IS HOLLYWOOD RELYING ON BLOCKBUSTERS TO CREATE THE ILLUSION OF SUCCESS DURING THE PANDEMIC?

Indeed, some have heard that “success breeds grounds for even more success” (or something along those lines). Usually, when a movie studio greenlights a sequel or follow-up after a release, it means the film exceeded expectations and performed well enough at the box office to warrant a second (or third or so on) take. Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, James Bond, Jurassic Park, and the Fast and Furious franchises can all attest to this certitude.

But, times are now different. The COVID-19 pandemic that came about in March 2020 rammed the film industry and scared away most blockbuster tent poles to future dates, costing them millions (possibly billions). 2020’s highest films (both came and released in China) barely cracked half a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. It marks the first time since 2007 that the highest-grossing film of the year earned under 1 billion dollars, and the first time a non-U.S. release was the top-grossing work of the year.

A multitude of issues has come up since the pandemic officiated last year. Blue Sky Studios, acquired by Disney from their purchase of Fox, ceased operating in April 2021. Some films now have hybrid releases in theaters and streaming services for the foreseeable future. AMC and Cinemark have made pacts with studios over distributions and revenue because they’re in heavy debt. The big films of 2020 like Black Widow, A Quiet Place Part 2, Wonder Woman 1984, Mulan, No Time to Die, Eternals, Top Gun: Maverick, and Mission Impossible 7 took massive blows and had their release dates compromised.

2021 has slowly crawled its way towards a comeback with hits like F9 and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but there are factors at play that prevent it from reaching the historic heights set in 2019. And supposedly, isn’t that the real question? How exactly can studios continue to function well in today’s time? How do we know if a film was “successful” enough?

And therein lies a mystery that Hollywood is attempting to overcome. Perception of a film now lies in a studios’ ability to attain an audience in a different era. It’s more than total box office totals now. You also have to delve into streaming services’ performances, VOD platforms, and even piracy issues. These all account for purchases/memberships, viewership, and popularity.

Photo Courtesy of Variety

So, at the end of August, Disney announced that Jungle Cruise starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt would receive a sequel. The film had a hybrid release in theaters and Disney+, earning 35 million in theaters and 30 million on Disney’s streaming service on the opening weekend. It currently sits at under 200 million worldwide, needing to gross around half a billion dollars to break even. That seems nearly impossible to break at this moment unless it legs out spectacularly for the rest of 2021. So, does Disney+ revenue substantiate that the sequel not only will allegedly perform better but also prove Jungle Cruise could’ve done more if it was non-Covid times?

It’s a tricky question for a risky solution. Maybe an Occam’s razor occurred where Black Widow (or Cruella) assisted Jungle Cruise’s profitability because they were all released on Disney+. Black Widow also had a huge issue when dealing with the hybrid release, outside of Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit over the hybrid tactic itself. The decision by Disney led the anticipated movie to drop a whopping 67% in its sophomore weekend, the largest of any MCU film. Also, its worldwide gross total stands at a measly sub-400 million (not counting Disney+). That cements Black Widow’s solo story, the story that became profoundly overdue for the popular character who stood toe-to-toe with Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America in 2012’s The Avengers…as the third-lowest feature in the entire MCU.

That is severely underwhelming and an insult to Johansson, who has busted her ass to play the character for 11 years. And even when counting Disney+ totals, the film barely moves up one or two spots on the hierarchy of MCU grand totals. Marvel Studios, you know this should’ve come out years ago. What a missed opportunity.

Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers

The Suicide Squad released this year also faced similar issues, but those complications became tripled down upon release. An R-rating, no marketable stars (outside of Idris Elba, John Cena, and Margot Robbie), no Will Smith, and its predecessor’s critically maligned film five years prior all contributed. The spike of COVID cases and the debate over whether it was a reboot or sequel also hurt its branding. Add on a hefty budget (nearly 200 million), and this was primed from the start to not make its money back in today’s climate. Yes, it’s a fantastic movie and comeback for James Gunn, but the first destroyed fans’ tastes. The state of the DCEU continues to be mediocre regarding critical reception and box office.

Heck, Sony put all their eggs in one basket with In The Heights, leading to another box office bomb. Grossing not even one-fourth of their intended target sabotaged Sony’s momentum. Paramount’s Snake Eyes fumbled (three strikes, and you’re out G.I. Joe). Space Jam: A New Legacy opened to cold reviews despite making some money (but not enough).

On the other hand, Godzilla vs. Kong legged up to a reasonable 468 million worldwide while also being available on HBO Max in its first month. It most likely overperformed because people had an opportunity to witness in the theaters while the pandemic quieted down some in the early summer. A Quiet Place Part 2 surged as the best success story all year because of timing (Memorial Day weekend) and the willpower of the popular franchise helmed by John Krasinski and Emily Blunt. Mortal Kombat and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It did relatively good with their hybrid releases. And Free Guy is another prime example of how Ryan Reynolds continues to command the screen in a fun romp.

Again, all those blockbusters listed serve as evidence of studios trying to believe they are “succeeding” nowadays when the numbers clearly show they’re not even close to 2019. Independent films will have to rely on luck and timing entirely. And given the up-and-down progression of COVID, it’s difficult to predict the “best” spot to release a film.

The only film in 2021 that believably has a chance of cracking 1-billion dollars is Spider-Man: No Way Home. It already has dismantled a few Avengers: Endgame records, including the most-viewed trailer in 24 hours with a whopping 355.5 views. Still, in December, it has enormous competition with The Matrix Resurrections, Sing 2, and The King’s Man (which all coincidentally release right before Christmas).

The pandemic continues to spread and impact much of our world. It’s saddening how movies might have transcended the theater experience at one point, but instead, they’re attempting to step away from it. Blockbusters can salvage only so much. The box office may never reach the heights set two years ago, but it will be a lot of work before that can become a reality once again.

2022, good luck.