Hollywood’s Golden Age was over by the early ‘60s. Facing increased competition from the advent of television, major studios struggled to attract younger generations by spending more money on fewer releases made with expensive new technologies—a strategy that produced masterpieces like Lawrence of Arabia and misfires like Cleopatra, whose failure nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox.
Major studios survived because they got desperate and tried something crazy—emulating subversive, youth-oriented hits like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. They empowered young directors like Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas and Scorsese to make more mid-budget movies with little of the studio oversight that characterized Old Hollywood. Studios are, after all, just companies, and all companies need to adapt their business models every now and then to stay relevant in an ever-changing market.
In many ways, the bloated studio system of 2017 doesn’t look all that different than it did in 1963. Facing increased competition from the advent of online streaming services, they struggle to attract younger generations by spending more money on fewer releases made with expensive new technologies—just replace the biblical epics with superhero sequels, and Cinemascope with 3D and IMAX.
In the wake of a 15-year decline in ticket sales and its worst summer in more than a decade, I think Hollywood is overdue for another upheaval of its old ways. But this is business—who cares what I think. What do the numbers say? Glancing at some of the biggest box office earners of 2017, it’s clear the years to come will feature no shortage of comic book films (Wonder Woman), animated sequels (Despicable Me 3) and Disney’s live-action remakes of animated relics (Beauty and the Beast).
Though sequels certainly won’t go away, studios may learn to thin the herd as more lackluster franchise entries with bad word-of-mouth (Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy) fail to earn enough to justify their exorbitant budgets. The cinematic universe trend sparked by Marvel’s The Avengers seems to finally be on the decline after reaching its CGI sky-beam climax in 2017, as evidenced by Universal scrapping their Dark Universe and DC shifting focus to more standalone superhero stories.
“In the wake of a 15-year decline in ticket sales and its worst summer in more than a decade, I think Hollywood is overdue for another upheaval of its old ways.”
But the most interesting films among 2017’s big box office earners are the outliers. I’m thinking specifically of It (#5), Get Out (#14), and Split (#21), according to Box Office Mojo,—all relatively low-budget non-sequels in the horror genre, which has a long history of movies earning disproportionate sums on small budgets. Combined with the success of similarly original mid-budget films like Dunkirk, Baby Driver and Girls Trip, there’s clear evidence that Hollywood could regain some of its old market share by investing in more modestly-budgeted genre films, enabling less studio oversight, bigger returns on investment—and maybe even lower ticket prices.
While it may be optimistic to predict a genre renaissance or another ‘70s-style age-of-the-auteur on the horizon, Hollywood will have to reckon with its changed place in the digital age eventually, in one way or another. The question is, are they desperate enough to try something crazy?