What Did We Learn from 2016’s Summer Movie Season?

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Labor Day has come and gone here in the United States, and that means several things: a lot of young people are heading back to school or university, Halloween stores begin their incredibly short-lived lifespan and the Christmas season is already underway to an annoying degree – but more importantly, it marks the end of summer, and with that, the year’s summer movie season.

And boy, has it been an awkward summer.

Summer 2016 in movies, at first glance, seems to have been a season of disappointments and failures, with a few big successes sprinkled about. The season was almost poetically represented by one of the last big summer movies to come out; the Ben-Hur remake that cost $100 million to make and debuted to a box office of about $11 million over the course of the entire opening weekend, and a sub-30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Ben-Hur was a movie that cost too much, was part of the ongoing tide of remakes, reboots, re-quels and just plain sequels that Hollywood currently finds itself in, yet it was also a movie nobody was asking for. Any one of those descriptors could have applied to most of the summer 2016 movies, and they too were often met with mixed-to-bad receptions and underwhelming-to-poor box office takes. Summer 2016 seemed to be the year where audiences had finally had enough of the culture of remakes and franchising in Hollywood, and one would hope it was also the year where Hollywood finally listened.

But here’s the thing: despite the rough feeling to the season, profits are actually up a few percentage points overall, and the biggest winners, both critically and financially, were franchise movies, including one of the biggest superhero films ever. So what is going on? Well, I’m no statistician or Hollywood analyst or “qualified” to make any kind of big sweeping statements regarding the complex intersection of pop culture, regular culture and business, but I am someone who cares enough about this kind of thing to use the infinite power of the internet to scrounge up a few numbers to find some kind of pattern, though mostly I’ll just be speculating.

It should go without saying that any numbers and conclusions brought up in this article are totally informal and probably wrong.

So then, folks, what did we learn?

We want less reboots and sequels, but not enough for them to stop being made.

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It’s old news by now, but most people are not pleased with the glut of sequels, reboots and remakes that inundate mainstream cinema. Some people might have stronger feelings about it while others find themselves merely tolerating it, but it can confidently be said that no one is very excited about the notion of losing original ideas to rehashes and repeats of old ideas. Whenever someone makes this point, the same reply can often be expected: “speak with your money.” In Summer 2016, it seemed we finally got around to doing just that – for the most part.

Depending on what you count as a wide release film during the summer season, which Box Office Mojo defines as “the first Friday in May through Labor Day Weekend”, there were around 50 to 60 major movie releases. Of that group, sequels and reboots/remarks took up roughly a third of that number. For most movie-going audiences, that’s a lot, especially considering that most people are more interested in the big major releases than the smaller indie/non-major movies that also got wide releases this summer (which I think is a good thing by itself, because the non-major summer films were pretty damn good this year too).

While none of these films outright “failures”, except for maybe Ben-Hur and Alice Through the Looking Glass, they could easily have been said to have “under performed.” From a business side, making sequels and reboots originate with the idea that they are guaranteed, or less-risky, moneymakers. In a sense, film executives could actually be correct, since we went to see films like Neighbors 2, the Ghostbusters reboot, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Jason Bourne. They’re even more correct if you account for foreign money, which is growing increasingly important every year. But at least domestically, in the US, they’re not quite as potent as they would seem to be. This might be more of a symptom of…

We didn’t see movies we didn’t ask for.

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With Sony releasing movies about animated food cussing this year, and another based on goddamn emojis in 2017, it would seem Hollywood will never cease to make movies that make audiences ask, “Why?”

We asked that same question plenty of times during the summer of 2016, when a bunch of unwanted movies plopped down into theaters and we were expected to be excited for them. Now with Alice Through the Looking Glass, that could be forgiven because the previous Alice movie made more than $1 billion. But that was six years prior, and I don’t recall any kind of groundswell for a sequel at any point during those six years. But it at least it had a reason, unlike Now You See Me 2, which may have been a sequel to an only three year old movie, one that was already standard and disposable without a second instalment kicking it back to a sputtering life.

I think the best lesson can be learned from the fifth Ice Age movie. Despite being the fifth entry in a 14 year old franchise, Ice Age: Collision Course was released with roughly the same regularity as the four previous movies (one every 3-4 years), and the Ice Age movies are fairly reliable money makers. So it should’ve seemed like an easy win, from a numbers perspective. But almost everything else, or lack of anything else, indicated the no one was really looking forward to another Ice Age. So studios should either look into better researching the desire for a particular movie, or invest more resources in maintaining attention like superhero movies do.

