2015 was a tremendous year for big-budget films. Domestic (US) box office totals were the highest that they had ever been ($11.1 billion). Those numbers were up a whopping 7% from 2014 (which was not a great year for big-budget movies). The big hits of 2015 were Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores for those films? 92%, 71%, and 75% respectively. Audiences and critics loved them. Indeed, many films in 2015 had similar good reviews and strong turnout in theaters: Mockingjay Part 2, Inside Out, Furious 7, Minions, The Martian, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. All of these had Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores greater than 50% (the only one less than 70% is Minions).
Flash forward to 2016, and the good times have ended. We have entered a wasteland of summer movies. Besides several well-received Disney properties (Pixar, Marvel, and surely Rogue One will be a hit), studios have found it to be tough going in the domestic market. Suicide Squad is a surprise hit, but it feels like a lot of that film’s’ success at the box office has more to do with lack of competition and DC fanboy devotion than solid moviemaking. A look at the Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregate scores of some of this years’ big-budget sequel flims is a great example of how bleak this year has been: Independence Day: Resurgence (34%), Jason Bourne (57%), X-Men: Apocalypse (47%), The Legend of Tarzan (36%), Alice: Through the Looking Glass (29%), Zoolander 2 (24%), The Huntsman: Winters’ War (16%), Now You See Me 2 (34%)…to name a few.
We’re about ¾ of the way through 2016, and the domestic box office total is only $7.5 billion. That means if box office performance continues at the same pace for the rest of the year, the total will only be about $10 billion. You’d have to go all the way back to 2008 to find a year where the total was less than this. Even worse news for studios is the fact that the rest of this year doesn’t have that many more big-name movies set to release. Disney has a number of wide release films on the way; Roque One, Doctor Strange, and Moana, in addition to WB’s Harry Potter spinoff, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and perhaps Assassins’ Creed. Even if these four films are box-office blockbusters, it still won’t be enough for this year to match last years’ success.
When looking at this year’s’ films, it’s not just poor quality that is turning audiences away. This year has had some very well-received films. Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, 10 Clover Field Lane, and The Nice Guys are all films that have received Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores greater than 90%. Of those 6 films, four of them are in the top 5 highest grossing films of the year. People are paying to see quality films, just not at the same level that they had been in the past few years.
Look at the fact that there are also big-budget 2016 films that did not have success at the box office despite better than average audience and critic appraise. Look at Star Trek Beyond (84% on Rotten Tomatoes), Kung Fu Panda 3 (87%), Ghostbusters (73%), The BFG (75%), and Hail, Caesar! (85%). If Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores are useful as a representation of critic and audience perceived quality, then these films are all at least as high quality as some of the highest-grossing films in 2015. Yet only 3 of them have domestic totals so far above $100 million (and are underperforming in relation to expectations). Three of these are sequels, one is a book adaptation, and only Hail, Caesar! is an original story. The lack of success of Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters in particular may be indicative of a shift in audience perspective towards sequels. (Kung Fu Panda 3 and Hail, Caesar! Both released in January, which is typically not a strong month for ticket sales to begin with).
We are all aware of the backlash that Ghostbusters took upon its announcement and eventual release to theaters. Part of the movement against that film was that many people felt that the choice to reboot/spin-off the original film was distasteful. Fans of the original film felt offended, and they voiced their opinion by not paying to go see the new film. Star Trek Beyond may be in a similar boat. Fans strongly devoted to Star Trek may have felt a bit peeved by Paramount’s crack-down and announcement regarding limitation on fan-made films. The outcry is less vocal than what happened against Ghostbusters, but it still could be a factor related to Beyond’s poor box office performance.
However, fan disapproval of these two films is only the tip of the iceberg when you start looking at 2016 in general. For one, it has been yet another year of sequel overload. Look at the top twenty highest-grossing films of this year. Only five of them are not sequels, and of those five films, only Central Intelligence, Zootopia, and The Secret Life of Pets are not directly based on something else. Regardless of how well these sequels are received (most of them moderate to poor), audiences are simply not showing up to see them in the same capacity that they did before.
People may finally be getting tired of only having sequels as their choice at theaters. For one, it limits their options. For those who may not have enjoyed the original/previous film (or been too young to have seen it), they’re not going to want to see the sequel. Second, lack of original films (or even films based on books or other popular properties) means that the experience of going to the movies is not quite the same as it once was. For many people, movies are a form of escapism. By only showing sequels, it’s hard for audiences to find something new to inspire or entertain them. Compound this with rising ticket sales, and it’s easy to see why audiences would rather skip out on a visit to the theater if nothing playing really sounds that appetizing.
But, 2016 isn’t the first year where a majority of the films released were sequels. Why is this a problem all of a sudden? Perhaps it took a Ghostbusters-fueled reality check for audiences to realize that they are being marched into one sequel right after another. Perhaps it was the backlash against critics and naysayers of Batman vs. Superman that made people realize what movies have become; joyless entertainment. Rising costs to see movies in theaters, combined with increased exposure to negative comments about this year’s films has removed some of the fun associated with going to the movies.
For those who are doing the voicing of opinions, they are also affecting, consciously or not, their own ability to be entertained at theaters. We all love to be critics, but the ever-increasing battle to have our opinions validated by others has made the prospect of discussing movies nearly impossible. Instead of being able to watch a movie for enjoyment, we are now trying to pick them apart in order to make a point or confirm our suspicions. Sequels are the purveyors for this behavior because there will be fans of the original/previous film who are either looking forward to it, or dreading it. Both are big targets for criticism from the other side of the argument. Furthermore, the more passionate someone is about one film franchise or type of film, the less inclined you might be to pay to see something different. More sequels in this type of environment only splinters movies audiences, rather than brings them together to celebrate cohesively.
Plus, devoted fans of a franchise will always pay to go see its films (unless the filmmaker or production company does something to upset them). For everyone else, there must be a very compelling reason for them to spend $15+ on a single ticket. Poor critic reviews of this year’s’ sequels have certainly helped to create a feeling of malaise when scanning through showtimes. People need something new to enjoy that doesn’t have preconceptions attached to it, and so far in 2016, Hollywood hasn’t really provided them with that option.
Factor in low gas prices, a better economy, the olympics, and even Pokemon Go as outside factors contributing to this year’s sluggish box office performance. People are finding better things to do with their time and money than spend it in highly-priced movie theaters. Furthermore, the ease through which people can watch videos on-demand and through various home video services makes a strong case for not seeing a movie in theaters when it can be watched later on. If there’s a movie in theaters that you are not all that excited to watch, you can always wait to see it.
Does this mean that studios will stop pumping out sequels and reboots? Definitely not. Sequels and reboots continue to make big money, and more and more often they make the bulk of their profits overseas. Sequels and reboots are relatively easy to make, easy to advertise, and until now, easy to sell. For franchises that have had a misstep, time can heal the wound, and if not, reboots are an easy fix. However, the significance of the 2016 box office drop-off should not be overlooked as a fluke or a matter of poor timing. 2016 should instead be a wake-up call to both the big studios and movie audiences in general. For big studios, they have to find a way to stop fragmenting movie fans, and instead unite them once again. Your competition is now the video games and television shows that had to pump up their production value in order to compete with your mega-budget blockbusters for attention. Without the creativity, excitement, and enjoyability that had previously been associated with the act of going to the movies, attendance will continue to fall. 2016 has proven that sequels are not necessarily the answer to this dilemma.