Spielberg and Lucas: Box-office doom lies in wait for Hollywood

“There’s eventually going to be a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”

How do you like the sound of that, cinephiles? If you’re a fan of indie or arthouse films, tell me you haven’t daydreamed about exactly this sort of box-office Ragnarok befalling a whole slate of blockbusters.

It may not even have been a malicious thought, but just a reasonable observation on your part. It has probably occurred to most people who follow the entertainment industry that there are too many big-budget variations on Clash of the Pixels coming out. How many apocalyptic scenarios involving zombies/alien invasions/sinister North Koreans can one multiplex support? The action-horror-fantasy spectacles with budgets well north of $100 million come out all year round now, and this summer in particular is shaping up to be a demolition derby of blockbusters. How many times do viewers need to see Manhattan or the White House get blowed up?

What’s newsworthy about the above quotation is that it comes not from some beleaguered indie film distributor but from Steven Spielberg. On June 12, Spielberg and George Lucas spoke at a panel at the University of Southern California, Lucas’ alma mater, on the future of entertainment. Fittingly, the panel commemorated the opening of a new Interactive Media building at the USC film school. (Which is now known as the USC School of Cinematic Arts; “film school” is way too outmoded for a program in which Film Production majors no longer go near celluloid in any of their courses.)

Both Spielberg and Lucas predicted looming disaster for the current studio model of “tentpole” pictures. Bear in mind that Spielberg is not just the director of Lincoln but the executive producer of the Transformers movies, the fourth installment of which is underway. Noting that the studios would rather gamble on one $250 million picture than, say, ten $25 million films, Lucas commented,

“…That isn’t going to work forever. And as a result they’re getting narrower and narrower in their focus. People are going to get tired of it. They’re [the studios] not going to know how to do anything else.”

Does box-office doom await a slew of blockbusters in the near future? If even Lucas and Spielberg think so, it would seem probable. And all but guaranteed, if the studios keep giving M. Night Shyamalan work.

But I wonder just how bad or misconceived the movies would have to be for this to happen. A heavily hyped new studio release now opens so “wide” (Man of Steel just debuted on a whopping 4,207 screens) that the promotion and ubiquity almost guarantee a healthy chunk of change in just three days, before bad word-of-mouth on social media can set in. Even a movie as cursed with negative buzz as John Carter scraped together nearly $283 million worldwide. There’s a seemingly bottomless maw for action spectacles overseas — look at the indefatigable Resident Evil franchise, which is now up to five movies.

How much fallout would there even be if five or six blockbusters tanked? Given how the proverbial big data rather than, God forbid, personal taste increasingly drives which movies get greenlit, I wonder if it has become easier for studio executives to disavow individual responsibility for a flop. The computer told us this would be a hit!

Elsewhere in their talk, Lucas and Spielberg discussed how movies are branching off into two paths, the blockbusters opening soon at every theatre near you, and the smaller films that open in a modest number of cinemas on the same day they become available via On Demand, and also iTunes, Amazon Video, et cetera. Lucas:

“There’ll be big movies on a big screen, and it’ll cost them [the studios] a lot of money. Everything else will be on a small screen. It’s almost that way now.”

It sure is, especially if you live outside a handful of major cities. Even living in L.A., I’m often surprised by how many new releases turn up on my cable company’s On Demand service, even before they’ve opened theatrically.

The explosion of offerings via On Demand and the Internet outlets has a clear benefit: people who don’t have access to a great repertory or arthouse cinema in their town no longer have to languish for months waiting for indie or foreign films to come out on DVD. A movie buff who is well informed, or just curious, now has an overwhelming number of options when it comes to new movies. And indie filmmakers and their distributors have additional lifelines to help them break even. No one’s making a fortune off of On Demand, but for an indie film to piece together a couple million bucks from these pay-per-view services cushions the blow of how meager most indie box-office returns are these days.

What’s one downside of the near-future scenario that Lucas and Spielberg describe? That’s easy to see, too. For both audiences and producers too, perhaps, a “movie” that you go see in the theatre will mean a $200 million spectacle with a lot of explosions and sound effects. (Loud, loud sound effects.) I dread a future where that’s what “cinematic” means, and nothing else counts. Perhaps the most alarming comment during Lucas and Spielberg’s talk is that Spielberg said he almost had to make Lincoln for HBO.

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