Editor’s Note: Lewis Beale writes about culture and film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Lewis Beale: New Bond film "Spectre," and unending stream of film sequels, makes you ask: Why can't Hollywood do something new?
Beale: Not when global market so far outstrips U.S. Overseas appetite is for familiar American franchises. Get used to more of same
If there’s a feeling of déjà vu surrounding “Spectre,” the new James Bond film, that’s because it’s treading on familiar ground:
007 goes after a bad guy heading up some sort of conspiracy that’s international in scope; he beds some hotties along the way, tangles with his superiors – M in particular – and manages to travel to exotic locations, engage in at least one major fistfight, a car chase, maybe fall out of an airplane, and blow up a few buildings along the way.
Yawn. How many times have we seen this before?
Listen, it’s not that sticking to formula is anything new in Hollywood these days. Just think of all those “Spiderman,” “X-Men,” “Batman,” “Superman,” “Fast and Furious,” “Hunger Games,” etc., etc., films. And let’s not forget the new “Star Wars” flick, “The Force Awakens,” opening December 18, which is not only the seventh film in the franchise, but also so eagerly awaited that some pundits are predicting it will gross over $600 million globally on its opening weekend.
This just in: the “Star Wars” film will feature Imperial stormtroopers, light sabers, droids, references to the Force, desert planets and fighter jets.
Here’s where you ask: “Have the studios given up on original content? And if they have, why?”
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The answers to those questions are: (a) pretty much, and (b) three words: global box office. In addition to the films already in the pipeline, there are over 90 remakes and reboots in the works, which means Hollywood is always looking for material it can remake and resell.
And this obsession with the familiar has a lot to do with filmgoers in Guadalajara, Guangzhou and Gdansk, whose tastes now determine what films get made. That’s because foreign box office for major movies like the Bond film now accounts for more than 70% of total revenue. And what those folks out there seem to like are big budget American franchise flicks filled with CGI effects, tried and true plotlines, plenty of action sequences and not a whole heck of a lot of dialogue (which the studios like, because they don’t have to spend a bunch of money on dubbing or subtitles).
Check out a few recent figures: “Jurassic World”, which grossed over $1.6 billion worldwide, earned 60% of that amount overseas. “Furious 7” took in 76% of its $1.5 billion global gross outside the United States. “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” 67%; “Minions,” 71%; the two recent Hobbit films, 73% each.
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There are several reasons for this. Ticket sales in the United States continue to decline, with many Americans saying they’d rather watch films at home than in a theater, while international box office keeps expanding. And that global business is driven by the Asian market, where the number of theater screens increased by 15% last year and Chinese box office numbers jumped by a whopping 34% in 2014.
In this kind of marketplace, can you blame the studios for wanting to go where the big bucks are? In some cases, the films are made to appeal directly to the foreign market, primarily to attract the major yuan coming out of China. “Iron Man 3,” for example, had scenes added just for the Chinese filmgoer. And you can be certain the space agency cooperation between China and the United States in the current box office hit “The Martian” hasn’t hurt its ticket sales in Shanghai (57% of the film’s gross has come from overseas).
The downside of all this, of course, is that critically acclaimed smaller films, or more adult dramas, have a harder time getting screen time, which means they struggle to gain traction at the box office. When a single film like “Spectre” opens in roughly 3,500 theaters, representing about 10% of all U.S. screens, that tends to crowd a lot of other movies out of the picture.
And there’s this. “Spectre,” which cost $250 million to make – it’s one of the most expensive films ever – needs to gross around $650 million just to break even.
Which means it better do boffo business overseas. This is Hollywood’s new normal. Get used to it.