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Indiana Jones and the Death of the Blockbuster

Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny © 2023 Lucasfilm Ltd
6 minute read
Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny © 2023 Lucasfilm Ltd

With this weekend’s ‘Barbenheimer’ opening more hyped than any recent moviegoing event in a long while, Rakesh Malik looks at some of the issues surrounding a dramatic weakening of the Hollywood box office.

Before Netflix and YouTube turned into media giants, summer blockbuster season was a great time for moviegoers. There was a months long window between the theatrical and home viewing releases, and the rentals were on VHS. 

Then as well as now the blockbusters were the studios' cash cows. They spent vast sums on the productions, and nearly as vast sums on marketing.

During that period we got films that are now iconic, including Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Their enormous ticket sales spurred sequel after sequel.

All three of the original Indiana Jones films were extremely profitable.

Thirty years later in the post-pandemic era, things have changed. Though theaters have reopened, their sales are down while ticket prices are rising to compensate for flagging ticket sales. Moviegoers are increasingly staying at home where home theaters have matured to the point where even Best Buy carries high end audiophile brands like Bowers and Wilkins and Martin Logan. High end home theater compelete with Dolby Atmos is no longer the purview of the super-rich, now it's entirely accessible to the middle class – exactly the viewers that the studios and theaters want coming out to the theaters.

So the studio executives decided to try something new: reboot old hits. Again. 

Hence we got movies like Jurassic Park: The Lost World. That was pretty successful. Both of its sequels were reasonably successful. The live action remake of Mulan did pretty well, drawing viewers into theaters and also drawing theater-resistance viewers to subscribe to Disney+. Series specific to Disney+ also brought subscribers, including successful ones like The Mandelorian.

That didn't last; the bland series sequel to Ron Howard's Willow received such a tepid response that Disney pulled it after only six months. Willow is hardly alone in this; Disney yanked dozens of properties from its channel, eliminating the ongoing costs of hosting it – the biggest one being residual payments.

So Disney decided to re-reboot another one of its cash cows: Indiana Jones.

Disney spent a reported $300 million making Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, hoping that it would revive the flagging summer blockbuster season.

Before we get into the revenue estimates, remember that theater sales have a lot of middlemen, so while Disney gets a larger share than most studios, that share is still only around 60% of the gross revenues. Also recall that in order to break even, Disney has to recoup not only the cost of production, but also the cost of marketing, which for blockbusters like Indiana Jones typically lands at nearly 50% of the production budget, so to break even Disney needs a gross of over $600 million worldwide.

As reported on IndieWire, Disney is on track for a gross revenue of somewhere between $300 and $350 million, leading to a return of $200 million, leaving very little possibility of Disney breaking even let alone making a profit on Indiana. 

This is hardly an unusual story any more. So what's going on?

Copy and paste

The problem is that this is one area where studio films aren't even trying any more. The biggest, most expensive movies from the studios these days are remakes, sequels, and reboots. Too often these have stories that are little more than recycled stories from the earlier films, and tweaked slightly in an attempt to make them more appealing. Jurassic Park: The Lost World for example followed pretty much the entire storyline, beat for beat, from the original Jurassic Park. To make it “better” we got bigger dinosaurs, including a mososaur and the genetically engineered Indominus Rex, and a bigger dinosaur theme park.

Even the Marvel movies are losing their lustre as their sameness is diluting their appeal. Comic book superheroes fight an evil superbeing seeking to conquer the world, culminating in a great battle of CGI monstrosities worked once, but after the 15th iteration even die-hard superhero movie fans start losing interest.

Fake diversity…

Then there’s fake diversity. The movie The Great Wall received a lot of flak for being a movie set in China, yet having a caucasian man as the hero of the film, even though the studios cast the well liked Matt Damon as said protagonist. 

Frankly, it deserved that flak. Casting caucasian actors in non-white roles is a long-standing ignoble tradition in Hollywood, going all the way back to the beginning of cinema history where white actors wore black makeup in order to deny leading roles to black actors.

The other way that the studios are failing at diversity is by trying to be diverse by making well established white characters black rather than simply writing new characters who are black. The studio executives think that for a black character to work, they have to build on the legacy of a white character.

That is patently false, because all it takes is to write a character who is black who is in a good story and has a compelling character arc.

