Hollywood’s make-or-break season

The movie business is looking for more successes than it had last summer, as 'Wonder Woman' continues to perform well but new installments of the 'Cars' and 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchises experience their worst domestic opening weekends ever. Meanwhile, streaming services are encouraging some viewers to stay home. 

Disney-Pixar/AP
'Cars 3' features the voice work of Owen Wilson and Cristela Alonzo.

Q: What happened at the box office last summer?

Audiences demonstrated they won’t always show up for a familiar movie title. Do you remember “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” or “Ben-Hur”? Chances are you don’t, as all of them, and many other sequels and remakes, underperformed at the domestic box office. However, this wasn’t the case for every sequel: “Captain America: Civil War,” the latest Marvel offering, and “Finding Dory,” Pixar’s sequel to its 2003 movie “Finding Nemo,” were big hits. But unlike many of their sequel brethren, they got mostly positive reviews from critics. Many of the sequels and remakes that tanked at the box office had been panned by critics, who told audiences there was no reason to turn out.

“They were bad remakes; they were bad sequels,” says Ross Brown, director of the Master of Fine Arts program in writing and contemporary media at Antioch University in Santa Barbara, Calif. “[But] sequels, in and of themselves, are not evil creatures. ‘The Godfather: Part II’ won the [award for] best picture.... [Audiences] don’t mind seeing ‘Fill-in-the-blank Movie No. 26’ as long as it’s good.”

2016 actually broke 2015’s record to become the biggest-grossing year for Hollywood at the domestic box office. But industry-watchers attributed that partly to tickets becoming more expensive. Attendance for movies was about the same as in 2015.

Q: So will this summer be different, with fewer remakes and sequels?

Probably not, and that’s because it takes so long to make a movie. Studios often can’t respond instantly to trends or audience reaction. “[There’s a] long lead time, especially with movies that have – which is true more and more these days – complicated visual effects and things that demand a very long postproduction schedule,” Mr. Brown explains.

Indeed, moviegoers may have experienced some déjà vu Memorial Day weekend, which brought a new installment in what has become an increasingly poorly reviewed franchise, “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Also released was a big-screen version of “Baywatch,” an old TV show. Critics slammed both movies, and audiences apparently listened: The domestic earnings for the holiday weekend were the lowest since 1999. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” had the worst opening for the series since the first movie, and “Baywatch” is viewed as a financial failure.

Q: What about ‘Wonder Woman’?

On the other hand, “Wonder Woman,” which stars Gal Gadot as the female superhero, has become one of the summer’s early success stories. Like 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and “Finding Dory,” it received positive reviews and then had a strong showing at the box office. It posted the highest-grossing domestic opening weekend ever for a movie directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins). 

With the success of “Wonder Woman,” audiences have demonstrated they’ll turn out for a positively reviewed female-led superhero film. That probably gives the studio executives at Marvel even more confidence in their forthcoming movie “Captain Marvel,” which stars Brie Larson and is set to be released in 2019.

Q: How do streaming services factor into these trends?

In the age of streaming, theaters are fighting for audiences. Audiences can sit on the couch and watch an older movie on Netflix or Amazon. And Netflix is releasing original movies, skipping the theater altogether in some cases, as with the recent movie “War Machine” starring Brad Pitt (though that film has not received good reviews). 

“You have – small pressure now, but growing – Netflix, where you can watch feature films in your home,” Brown says. “And people’s home screens are bigger and bigger and [have] better resolution now, and so you can have quite an experience in your home that way. And you have access to these gigantic libraries of entertainment.”

Q: Will Hollywood swear off sequels and remakes?

Perhaps for a little while, but Brown doesn’t think Hollywood will avoid familiar properties for long. “If they have a bad run of luck, somewhere in the next year or two, they’re going to shy away from those types of stories,” he says. “And then somebody will break through with one of those types of stories that does really well, and everyone will change their mind again.” 

Movie studios aren’t the only ones in the sequel business: Brown points to NBC reviving “Will & Grace” for the coming fall TV season and Netflix bringing back the ABC show “Full House”; the second season of “Fuller House” was released in late 2016. “Not insanely, the production companies and networks say, ‘This is a property that worked for the audience and is a popular thing,’ ” Brown says. “ ‘Let’s try it again.’ ”

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