The summer-movie season of 2019 has ended with something akin to a whimper, in spite of some of the biggest possible successes amidst the dross. This year, more than most, has overwhelmed audiences with intellectual property. “Intellectual property”, of course, is the phrase that you use because saying “sequels, prequels, adaptations, sidequels, remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, and revivals” just takes too long. IP has been unavoidable at the box office, both in the summer and throughout the rest of the calendar year. It’s gotten to the point where a weekend without a new-release film driven by IP feels rare indeed.
A Bubble About to Burst
Yet it’s hard not to imagine that the IP bubble, as large as it’s gotten, is about to burst and absolutely no one knows how to resolve the fallout. There have been a few original successes this year. Notably, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has broken the $100 million threshold at the domestic box office. It’s not a terribly surprising feat — both Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds grossed over $100 million domestically — but no less impressive because OUATIH is just the second wholly original film released in the United States this year to at least make that much money. The other film in question, Us, was much like OUATIH, in that it was sold as much on its director’s name and brand as on anything else. (The presence of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt obviously helps Tarantino, though it’s worth pointing out that, barring a late-summer push from Sony and Columbia Pictures, Us has likely outgrossed OUATIH.)
Just about everything else at the mainstream multiplex this year has been intellectual property of some kind; at the very least, there’s been an extreme dearth of the original. So far, 19 films have made $100 million or more this year at the U.S. box office. Aside from the aforementioned original films, that leaves a whopping 17 films that exist as a way to piggyback off previous successes. Family sequels like The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Toy Story 4, and The Secret Life of Pets 2 all arrived this year; genre films like John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters staked their claim from May to August. And then, of course, you have MCU entries like Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel, and Disney remakes like Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King.
In fact, of the 33 weekends so far this year (through the weekend ending August 18), there have only been four weekends in which one of the new releases wasn’t intellectual property of some kind. Barring any release-date shifts of the films currently slated to open through the end of the year, there will be just eight weekends in all of 2019 with no intellectual-property new releases. Of course, with this statistic in mind, it’s easy to presume the opposite of the naysaying is true: if audiences don’t want to watch all these sequels, prequels, sidequels, etc., why would studios keep greenlighting and releasing such films so frequently? All you have to do is keep an eye on the long-term performance of these films to realize that the signs of trouble already exist. Take some of the examples above.
Among the above-mentioned family films, only Toy Story 4 can be dubbed an unqualified success. It’s made a billion dollars worldwide, and despite initial concerns after its non-record-breaking opening weekend, the fourquel has outgrossed its 2010 predecessor domestically. But the same isn’t true of the other titles. The Lego Movie 2 grossed $105 million domestically, whereas the 2014 film that preceded it made $257 million in the States. How to Train Your Dragon 3 made $160 million domestically, while the second film, from 2014, made $177 million. (HTTYD 2 also outgrossed the latest film worldwide.)
And Pets 2 may be the most shocking example of all: the original film from 2016 made $368 million domestically. Though it’s still in theaters, the Illumination sequel has yet to top $160 million domestically. Where the first film made $875 million worldwide, the sequel just crossed $400 million. Illumination thrives on making lower-budget animated films, but no one at Universal or the animation studio would have hoped for that kind of stat.
The numbers are easy to grouse over with lots of the big releases of the summer. Hobbs and Shaw, barring an unexpected resurgence, won’t make as much domestically as the last four Fast and Furious films have. Godzilla: King of the Monsters barely scrabbled over $110 million domestically, nearly outgrossed by The Upside, a drama starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart that was a remake of a French-language drama. And that’s not even to consider other summer IP fare that more specifically cratered, like Men in Black International. (Do you remember when, less than three months ago, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson co-starred in a Men in Black reboot? I reviewed it, and I don’t even remember it. They probably don’t either.) It cratered with just $79 million domestically, amid reports that the actors, director, and producers all had different visions for what the film could be.
The bubble is bursting on IP not because of these films’ high or low quality — the box-office prospects of a given film have never had anything to do with its quality. Sometimes, great films make lots of money, but just as often (if not more often), bad movies do well because people need something to do and figure that they could spend a couple hours in the theater. But a lot of the big IP releases that hit multiplexes in 2019 have arrived with a thud, and even the bigger successes portend an end of an era as much as a culmination of audience anticipation.
The Circle of Life
Yes, Avengers: Endgame and The Lion King have been massive box-office hits for the Walt Disney Company. There’s no possible way to look at these billion-dollar grossers and see their specific performances as anything other than incredibly lucrative. It’s not so much that Endgame or Lion King did badly. It’s that Disney has become so massive that just about every film they release in theaters has to be a billion-dollar success. To date, the studio has five different films this year that have made at least a billion dollars worldwide, and it’s probably a safe bet that both Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will join that esteemed club when all is said and done.
But if you look at 2020 for Disney, or 2020 for a lot of other studios, you see a lot of question marks. Those question marks get bigger when you ponder how many other films have flopped so intensely this year. Will Mulan and Jungle Cruise hit big at the box office, or will the former be this spring’s Dumbo and the latter be another failed attempt to lash the theme parks to a movie star? How many people are clamoring for a Sonic the Hedgehog movie as anything more than a foundation for memes about how terrifying a CG hedgehog with teeth looks? Will the long-awaited Black Widow movie have the same punch after the character’s fate in Endgame? Is anyone going to want to see movies with Scooby-Doo or Morbius?
The answer to all of these questions could be yes. But a look at the calendar implies that the presumed sure bets of 2019 – only some of which are truly sure bets – will be followed in 2020 by a collective group of studio executives seeming to shoot darts at a wall full of nostalgic titles and sequels in the hopes that a few of them will rake in big bucks.
Consider the current list of the top films of the year. It’s true, of course, that worldwide numbers are largely able to supplant or boost lower-performing domestic box-office releases. But among those films released in the States so far this year, just six of them to date have made more than $350 million domestically. That might seem like a high bar to reach, but here’s the thing: the sixth-highest grossing film of 2019 is the Aladdin remake at $353 million. The seventh-highest-grossing film? Us, with literally less than half that number, at $175 million. No film, at least so far this year, has grossed in the $200-300 million range. We’ve had six exceptionally huge box-office successes — all of which have a tie to Disney, including Sony’s MCU entry Spider-Man: Far From Home.
The phrase “go big or go home” comes to mind. Disney and the other major studios have all gone big this year, because to make money, that’s the only choice they think they have. Disney has unquestionably succeeded. Everyone else is struggling, and even Disney’s batting average isn’t perfect. Right now, each studio is like a famed slugger swinging for the fences, because that’s all they know how to do. They make new intellectual-property movies because that’s all they think makes bank. But they’ve begun to reach titles that don’t have the same pull, which only suggests that in 2020 and beyond, the big sluggers are going to swing and miss just about every time. Intellectual property may feel like it’s here to stay for now, but studios are in for a reckoning soon when all they keep releasing are intellectual-property movies that no one asked for or wanted.
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