Summer 2017 roundup

Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise in It
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise in It

Stephen King’s It made history with a US$123.1 million box office opening over the weekend, setting records for the biggest September box office opening of all time (with distant runner-up Hotel Transylvania 2 at US$48.5 million), the biggest horror movie opening of all time (Paranormal Activity 3 far behind at US$52.6 million), the 2nd largest R-rated movie of all time (1st was Deadpool shocking the industry with US$132.4 million), and the 3rd largest opening weekend box office of 2017 (behind Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Beauty and the Beast and ahead of Spider-Man: Homecoming). Most Florida theatres were closed because of Hurricane Irma, so these numbers could have been even bigger by a bit more.

I think part of the reason why It did so well is because people are hungry for a good movie to watch after not having many great options this summer, particularly in the last month. And so the arrival of (a) a well-reviewed, truly scary film based on (b) one of Stephen King’s most famous works, which older audiences apparently remember because of a 1990 miniseries that was rather iconic, and which (c) also involves the fear of clowns which I believe is not uncommon, came at the opportune time for the flagging box office. This summer has been absolutely terrible for the movie industry in general — the worst since 2006. Cinema chain stocks even suffered a huge decline because moviegoing attendance was so low. I’m sure they’ll bounce back eventually, because people won’t stop watching movies in cinemas, and huge movie hits like Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Thor: Ragnarok will bring in the crowds again; but for now, it looks like cinema stockholders won’t be getting their dividends this year.

Many factors could have contributed to the terrible summer — the current state of the world, the ascendant rise of Netflix and absolute wealth of great TV shows that ensure that people don’t have to go to the movies for entertainment anymore. Some Trump supporters who have zero idea of how the film and TV industry works were even crowing that because much of Hollywood hates Trump, people don’t want to watch their movies anymore, hence the decline. They evidently don’t realise that the booming TV industry is also made by Hollywood. And their logic obviously falls flat when it comes to It’s record-breaking box office, especially with author Stephen King being an outspoken critic of Trump.

As someone who actually knows something about the film industry, I would say the key reason is there hasn’t been enough good movies that have come out this summer that has made people want to watch them. There have been a few gems like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Despicable Me 3, but there have been way more tentpoles that crashed and burned, like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Mummy, Alien: Covenant and Transformers: The Last Knight. These were expected to perform to the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars more than they actually brought in. Cinemas can only suffer so many gaping holes in the movie slate before they start to sink, because the key driver of their profits is selling concessions. They can’t sell concessions if people don’t turn up to watch movies.

If a Star Wars or Marvel movie opened every month, I’m sure that the cinemas will have booming business. But you can’t depend on them all the time, because (a) these movies take time to make, and more importantly (b) people will get fatigued of even these gold-standard franchises eventually. That’s the problems studios are facing: What do people want to watch, and how to make them keep coming back? For now, the studios think the answer is franchises and movies based on well-known intellectual properties, hence all the sequels, prequels, reboots and film adaptations of books/video games/toys/myths and legends etc. But this summer proved that formula a little wonky. Who knew that a Transformers movie, or a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, or a Mummy movie starring superstar Tom Cruise, surefire wins ten years ago, weren’t going to draw in audiences? And who knew that small and quirky movies like Baby Driver were going to be ballpark hits?

And yet the formula isn’t entirely wrong, because all those gems that I mentioned above? They’re sequels and franchise movies too. So the only conclusion I can come to is that audiences will watch a movie as long as it is good, whether it’s a franchise film or an original film. It really is all trial and error. I’m pretty sure that no studio or filmmaker sets out to make a bad film. They can only keep chugging along to make the best film they can, and pray that their efforts are appreciated by audiences.

The international box office did slightly better though, and saved a lot of movies like The Mummy, Baywatch and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales from haemorrhaging money, though they may still not be enough to push the margins into the black. But at this juncture, I think Hollywood should just count their meagre blessings and run.

For the sake of the movie industry, I hope the rest of the year will be better. I can’t say that I’m very optimistic though. At this point, I am only interested in two or three movies coming out each month for the rest of the year. If the general moviegoing public has my tastes, we’re doomed.