NEW YORK (AP) — Hollywood came into its fall season buoyed by a near-record summer, the comfort of having three aces up its sleeve (James Bond, “Star Wars” and the final “Hunger Games” film), plus a string of studio spectacles geared more for adults than teenagers.
The results, though, have been mixed for most films not named “The Martian.” Last weekend, in particular, drove home the point, when five new wide releases — most strikingly the $30 million awards season heavyweight “Steve Jobs,” with a paltry $7.1 million launch in wide release — all failed to click.
The streak appears likely to continue through Halloween weekend, when Warner Bros.’ “Our Brand Is Crisis,” a political satire starring Sandra Bullock, is unlikely to add much firepower to the box office. Salvation won’t arrive until the following weekend with the opening of Sony’s “Spectre,” the 24th James Bond film and a certain blockbuster.
It’s been a humbling few weeks for some of Hollywood’s best efforts to enliven multiplexes with ambitious films, most notably with the 3-D spectacle of Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” and the starry stature of the Aaron Sorkin-scripted “Steve Jobs.”
The box-office downturn, too, comes at the same time new inroads are being made into the traditional theatrical release window — developments that could signal coming change for the industry, particularly if it continues to struggle to launch such movies.
In an interview ahead of the release for “The Walk,” Sony chief Tom Rothman called making broad-audience movies that aren’t sequels or based on a comic book “the dominant issue in our business.” The last several weeks have proven that Hollywood, despite a year sure to rank as among the highest grossing, isn’t closer to figuring out how to do that.
Many of the fall’s anticipated releases tried to hook moviegoers with 3-D. It’s been an effective strategy in recent years for films from “Avatar” to “Gravity,” although the novelty wore off long ago for many moviegoers.
While 3-D helped drive the robust grosses for Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” ($167 million domestically, No. 1 for three of the last four weeks), it didn’t do the same for “Everest” ($41.9 million) or “The Walk” ($9.9 million), both of which opened first on IMAX and large-format screens in hopes of selling audiences on a higher-priced, premium experience.
Others have depended on the full wrappings of a prestige picture, including Steven Spielberg’s handsome Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies,” with Tom Hanks, and the Danny Boyle-directed “Steve Jobs,” which may have been harmed by a chorus of criticisms over Sorkin’s dramatization of the Apple co-founder.
“Bridge of Spies” has pulled in $33.6 million domestically in two weeks: solid business for a movie that cost $40 million to make. But it’s unlikely to match even the gross of Spielberg’s “War Horse,” which totaled $79.9 million in late 2011 and early 2012.
Spielberg, of course, is synonymous with the big screen, but even he has felt the industry changes. The director has said his previous film, “Lincoln,” was nearly an HBO movie, and the director has lamented the ubiquitous rise of the superhero film.
Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures is in the midst of an experiment to shrink the usual 90-day window reserved for theatrical release. “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” which opened last weekend, and “Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,” which debuts Friday, will both head to video-on-demand and online once they dip below 300 screens.
Of the major chains, only AMC Theaters and Cineplex Entertainment went along, meaning “The Ghost Dimension” opened to just $8.2 million on 1,656 screens — about 1,000 less than it would have.
Megan Colligan, head of distribution for Paramount, said the film succeeded where it played, suggesting the other chains missed out, and that the shorter window had no effect: “By playing it, they did the most business of any circuit with any movie,” she said.
Netflix, too, made its first foray into an original film release with Cary Fukunaga’s child soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation,” starring Idris Elba. Though few ventured out to see it in theaters (just $87,000 in limited release), Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos claimed that the film was streamed by more than 3 million people in North America. For comparison, that many viewers would translate at the box office into approximately $24 million in ticket sales.
“It’s a sign of the times. It’s a massive look at the future.” said Elba ahead of the film’s release. “People are different and definitely consuming films in a different way.”
Overcrowding could be an issue. Films like “The Martian,” ”The Walk,” ”Bridge of Spies” and “Steve Jobs” are anomalies: well-reviewed studio-distributed entertainments with enough seriousness or smarts to win over most critics. There might be four such studio dramas in a year, let alone in a month that also featured Lionsgate’s “Sicario,” Warner Bros.’ “Black Mass” and Universal’s “Crimson Peak.”
“This has to be considered one of the most crowded movie marketplaces of the year,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office data firm Rentrak.
With “Spectre” on the horizon and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” already setting advance ticket records, the health of the theatrical business isn’t much in doubt. But in a jam-packed October, many of Hollywood’s anxieties — its ability to sell original films, the encroachment of streaming — have bubbled up at a box office that now awaits rescue from some of its oldest franchises.