I’m not sure the movie business has ever been in a weirder place than it is right now. Watching movies has never been easier than it is today. Streaming services have literally put entire catalogs of feature films right at our finger tips. We can watch them on our big screen televisions, on our tablets, or on our cell phones. We can watch them in the comfort of our living room, on an airplane, or in a hospital waiting room. Streaming has forever changed the way movie lovers consume content.
But what about the way we once watched movies? What about the movie theaters? It goes without saying that streaming has cut into the movie theaters’ business. Just how much is hard to say and it usually swings on a variety of factors (ticket pricing, size of markets, etc.). Yet while many movie houses and theater chains are feeling the impact, they are kept afloat by a select group of movies that fans will flock to no matter what. And while this steady trend helps theaters, it highlights a bigger concern – one that could have a far-reaching impact on the kind of films being made.
A couple weeks back Steven Spielberg’s sparkling and critically acclaimed musical adaptation “West Side Story” opened to a paltry $10 million at the box office. As of now it has only managed $50 million. Considering the lackluster returns on other 2021 movie musicals like “In the Heights” and “Dear Evan Hansen”, no one was expecting record-breaking numbers from “West Side Story”. But for a movie needing an estimated $300 million to break even, it’s safe to say expectations were higher. Within hours after the disappointing numbers went public, articles began springing up citing the reluctance of audiences to go to theaters due to COVID concerns. Sounds reasonable and it’s an explanation that would be easy to digest if not for one thing – “Spider-Man: No Way Home”.
Only one week removed from “West Side Story’s” underwhelming debut, “No Way Home” (the latest installment in the ludicrously lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe) has shattered records bringing in an astonishing $253 million domestically during its opening weekend. To add some context, this is the third Spider-Man movie to star Tom Holland as the beloved webslinger. The first film brought in $117 million on opening weekend back in 2017. The second film raked in $92 million back in 2019. Both were pre-pandemic releases.
Suddenly the pandemic hesitancy excuse being made for “West Side Story” and other films doesn’t hold as much water. Clearly people will still go to the theaters. But they’re not going to see “West Side Story” or Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” or Guillermo del Toro’s terrific “Nightmare Alley” which just opened and could only muster an abyssal $3 million in its first weekend. Without question there are variables at play. For example, there are older moviegoers who would likely go see those films if not for COVID concerns. But differences in numbers this massive seem to indicate something else is going on.
To get a better grip of the situation all you have to do is look at the 2021 box office numbers and see how many of the top grossers of the year were franchise movies. Obviously tentpole blockbusters topping the charts is nothing new and they happen to be an important part of the movie business. But with the infusion of huge crowd-pleasing interconnected moneymakers like the Marvel films (and we get several each year), they seem to have completely taken over. And there’s no sign of that changing any time soon.
What does that mean for movies that aren’t bound to the franchise model? What does that mean for filmmakers willing to take chances and make something fresh and original? What does it mean for them getting funding? How long will companies be willing to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into projects only to take a bath, even if the director is Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, or Guillermo del Toro? Those may sound like questions for the studios to wrestle with, but they very well could effect the kind of movies we get going forward. Could we be heading to a place where original mid-budget movies are too big of a gamble?
So what’s the cause? Are we finally reaching that point where the influx of big-budget star-studded franchises has diluted the tastes of audiences? Deep down I don’t believe it’s a clear this-or-that issue. There are several things that factor into the equation including the pandemic and the increased popularity of streaming platforms. But I also believe something has changed with a fairly large segment of moviegoers.
With the exception of cinephiles who more-or-less watch some of everything, it seems a large number of people simply have little interest in seeing movies that aren’t franchise connected. Sure there are a few exceptions, but the numbers are pretty telling and the potential consequences are concerning, especially for someone like myself who loves small and mid-budget features just as much as I love blockbusters. What will it take to get people to try other movies? I don’t know, but studios have to be feeling it. And at this rate you can’t really blame them if they decide to cut their losses. I hope we never reach that point.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Please share them in the comments section below.