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Sequels and Lies: What Hollywood’s Disastrous Summer Really Means for the Future of Movies

Hint: Probably nothing

Getty Images/20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

Last weekend, moviegoers could find a film at their multiplex that emanated radical originality and depth of feeling, told on the grandest scale. It was sweeping science fiction with a beating heart, crafted by a master storyteller. Amid claims of the most perilous moment in the medium’s history, there was a tour de force in theaters for all to see.

That movie, of course, is Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Spielberg’s alien-contact parable returned to 901 theaters for a limited Labor Day run and was met with $1.8 million in ticket sales, enough to take 13th place at the box office. This turn of events was both heartening—Close Encounters is one of the director’s clearest and most resounding works—and a bit troubling for many film distributors. A week ago, in the face of Hurricane Harvey, a “fight of the century,” and the conclusion of the monoculture’s last true symbol, the box office turned in its worst performance since September 2001. This one marked the weakest Labor Day performance since Bill Clinton was in office, down 45 percent from last year’s overall receipts. And the doubt is coming from inside the house: For the first time in decades, the major studios did not release a new movie over this holiday weekend. On the year, domestic box office is down 6.2 percent. The sky is falling. Movies are done. Hope your kids taught you how to use Snapchat.

There is no life in the movies if it can’t be threatened from time to time. We have reached that time of year, immediately after a long and IP-choked summer, when gravestones for the industry are being etched. The culprits this year have been manifold: unwanted sequels, botched new properties, useless reboots, the scourge of Rotten Tomatoes. This weekend, Deadline asked in typically overstated fashion, “Is Moviegoing Dead?” before carefully clarifying in a column by Anthony D’Alessandro that it is, in fact, not. (This happens every year or so.) But there are curiosities worth unpacking and lies worth dispelling. Because the narrative is about to change in four days’ time.

This week brings a new movie with all of the symptoms we have been warned against. Warner Bros.’ rebooted adaptation of Stephen King’s novel It arrives in theaters on Friday. Here are the strikes against it: 1. It’s a reimagining of beloved source material. 2. This has been done before, as a memorable (if imperfect) 1990 ABC miniseries starring Tim Curry as the demon clown Pennywise. 3. It’s a prefab “expanded universe” movie with a built-in sequel meant to continue the half of King’s story that is not featured in the first film. 4. It’s helmed by a largely unknown filmmaker with just one credit to his name (2013’s successful but small-scale Jessica Chastain horror movie Mama), continuing the trend of entrusting unproven directors with big-budget properties (see: Trank, Josh). 5. The film has been in a development hell for nearly a decade. For years, it was in the hands of True Detective director Cary Fukunaga before he abruptly departed the project in 2015 due to creative differences with the studio. These five factors look like warning signs of an apocalypse already in process, like flares fired into a burning building.

But guess what? Director Andy Muschietti’s version of It is the best studio horror film since The Conjuring 2—a massive hit—and arguably the best King adaptation since 1995’s Dolores Claiborne. It’s also been expertly marketed, on track to earn $60 million—some have speculated as high as $80 million—at next weekend’s box office. Coincidentally, Muschietti’s sister and producing partner Barbara cited a memorable filmgoing touchstone in an interview last week: “I remember one of the films that scared the bejesus out of Andy in particular was Close Encounters.” “It was a seminal experience,” he says, “both an introduction to the magic of movies but also to the horror of movies.” It is no Close Encounters, but it’s in pursuit of a similar blend of the sentimental and the heart-clutching. The Muschiettis are from Argentina, but they came to King’s story of the monster who kills the children of Derry, Maine, in a familiar way, reading the book and becoming ensnared in the worlds the author could build inside a small town. Their movie is a reminder that something based on something else isn’t always a cynical gambit.

This month brings another sequel, one less predictable than the inevitable It, Part II. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the follow-up to 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s hyperviolent millennial spin on James Bond based on the Mark Millar comics series. The first movie was a ludicrously staged, cheekily told piece of exploding pop art—the sequel is even more violent, more arch, and more star-stacked, featuring appearances by Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, and an extended (and exceptional) Elton John cameo, joining the original’s stars, Taron Egerton and Colin Firth. It is, in a word, fun. And like It, the new Kingsman and the forthcoming The Lego Ninjago Movie are pegged to make more than $40 million in their opening weekend—if that comes true, it would be the first time, D’Alessandro noted, that three September releases opened that big. How can that be? It’s as if someone repaired the hole in the sky.

