In the 1950s and 1960s, Westerns were everywhere. In the cinema, there were films starring John Wayne and Gary Cooper; and on TV, there were shows such as Bonanza and Jim West. Stories of gun-toting cowboys chasing down bad guys were a surefire formula for success in Hollywood. But the genre reached its expiration date and Western cinema declined in the 1970s. Today, Westerns have been replaced by movie franchises and sagas, with their sequels, prequels, spinoffs and rehashes, be it of Marvel and DC superhero stories or Star Wars and Disney characters. As movie studios raked in billions of dollars from these franchises that dominated the blockbuster lists for decades, the big question was when the party would come to an end.
The 2023 global box office numbers show cracks in this hitherto infallible recipe for Hollywood success. Three movies that seemed sure bets — the latest installments of The Flash, Ant-Man and Indiana Jones — ended up being disappointments for the studios.
In the case of The Flash, Warner Brothers was counting on audience nostalgia, with Michael Keaton cast as Batman, a role he played in the 1988 movie. But according to ScreenRant, the movie lost over $200 million against a budget of $450 million. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which grossed under $500 million, also failed to break even. According to Variety magazine, it had a production budget of $200 million and a marketing spend of at least $100 million, meaning Disney needed to make roughly $600 million. And Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was also a disappointment for Disney and LucasFilm, as it barely recovered its $295 million budget, according to the Box Office Mojo website.
For Enrique Lavigne, the producer of films such as A Monster Calls and The Impossible, the recent failures of seemingly safe bets are a sign of the formula wearing thin. “A franchise without any ounce of humanity is a formula that runs out. You see that with superhero movies. The cinema needs new ideas to change,” he tells EL PAÍS by phone.
The global box office results are another sign that 2023 is proving an atypical year for Hollywood studios. Disney, for example, has not only lost money with several movies, but has also had to postpone the release of its next big projects due to the actors’ and writers’ strike that has paralyzed the industry.
Amid the box office disappointments, there have been two big winners this summer: Oppenheimer, a biopic about the creator of the atomic bomb, and Barbie, the first non-animated feature film about the iconic doll. While both had huge budgets, massive marketing campaigns and plenty of famous faces, they stand out as outsiders in an industry dominated by Disney and the DC multiverses. “Whether they’re original movies or not, they’re definitely the start of something new in the way of bringing people to the movies,” says Lavigne, who points out, however, that Mattel is already producing a dozen movies based on Barbie in a bid to repeat the film’s success.
Some of the industry’s leading figures are more optimistic, such as Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the Godfather saga, who celebrated the success of the two films. “The fact that people are filling big theaters to see them and that they are neither sequels nor prequels, no number attached to them, meaning they are true one-offs, is a victory for cinema,” he said while answering questions on his Instagram account. “My hunch is that we’re on the verge of a golden age. Wonderful and illuminating cinema seen in large theaters,” he added in the comments section.
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