After a peak in 2019, ever fewer films are passing the $1bn mark at the box office. So is it time to change our metric for success?
2019 is widely regarded as a peak year for blockbuster cinema, at least in terms of the takings of the biggest movies – and therefore in the boardrooms of Hollywood. When it comes to hard cash, it was something of a monsoon for the studios that most benefitted.
It was also the year when large-scale cinema last fully held its own against the rising tide of streaming. Back then, a remarkable nine films crossed the $1bn mark at the global box office, and if you wanted to get into the top 14 films worldwide, you had to have at least half a billion in the tank.
Half a billion dollars is an interesting marker too: I often think of the interview that Chris Pine gave with regards the Star Trek cinematic franchise. A profitable series of movies, but simply not profitable enough: come in with half a billion in 2019, and you were getting scoffed at.
Anyway, box office was on the up, and it was going to take an act of god for such a trend not to continue.
The new way
Pursuant to said act from above, inevitably there wasn’t a single billion dollar movie in 2020 when the world locked down, and a solitary performance in 2021 (Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film whose $1.9bn gross at a time of further pandemic fears looks even more remarkable).
A trio of films crossed the $1bn line in 2022, and the thinking was that, at the top end of blockbuster cinema, things were running a little more normally again.
Reflecting on 2023 though, and things look a little different. It also feels like reality has come in and given those in the Hollywood boardrooms a solid slap around the face. Predicting a box office return for a film has become even more of a crapshoot, and the reliance on massive numbers for a cinema release feels like folly.
Both were exceptionally marketed, one of them was also very good, yet they were the only two movies to cross what had become par on the high score table. 2023 was at one point supposed to be blockbuster cinema’s comeback year, but it didn’t quite work out that way. At least not by the old way of measuring things.
Not that there weren’t further success stories, and the Billion Dollar Prize badge does sometimes sell these short. Films such as Oppenheimer and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 clocked in handsome box office takes. The former, in particular, as everyone else has noted, was a stunning success, given that a three hour biopic with chunks in black and white helped itself to nearly a billion.
But it feels like it’s time to stop pretending things will go back to how they were, and actually reset expectations a little. Furthermore, to recognise that the success of a movie needs to be more broadly judged. It can’t just be that it makes lots of money, or wins lots of awards, or ideally, both.
Let’s stick with 2023 for a minute.
Outside of the big movies, it was the year of incredible feature debuts, and that’s the kind of success that a box office chart oftentimes fails to register. In the UK alone, movies such as Polite Society, Femme, How To Have Sex, Scrapper and Rye Lane all – incredibly – were feature directorial debuts, each of which got a cinema release.
Billions of dollars? No. They didn’t make $100m between them. But if anyone argues that cinema is in the doldrums, just look at the talent coming through and the films that are somehow getting through a system that some would have you believe was in the process of falling apart.
Still, one of the reasons for this piece is to ask: what environment are these new films and filmmakers coming into? That’s perhaps the key question at the moment. There’s no shortage of interesting filmmakers, there’s no shortage of interesting films. But the financial expectations of the marketplace feel like they’re urgently in need of a course correction.
I’m reminded of one of Kevin Smith’s conversations when he decided to eschew a traditional US cinema release for his horror film Red State, and instead opted to take it on a roadshow tour of America. Had he gone the traditional route, the marketing and release of the film would have cost six or seven times the budget of the movie, and it likely would have made a loss running into millions.
Yet he determined that should he release it outside of the usual system, he’d turn a profit. Sure, those who looked at the numbers his films brought in may scoff, but for Smith, he’d come up with a model where his productions were never grossing squillions, but had a far lower bar to clear in order to make profit. And he still got to show them on a cinema screen.
That feels like a realistic target, too. For a filmmaker, the best way to get funding for your next film is for your current film to break even, and it matters not what level of the business you’re at. Alexander Payne has remarked, while promoting The Holdovers, that the financial target he aims for with his movies is the cost to the financiers plus one dollar. That way, the endeavour has not cost them anything, and they may be inclined to release his next film.
Back to the billion dollar game, though, which I’d suggest has done real damage to cinema over the last decade or so.
The 2010s were marked by the erosion of the kind of interesting, mid-budget cinema that used to be a terrific stomping ground for interesting filmmakers looking to gradually scale up. Instead, you had massive blockbusters, tiny budget movies (ideally horror), and a few exceptions to these rules (usually with some degree of awards heat behind them).
The big studios are all now, of course, part of corporations that have quarterly returns and earning reports to publish, and should a movie’s box office falter, then the share price drops. Then rich people don’t get as rich as they want to be. They crave big numbers, and they’re not going to get them in the middle ground.
Still: when you then get to a year in which two films cross $1bn, a dozen fewer than four years previously, then it might be time to rework the model. It’s not as if anyone is predicting lots of breakout hits in the months to come, either.
Universal soldiers on
Looking to 2024, and there’s growing fear in a year impacted heavily by strike-enforced movie delays, that flat-out megahits are in short supply. There’s just one Marvel film, and even the most ardent fan of its output can only see Deadpool 3 so many times. Many other studio blockbusters have toddled off to 2025.
But is this a problem, or an inevitable course correction?
Look at what we can glean of the revenue model for Universal Pictures. It’s still the studio that outputs the most movies in a given year, and is it any coincidence that it’s the one that’s managed to make the video on demand model work so well?
Universal pivoted fast to this in 2020 – who can remember the furore when films such as The Invisible Man and Trolls World Tour were made available at home very quickly, in the case of the latter, bypassing cinemas entirely? Yet what it’s allowed Universal to do is build a better system for making its films profitable. Whereas lots of other studios are thus cutting back, it’s still able to make more movies, and very few of them come with a billion dollar expectation. The vast majority of them still get a cinema release too. It may not be an ideal model, but it feels like a better one.
Simon’s ultimate point
My ultimate point is this. If we must continue to assess the fortunes of movies by financial metrics, can we at least make them fairer and more realistic now? It is a business, I accept this. But a proper business is determined not by the amount of revenue, but by whether something makes a profit or not. And the determination of profit doesn’t come in an instant quarterly report, but over a longer lifespan for a film.
Films don’t suddenly stop making money once a theatrical run is done, or once a shareholder’s report is issued. Yet the immediacy of a financial judgement, against an unrealistic set of box office yardsticks, feels now like an older way of doing things. There’s a rush of wonderful new voices flooding into cinema now, keen to demonstrate the richness and strength of the big screen. Let’s cut the short term quick buck approach, and given them a system that both works and gives them more of a fighting chance.