The year 2011 was a schizophrenic scene for both indies and studios in film. It began with the promise of an avalanche of Sundance Film Festival acquisitions and promised new vigor and buyers in the independent film sector. But it ended with movies underperforming at the domestic box office and down hundreds of millions of dollars compared to last year. While some of those grosses were Avatar’s tail end in early 2010, studios in 2011 didn’t make enough compelling films that drew audiences into theaters. It was an alarming trend that started during the summer and continued through year’s end. Both the majors and indies also struggled to embrace shifting distribution paradigms; the indies are finding salvation in VOD while the majors are still sparring with exhibitors. Studio attempts to build new franchises brought some breathtaking flops. And efforts to build bankable new stars was a study in frustration as well. So is it an exaggeration to say that studios are in a state of crisis? The signs of strain are certainly showing. One of the most surprising continual headlines over the year was the number of major films that studios drew hard lines in the sand and unplugged major projects they paid millions of dollars to develop, alienating top stars, directors and producers who are not used to being told no.
From a quality standpoint, studios provided a lackluster film slate that felt too familiar and therefore boring. But it’s hard to blame Hollywood’s slavish devotion to sequels, prequels, reboots, and brands. Especially when 2011’s top seven grossing films of the year were sequels — Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2, Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon, Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, The Hangover II, Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides, Fast 5, and Cars 2. The next three on the list were brands — Marvel’s Thor, Fox’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Marvel’s Captain America. Despite the challenges and the doom and gloom, the year brought highlights and surprises that disprove every assumption. They include sleeper summer hits The Help, Bridesmaids and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the latter a gem that Sony Pictures Classics opened in the heat of summer. It out-grossed all of the director’s previous films with $56 million domestic and $145 million worldwide. After a year in which 3D conversions seemed to be little more than a gimmick to charge higher ticket prices, Martin Scorsese took the baton from James Cameron with budget-buster Hugo. And the year ends with Tom Cruise reestablishing his box office might with the refreshed franchise Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. And despite what I’ve said about sequels, who could not be excited about Christopher Nolan’s final Batfilm The Dark Knight Rises, or Ridley Scott’s return to Alien territory with Prometheus, or Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth with the first installment of The Hobbit?
As for budget-cutting, it’s to be expected after several attempts to launch new franchises blew up in the moguls’ faces. Warner Bros had a big swing and a miss with Green Lantern, whose $219 million worldwide gross only slightly eclipsed its $200 million budget. It was the second straight year that Warner Bros tried and failed to turn one of its DC Comics characters into hit films after last summer’s Jonah Hex debacle. And even the upcoming Man Of Steel has raised questions whether this Superman reboot can resurrect the troubled franchise.
Perhaps the biggest game-changing summer flop was Cowboys & Aliens, a film that had been developed over more than a decade by some of Hollywood’s brightest minds (Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jon Favreau), and a dream pairing of the actors known as Indiana Jones and James Bond. The genre mash-up lost a fortune for DreamWorks, Universal, and Relativity Media. Audiences didn’t connect with the concept, and didn’t care about Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. That left a reported $163 million budget film (I’ve heard it was higher) with a $174 million worldwide gross. Factor in the P&A spend, then cut that revenue in half to account for the exhibition split, and this is a big fat failure. The ripples were felt as far away as India where the film is rumored to have dampened the enthusiasm of DreamWorks’ financing partner Reliance.