…and fake feminism

The studios are even worse when it comes to gender equality. Lately female Hollywood heroes have become entitled, angry, invulnerable, and flat. They have no character arc because they start and finish as perfect beings with no weaknesses, they face no opposition that can challenge them, and they care not a whit about anyone around them, making themselves generally unlikeable. Worse, they are also all the same, and therefore completely forgettable. 

Naturally, the studio showrunners and producers blame the audiences, claiming that they simply do not identify with female heroes, which could not be farther from the truth. Examples of great female characters abound, such as Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings, and Murphy from Interstellar. There are also iconic heroines like Ellen Ripley from Alien and the unforgettable Sarah Conner from The Terminator.

None of these women had any supernatural powers, and all of them were believable human beings with strengths and flaws and, most importantly, motivations that made sense. They all had memorable character arcs. The studio producers seem to have forgotten that for a character to have a compelling arc, they have to undergo a journey, whether internal or external, and to accomplish this they absolutely must have an obstacle to overcome.

How do we fix this?

That's the wrong question. Fixing a broken system doesn't help anyone, and frankly no one in their right mind wants to put more money into the wallets of people who have made some of these disastrous decisions.

Fixing the broken Hollywood model serves only Hollywood.

Netflix meanwhile continues to dominate streaming in spite of having off years when it loses millions of subscribers. No Netflix series has approached the vast Amazonian budget for The Rings of Power, yet Netflix continues chugging along, creating movies and series that are continuing to attract more viewers than the rest of the streamers are. YouTube audiences are even bigger.

YouTube makes no money directly from content, instead making money primarily from advertisers. Google is paying for basically no content, so its costs amortized over its vast libraries of content are relatively small. Similarly, Netflix spends far less money on advertising any particular film than Hollywood does, and shares its revenues with only its own datacenters and network providers. It has no real middlemen in its profit chain.

In addition, Netflix exercises no creative control over its production partners. Once Netflix pays for a production, it leaves creative the creative decisions in their hands. While this sometimes leads to travesties like Another Life it also has lead to some genuinely unique films like Don't Look Up which was a huge embarrassment for Hollywood because of both its acerbically satirical portrayal of Hollywood and a story that hits a little to close to home for comfort.

No Hollywood studio would have bankrolled that film, let alone allowed it to end the way that it did.

Elsewhere, Stranger Things is wildly popular, and features several excellent leading female characters, because they are relatable and human and grow into their heroic roles through dint of persistence, grit, ingenuity, and training, rather than by screenwriter fiat.

Theaters are being hit especially hard by all this. The theaters need films that attract viewers willing to spend $50 for an evening's entertainment instead of staying at home where they can get all the movies they have time to watch for $50 per month, and at home there are more choices in cuisine and libations, both of which cost quite a bit less at home than in theaters. Theaters can only thrive if they have content that draws viewers in by the droves, and the studios are letting them down.

While the work stoppage resulting from the writers' strike is impeding production and leading to a void of content, the heart of the situation remains thus: demand for content is on the rise, and the viewers are increasingly voting with their wallets and reviews.

Those votes are not going to the blockbusters.

The indie opportunity

For independent filmmakers this is not a problem, but rather an opportunity, because the dearth of satisfying content from the studio system is giving an unsatisfied audience incentive to look for other venues to get the content they crave.

Accelerated by the pandemic, YouTube's pervasiveness and popularity have enabled independent films  to carve out a niche where even short films can thrive. There are channels like as Alter and Dust that accept and promote short films to their subscriber base, so they are becoming a solid way to rapidly build an audience. Some filmmakers use that audience to finance their own projects either through crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or subscriber based crowdfunding sites like Patreon. Both have one thing in common, which is that they require a large fan base in order to succeed. A Patreon with just a few thousand can finance films while also paying the bills. It takes time to build, but there are quite a few channels now that deliver consistent content while generating revenue through subscription platforms like Patreon.

There are also entire platforms like Nebula and WaterBear that are dedicated to independent content creators that are ad free and subscriber supported.

Venues that enable content creators to reach their audiences directly cut the studios completely out of the profit loop, so these are the venues that the studios fear most. Yet at the same time, due to the decreasing quality of the studios' storytelling, they are pushing viewers to these venues.

This is a great opportunity for independent filmmakers to break into the film market and not repeat the recent mistakes that Hollywood has insisted on repeating.








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