Peter Bart: Hollywood Gives Indies Its Awards Now, But Riches Await Spring-Summer Tentpoles

Avengers Lady Bird

Welcome to a Hollywood week that will be at once celebratory and cynical. Everywhere in town this week someone is bestowing an award that will celebrate original and creative filmmaking. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the majors are preparing to unveil their 2018 release schedules packed with more sequels and remakes than at any time within memory – a veritable feast of franchises. “The film industry is returning to the comfort of the familiar,” as The Economist observed in its film survey.

But will it work? Since Hollywood lavishes so much money to win awards for original fare, why does it then do a total pivot and all but abandon this pursuit? By the time summer 2018 arrives, the studios will already have disgorged new Avengers, Jurassic World and Ant Man movies and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Potential ticket buyers (a diminishing herd) will find a number behind almost every release: Mission: Impossible 6, Ocean’s 8 (not 11), Incredibles 2 and even a Deadpool 2 as though to firmly label the familiar as, well, very familiar. Even those without a number will still have a ring of familiarity: Robin Hood, Black Panther, Fifty Shades Freed, Fantastic Beasts.

Hence, while the Globes, Oscars and other award shows provide an amusing diversion, the tyranny of the numbers still looms large. The combined grosses of the 10 most recent Best
Picture Oscar winners would about equal the budget of a new Jurassic World. But here’s the problem: Is this formula much different from the 2017 plan, which didn’t work very well (attendance was down 4%)? Will it all be too much of the same? There are virtually no comedies on the release schedule (Snatched didn’t work in 2017), and mid-range drama is downright extinct – Paramount’s memorable trio of mother!, Suburbicon and Downsizing together grossed about $25 million.

What all this underscores yet again is the seismic split between Hollywood product and indie fare. Hollywood remains fixated on its young demo worldwide, marginally ignoring other sectors of the cinema spectrum including older filmgoers and Millennials. Some analysts, for example, point to the sizable Millennial reception for the new MoviePass scheme, where subscribers can see a movie every day of the year for $9.95 a month. The MoviePass mavens admit they are “shocked” by this warm reception, with 1 million folks signing up in the last four months. “We seem to have hit a nerve in America,” says Mitch Lowe, a co-founder.

Wonder Woman
“Wonder Woman” Warner Bros

Some box office analysts believe there also should be greater focus on the female demo. They point to the remarkable success of Wonder Woman (or even Wonder), Girls Trip, Bad Moms and, course, Beauty and the Beast. Women are demanding more opportunity in decision-making positions; surely they also deserve more attention as an audience.

In making these decisions, of course, the majors are distracted by the growing gap between the U.S. market and overseas opportunities. While the domestic box office declined 2.4% last year, the worldwide returns increased by 3%, stoked importantly by China’s expanding ticket sales. But the very franchises that proved disappointing last summer in the U.S. performed well abroad. Hence the big question: Who does Hollywood make movies for? The old cliché was “familiarity breeds contempt.” Will that prove true with “familiar” franchises?

All these questions will fade into the background this week as the dramas (and inadvertent comedies) of award season unfold. After all, the business at hand this week is self-congratulation, not self-analysis.

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