Let's rewind 20 years, to the summer of 1994. O.J. Simpson has been arrested for murder, the World Cup is in America and being ignored, and the biggest hits at the multiplex are Forrest Gump, The Lion King, True Lies, and Speed. Notice anything odd about those movies? There's not a sequel or superhero among them. In fact, in '94, only two sequels were even released. This summer, we have 14.
“The idea before was that tentpoles were supposed to be four poles that held up a slate, and the slate was extremely diverse,” says Anne Thompson, Hollywood analyst and author of The $11 Billion Year, a detailed month-by-month breakdown of the modern movie machine in 2012, the record-setting year of the title. “If you went back 20 years ago, you'd see a much broader slate and budgets and genres and audiences.”
The $11 Billion Year is an insight into the madness, pressure, and superstitions of the major studios to produce expensive sequels (“an antediluvian model that they're keeping going in a denial of the forces of change”), while keeping tabs on the indies from their film festival debuts to awards season campaigns. It explains why Universal spent $300 million on Battleship when they already knew it would flop, and how Ben Affleck charmed his way to an Oscar. (And then, of course, decided to become Batman.)
As we wade into another mega-summer, there's already blood in the water: Despite being on track to make at least $600 million worldwide, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was so expensive that it's a financial loss. Is the spend-money-to-make-money model broken? The industry doesn't think so—yet.
“The studios have billions to play with. It's almost like they take these enormous bets knowing they can afford to fail,” says Thompson. Last summer, Steven Spielberg warned that Hollywood's new paradigm will shift, but only after a half-dozen overpriced bombs. Will that be summer 2014? “A lot of them aren't going to do well,” admits Thompson, but it's in the studio heads' interest to spin the story favorably so they can keep their jobs. “The five that do the best eat up most of the box office and make the numbers look good for everyone else.”
The long-term problem is studios are spending so much money on franchise movies that they can't afford to make anything else. A dearth of mid-size films means they're not only homogenizing their slate and shortchanging the audience, they're shortchanging themselves of the chance to find the next wave of hit-makers.
“The middle is where you have the future Christopher Nolans, the Darren Aronofskys,” notes Thompson.
Still, Thompson doesn't automatically hate sequels. She's eager to see 22 Jump Street, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For—films that might demonstrate directorial personality despite crushing financial pressures—and loved How to Train Your Dragon 2. “It's very Shakespearean,” she says.
But so far this summer, Thompson's been most impressed by Neighbors, which she calls “an example of doing everything right.” Initially, it was written about two male roommates living next to a frat house, a setup with greater appeal to the superhero crowd. The producers swapped one bro out for a woman, and then Seth Rogen insisted they make the wife as funny as the guys. Neighbors opened to $49 million and women bought 53 percent of the tickets.
As a bonus, at $18 million, Neighbors is eyebrow-raisingly cheap. When—not if—the modern mega-blockbusters implode in their race to be the biggest of all time, Hollywood should consider adopting it as their new model. “What you really have to have is returns on investment,” says Thompson, adding with a joking nod to her title, “Records are meaningless.”