In a World Where Blockbusters Bomb

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It’s been a typically explosive summer at the movies, in that there has been a big-budget, effects-laden release nearly every weekend since May. But playing it safe with franchise fare seems to have backfired for The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., White House Down, Smurfs 2, and several others. In the past two months, more than a billion dollars in American movie-making and advertising has bombed domestically and internationally.

Industry bigwigs, including blockbuster pioneer Steven Spielberg, have predicted a proximate “implosion” if the major studios continue their strategy. Lynda Obst, who has been producing movies in Hollywood for 30 years, admits this summer’s slate has been nearly catastrophic, but it doesn’t herald the end of the big-movie business. “It’s a very reactive, bright crew of people,” she tells Kurt Andersen.

Obst attributes the glut of action, animation, and endless sequels to international audiences, which she says account for 80 percent of Hollywood’s bottom line these days. She explores the international market’s influence on the movie business in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business. “When I discovered this fact I feared that we in the domestic market no longer count,” she tells Kurt, “but what you see this summer is that a total failure of a movie in the US market doesn't behoove it well overseas.” Americans have essentially become a focus group for the rest of the world’s movie-going audiences, Kurt realizes.

So why does Hollywood keep churning out big budget movies when they don’t succeed here? Big international markets like China only allow America’s 3D action extravaganzas to show on their screens; dramas and romantic comedies are of no interest. Obst says that’s partly to protect smaller-scale films made locally, and partly to prevent “the infiltration of our ideas.”

But with the blockbuster formula starting to break down, Hollywood might be forced to stop putting put all their eggs in one basket. “I see more original ideas in development this year,” Obst says. “Instead of making the one marginal tent pole, dump that one and make five smaller movies.” 

→ What do you think? Does Hollywood need to rethink its blockbuster strategy or is it just giving the people what they want? Tell us in a comment below.