Spielberg's name attached is merely the icing on a cake already dripping with nostalgia.
Ready Player One doesn't open until March 30, 2018. Perhaps by then, once studios are done licking their wounds from a misspent summer, the IP craze will have simmered down. Or maybe Spielberg has simply found its next iteration. Whatever the future, trust that it will be heard loud and clear in Hall H.