The problem with the high profile of box office writedowns

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Why big headlines about sizeable movies causing corporate writedowns aren’t helping cinema.

Over five years ago, Disney took some sizeable blockbuster gambles. There was the expensive, belated sequel to TRON, by the name of TRON: Legacy. But for the purposes of this piece, it then embarked on a trio of sort-of originals. Well, not quite outright originals on the whole, but big risky blockbusters that didn’t commercially work out.

You might remember them. Andrew Stanton’s film of John Carter, Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger and Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland were all based on existing things, but each too was a box office disappointment. Box office disappointments that still brought in nine figures of revenue. So much so that each also generated headlines talking about the quarterly financial write down Disney was absorbing on each project. Some reported it factually, some reported it with glee. But the story in this case was very much money, rather than film.

Since then, a box office failure has been catnip for movie clickbait. In recent weeks, there are have been a few more examples too. We’re told that both Terminator: Dark Fate and Doctor Sleep will be requiring financial writedowns for their respective studios, and again, it’s sport to put how much the film has lost in the headline.

I do, to be clear, think there’s a story to be written about the ramifications of a film’s box office disappointment. The fact that a third run at a new Terminator trilogy has stumbled suggests an audience is expressing its frustration with the treatment of the broader franchise, after all. But conversely, the stories of big companies making losses on big movies can’t help but contribute to the narrowing of blockbuster cinema.

Let’s go back to Disney.

Those three aforementioned movies – plus TRON: Legacy, too – were gambles in their own ways. I’m hardly unpacking a violin to play a tune of sympathy for the Mouse, as it’s got more money in its broom cupboard than I’ll have in my life. But still, look at how it reacted to those films. It veered away from standalone gambles of that ilk, and instead has adopted its wildly successful, more rigid release strategy that it employs today.

That strategy has led to some terrific films, too. But the side effect of all of this is if someone took a $200m non-superhero/Star Wars standalone blockbuster to Disney now, it wouldn’t stand a chance. Or a $50m one, come to think of it. Disney took the financial hit and the mountain of bad press, and reacted accordingly. Most studios have fallen into the same line, either by following the leader, or by going through similar experiences.

For a studio, it’s testing enough I’d imagine to make a film that doesn’t financially break through. But to have to take the amount of ink online and off criticising it for making a movie in the first place must be tricky to take.

It was Kevin Smith who once, with good reason, said that we as the audience shouldn’t worry about box office. I don’t entirely agree with that, as we all know the game: I’ll never get a Geostorm 2 because Geostorm 1 didn’t make enough money, and that’s the power of box office.

But still, it’s a strange sight to see so many outlets concerned with a quarterly financial statement from a major media conglomerate.

Look at Mortal Engines, that Universal put out last Christmas. Stories popped up that Universal would face a writedown for the movie, yet that’s a very short term financial position anyway (a sample headline discussing its box office is above). Movies keep on earning. The film that loses money at the box office has decades to keep bringing in cash, from on-demand services to airlines to hotels to streaming to disc sales to further overseas deals. The whole factor of a writedown is that a film did less than expected, and a corporation has to adjust its current accounts accordingly. It doesn’t mean a film is a disaster, it doesn’t mean that it’s a punchbag. It just means it didn’t make as much money as hoped at that point in time (when, to be fair, its earning potential is at a peak).

Sure, some films are genuine flops that lose a flat-out fortune. But let’s take Terminator: Dark Fate. It’ll gross around, what, $250m by the time its box office run is done worldwide, down from the $450m it needed to break even. Yet the movie still has lots of other outlets for release and it’ll be part of movie boxsets – digital and physical – for some time to come. I’ve seen multiple outlets reporting that the film is set to lose around $120m, some more constructively than others. I’m seeing it called a “box office disaster” too.

But: it’s a company’s money, that it has clever ways to recoup. It’s not a financial disaster. Why, then, the rush to write a movie’s execution within three weeks, as if that’s that? Why the schadenfreude? What’s the end result of this?

Again: there’s an obvious story that the new franchise looks in real danger of not happening, and money is the reason for that. But the crowing about it underperforming isn’t a good look and, I’d argue, doesn’t help cinema at all.

Because we’re in danger here of giving movie studios even more excuses to avoid risks in favour of within boundaries mainstream fare. That there’s an ecosystem that if you swing and fail, then you’re there to be slammed as well as having to pick up the bill. That may be something the recent Terminator films have earned with they way they’ve generally disappointed their fanbase, but what about the aforementioned Mortal Engines? Or Tomorrowland? Both films have flaws, certainly, but what incentive is there at all for Universal and Disney to gamble on risky big films of that ilk when all they get is flak from all quarters, and a crappy Excel spreadsheet at the end of it?

Finding the good

I think the brilliance of fandom, and the best movie outlets, is the willingness to find the good, to salute the boldness. Not to defend big corporations, to be clear. But to recognise that someone has tried something a little away from the norm, and to cut it some slack if it doesn’t work out. Sure, I’m an idealist. But conversely, clickbait culture demands sensation rather than measure. And watching and cheering as a big, decent film fails for a short term hit is currently far more in vogue than I wish it was.

Sure, there are far bigger problems in the world. But if we want a broader selection of blockbuster films, I can’t help thinking that we have to do our bit to give them a fair crack of the whip too, whether they financially soar or fail.

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