Terrible summer box office, high-profile TV failures hint at creative crisis
A combination of creative stagnation and audience indifference suggests there is a major creative crisis in Hollywood.
The box-office returns from theatrical films were a disaster between Memorial Day and Labor Day — the worst summer for the movie business in 20 years — with the high-profile flops including “The Mummy” reboot with Tom Cruise, and the Luc Besson science-fiction epic, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” grossing only $40 million on a $177 million budget.
In the TV sector, Amazon canceled two high-profile F. Scott Fitzgerald dramas last month — “Z: The Beginning of Everything” and “The Last Tycoon” — and the creative bankruptcy of the medium is illustrated by a forthcoming reboot of “Dynasty.”
The battling “Dynasty” queens Joan Collins and Linda Evans were hot commodities 30 years ago, but does anyone want to see a 2017 variation on an archaic 1980s soap opera?
In recent conversations with three industry observers — screenwriter and novelist David Rich, film festival director Tom Carruthers and historian John DiLeo — it was agreed the money-making formulas of movies and TV seem to be wearing out. And audiences are finding other ways to spend their time.
“I think a lot has to do with cost and process,” Rich, who lives in Ridgefield, says. “Studios all along have faced the question: Are we selling the title or the stars? Over the past five to seven years, stars have faded out. None can really ‘open’ a movie anymore, not even Will Smith.
“What is happening now — not without good reason because of the tremendous budgets — is that they are running to something they think they can hold onto, which are movies where the special effects are the star.”
But when special effects take over, character and story tend to disappear, Rich says, and the resulting movies all begin to look alike.
“Who wanted to see a ‘Mummy’ reboot? Nobody,” says DiLeo, who has done programs at the Palace Theater in Danbury. “I think we are reaching a point of diminishing returns. We’re inundated with movies for kids during the summer, which Hollywood has extended now from April through August. They are rebooting things like ‘The Mummy’ that seem like they just happened (the previous one was in 2008), but of course 15-year-olds don’t remember what just happened.”
Rich and DiLeo agree a big part of the problem is the dominance of wide-releasing, where a new movie opens on more than 3,000 screens and has to deliver mammoth grosses immediately.
“The focus becomes making movies that can play on five out of the 14 screens at a multiplex. There’s no time for word of mouth to build on a good movie that can be (declared) dead after the first three days,” Rich says.
DiLeo believes most of the comic book and action movies geared to young multiplex audiences have become virtually incoherent due to the nonstop action.
“Hitchcock built his suspense on the idea of a movie having a beginning, a middle and an end. The comic book movies all seem to have 20-minute finales, which are the opposite of getting emotionally involved. It’s all special effects and it often feels like the movie could have ended any time during those last 20 minutes,” DiLeo says.
The Marvel and DC Comics-derived films have become so formulaic that even kids are starting to tire of them.
“I think it’s a much bigger story than a bad summer,” Connecticut Film Festival director Carruthers, of Bethel, says. “We’re in a transition in how we’re consuming content. Kids are getting everything online now, so they don’t need theaters. ... I see big-box theaters dying off as the whole distribution model changes. I think you will see more new movies released (on the internet) during their first day in theaters.
“I don’t go out to movies much anymore,” Carruthers admits, laughing, of his focus on programming special film series at places like the Bethel Cinema. Otherwise, most nights you will find him at home bingeing on British TV mysteries.
Rich does not buy a lot of the PR surrounding “quality TV” and the notion that cable and streaming services are making up for the dire state of Hollywood moviemaking.
“It is exciting to have so many different possibilities after years and years of being prisoners of the (three) networks,” he says. “But most of the (streaming and cable TV) shows aren’t up to the hype.”
In addition to the tired reboots of “Dynasty” and other ancient TV hits, many of the acclaimed streaming series such as “House of Cards” suffer from lots of padding, the writer believes, pointing out the original British version of the political drama told its story in a tight four hours while the first season of the U.S. remake was more than twice as long.
“So much of the new series is filler, which is an economic decision,” he adds of getting 10 hours out of a two- or four-hour story. Rich agrees more and more these days TV viewers are abandoning Netflix and Amazon series after only one episode that doesn’t grab them.
“The only thing that speaks to the deciders is bad ticket sales,” DiLeo says, “and maybe they will get the message after this summer’s (terrible business).”
firstname.lastname@example.org: Twitter: @joesview