We don’t have superhero “fatigue”, we have “certain expectations” of their movies.

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As much as I like to defend superhero movies, even I have to sometimes admit that we get a lot of them over the course of the year. When Marvel announced the next ten years of movies all at once, I find myself a little sympathetic to the people who do the real complaining. But the fact that Marvel has been keeping the MCU going relatively strong for eight years now, in terms of both money and critical reception, I don’t see the paradigm changing away from superheroes any time soon. However, what we should be more concerned with is the deluge of poorly-made superhero movies.

Right now, Marvel appears to not only have achieved early-era Pixar levels of “could do no wrong”, but it’s also gearing up to possibly to be even more infallible. Phase three of the MCU started of with, and will continue with, a slate of atypical superhero movies made by left field directors that seem to aim to shake up the formula that they themselves have now established. So it seems that Marvel is aware of the possibility of superhero fatigue and staleness, and is actively cultivating an environment more welcoming to individual artistic visions in order to breathe new life into their movies. So when Marvel releases a Thor movie made by eccentric weirdo Taika Waititi  and then releases a Black Panther made by young rising directorial star Ryan Coogler, they’re setting themselves up for apparent success and newness.

Meanwhile, seemingly every other production studio with the film rights to a superhero is just trying to play a game of stumbling catch-up, churning out movies that could have had potential but are lost in the hurry to establish a new cinematic universe or lost to hasty revisions to simultaneously make them more palatable to mainstream audiences and set them apart from market-leader Marvel. Those two goals combined lead to superhero movies that sacrifice consistent storytelling and character arcs at the altar of: “We need to put this scene in, because superhero movies.

While they were not necessarily “bad” movies, X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad suffer from a lack of care for telling an interesting story or doing something interesting with their characters. X-Men did nothing with its 80’s setting and decade-long time-jump, with most of the movie serving as runtime padding leading up to a generic superhero ending filled with meaningless destruction and surprisingly cheap CGI. Suicide Squad wanted to be “DC’s Guardians of the Galaxy” so bad that somewhere along the time they spent Frankenstein-esquely workshopping the Suicide Squad brand image into a light-hearted romp, they forgot to make us care about the characters and why they were doing anything, or even deliver on their initial premise of “bad guy team-up movie.”

Audiences didn’t need these movies to copy Marvel. They just needed these movies to be good, coherent and made with more focus on its story instead of “hitting all the usual beats.”

Our tastes in “family” movies might be changing.

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This is more of a smaller panel that I noticed when looking over the movie of summer 2016. While the surprisingly underwhelming Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets and – ugh – the Angry Birds movie topped box offices with their CG charm and fart jokes, movies like The BFG and Pete’s Dragon languished. None of those movies were reviewed badly, yet the more “traditional” family movies featuring whimsical imagery and classic styles just didn’t receive the same kind of attention CG antics did. Now this isn’t to say that there wasn’t any heart of emotion in Dory or Pets (though I’d argue Pets lacks genuine heart, and the less said about Angry Birds the better), but I think this is more of a symptom of generational shift in tastes. I think kids and young people prefer their characters to have a more actively comedic bent and their settings to be more immersed in a cartoon aesthetic, than have a blurring of lines between real life and fantasy (i.e. magical realism) with touches of classical “childhood innocence” – but maybe it’s been this way for a while.

I’m sure someone with more actual qualifications than I will provide a more detailed post-summer movie report, either with far more insight into the nuances of the movie business or with far more numbers and graphs to back up their claims. But from where I sit, I see a summer that was let down by a trend(sequels and reboots) we as the audience had let run rampant for too long, and studios had become a little too complacent in releasing sub-par movies and franchise installments. Among the disappointments, however, were stand outs from people who actually cared about their work. From the biggest studio in the land right now releasing something that actually pays off its long form storytelling in its cinematic universe (Civil War) to the little guys making future cult classics (The Nice Guys, Swiss Army Man, etc.), there was evidence that someone was willing to make a good compromise between art and business.

If nothing else, the fall movie season looks really good. It could even possibly make up for the summer!

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