The production, scheduling, marketing, and release of movies is not a crapshoot, but it’s not an exact science, either. The studios are often reactive not proactive, scanning the calendar dates aggressively claimed by their competitors and responding accordingly. There are three Marvel movies planned per year through 2020. The weekends in which those movies will be released are unimpeachable—to open against them is to risk death. To schedule in their vicinity is to tempt the fates: Consider the truly disastrous month of May in Hollywood. After the success of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the following tentpole movies—each fitted with an unnecessary after-the-colon title—flopped domestically in consecutive weeks: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Alien: Covenant, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. A week after that, Wonder Woman opened and kick-started a new conversation about opportunity and empowerment, redefined the DC universe’s identity, minted a new star, reignited a filmmaker’s career, and set Warner Bros. up for a strong 2017. Things change quickly, though. By the end of June, after Transformers: The Last Knight and The Mummy, movies were imperiled once again. By the end of July, riding an unexpected wave off Dunkirk, Baby Driver, and Girls Trip, Hollywood had rediscovered a creative mojo. By August, the business was fucked again, buoyed only by a horror sequel about a possessed doll. But September is promising! The hamster circles the wheel.

No one in Hollywood sets out to make a bad movie, but sometimes they make them under cynical pretense. Most of this summer’s fiascoes were made in bad faith, particularly the fifth installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, two movies American audiences didn’t much want that were only bolstered by international ticket sales. (Notably, overseas box office is up this year, by more than 3 percent.) To commit to making movies like this, studios decrease the number of annual productions they’re willing to invest in, pursuing a home run strategy that often has disastrous consequences. These movies embody a sin that the author and critic Tom Shone identified in his essential 2004 book, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. In writing about James Cameron’s Aliens, Shone cites the typical sequel trajectory for pre-Rocky films.

During the sixties and seventies, [sequels] generally followed a law of diminishing returns, with each film expected to make only about 60 percent of its predecessor’s money. Thus the first Airport movie made $90 million, the second $50, the last $30. Some of the Rocky movies, on the other hand, made more money than the first—Rocky grossed $117 million and Rocky III $123 million—a pattern swiftly followed by the Star Wars sequels…

In describing why Cameron pursued a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, he finds a filmmaker with a purpose, looking to answer questions about the original’s intent. There were unanswered elements in Scott’s vision, and space for Cameron’s militaristic, mechanical interpretation. That it came seven years after the first film only emboldened Cameron and the other filmmakers—it wasn’t a cash grab, it was inspired. And ultimately Aliens did outearn its predecessor. The same can’t be said for the most recent edition in the Alien story. Adjusted for domestic inflation, Alien: Covenant is the least successful movie in the canon. But if you include its haul overseas and unadjust for inflation, it becomes the second-biggest, behind only Scott’s Prometheus. The least successful internationally? The original Alien, which counts only 23 percent of its gross from international sales. Some of this is a product of the vagaries of an evolving industry, some of it is inexplicable, and some of it is related to Scott’s confounding late-life allegiance to telling the story of idiotic space travelers and their willingness to get close to the membrane of intergalactic spores.

Channing Tatum, Riley Keough, and Adam Driver in ‘Logan Lucky’
Channing Tatum, Riley Keough, and Adam Driver in ‘Logan Lucky’
Bleeker Street

Alien: Covenant may not have been made for the wrong reasons, but it’s not a movie that captured the imagination either—hard-core fans were bemused, and the general population just didn’t care to meet seven more Xenomorph entrées. It’s never quite clear why we need to see the movie in the first place. The same can’t be said for Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, a well-made, clever, and entertaining caper—so, a Soderbergh flick—that touted its funding and distribution scheme but failed to verify its thesis. For a movie that stars James Bond, Kylo Ren, and Magic Mike robbing a NASCAR racetrack, Logan Lucky didn’t exactly intoxicate the public imagination. The film was distributed by the tiny Bleecker Street Media, and awareness was fairly low, likely the result of a marketing strategy that deemphasized Los Angeles and New York—Soderbergh’s bread and butter—and waited until a scant few weeks before release to start aggressively promoting it. For a movie that exists in a middle ground Hollywood hasn’t been able to reconcile of late, Logan Lucky suffered a fate similar to many other recent Soderbergh projects. It is neither forgettable, nor essential. The market for a movie like that is unclear.

Harvey Weinstein, once a master manipulator able to sell moviegoers on romantic period pieces better than anyone, sat on the beleaguered Tulip Fever for three years only to unfurl it into fewer theaters than the 40-year-old Close Encounters. Unsurprisingly, it wilted. This is a movie based on a bestseller starring three Oscar winners, including Tomb Raider–to–be Alicia Vikander. Harvey Scissorhands couldn’t cut it into a shape he wanted us to see. Maybe he’s lost something essential, just four years removed from a 2013 slate that included Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Silver Linings Playbook, and Django Unchained. Only, he also is responsible for one of the only success stories of recent weeks, the slow rise of Taylor Sheridan’s dour Wind River, which has steadily added theaters and cash to its portfolio since opening in limited release the first week of August. As always, Hollywood is built upon contradiction. The New Hollywood of the ’70s begat the blockbuster age begat the indie rebels of the ’90s begat the superhero globalization of this century. This summer in Hollywood—by turns crass and inspiring, confounding and crystal clear—could trigger a new era. But more likely, it’s business as usual.