When Easy Rider celebrates its 50th anniversary here in about three weeks and the thumbnail histories of its success hit our timelines, you can count on the omnipresence of a few key points: the chaotic production, the mainstreaming of drug culture, its innovative use of rock music, and so on. But the most important piece of context, vital for understanding how and why Dennis Hopper’s low-budget biker movie turned the industry upside down, is that when it was released, Hollywood, as we knew it, was dying.
The laundry list of late ‘60s big-budget belly-flops is familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the era: Hello Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon, Camelot, Sweet Charity, Doctor Dolittle, Star!, Finian’s Rainbow, Goodbye Mr. Chips. They were all expensive musical extravaganzas, many adapted from stage hits, produced and released on a grand scale as “roadshow” entertainments. And why, dare you ask, were they so ubiquitous? Because studios were chasing after a sure thing – in this case, a series of widescreen early ‘60s movie musical hits, including West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Mary Poppins, and (especially) The Sound of Music, which reigned as the highest grossing movie of all time (discounting inflation) for a decade.
In other words, the industry drowned because the people running it were so busy trying to recreate the last big thing, they didn’t see the next big thing coming.
And it’s hard not to reflect on that history when looking over the weekly bloodbath that is this summer’s box officer reporting. After the greenback geyser that was Avengers: Endgame at the end of April – which very nearly became the biggest grosser in movie history (again, pre-inflation) – we’ve seen a semi-staggering series of big-name, big-budget sequels to well-regarded moneymakers falling far short of their predecessors:
June 7: The weekend’s #1 title, The Secret Life of Pets 2, grosses $46 million; its predecessor opened with $104 million three years ago. Even worse, the runner-up for the week is the latest X-Men film, Dark Phoenix, which put up a scant $32 million – less than half of X-Men: Apocalypse’s $65 million opening weekend.
June 14: Another weekend, and perhaps the ugliest returns yet. Men In Black International scrapes together $30 million – $21 million less than the original, 22 years ago. (The 2002 sequel and 2012 three-quel also opened in the low $50 million range.) And the woefully ill-advised sitcom reset of Shaft came up just shy of $9 million – compared to the $21 million opening of the 2000 Shaft, clear back in 2000.
It would be easy to look over these numbers, six big sequels tanking (at least comparatively) in just over a month, and jump to the conclusion that movie-going audiences have grown tired of sequels and spin-offs – that they’re tired of the same ol’ same ol’, and that rather than shelling out the considerable cash required of a trip to the multiplex, they’re staying home and watching streaming shows, Netflix original films, and old faves. And as comforting as that notion is – I mean, seriously, would that it were so – the problem is that this whole, prematurely early summer began with a giant franchise movie, the aforementioned Avengers: Endgame. The same weekend that A Dog’s Journey failed, John Wick Chapter 3 soared; its $56 million opening and $148 million (and counting) gross are far and away the best of the series to date. And tomorrow, Toy Story 4 will hit theaters, presumably making a mint (although, if we’re being honest, it’s also unnecessary and not terribly good) and putting the whole “the summer the sequels died” mini-narrative to rest.
So what will studio executives – the ones who decide what movies get made and don’t, and are thus responsible for this cycle of reheated, unwanted nonsense – take away from this month of red ink-letting? The wrong things, most likely. The easiest move is simply to point to the massively successful summer sequels as the end goal, and the cast-asides as collateral damage (or, in some cases, the boatloads of cash they nevertheless brought in overseas). Perhaps some wise soul will note that Endgame wasn’t a sequel to one movie – it was a sequel to 21 movies, so franchise movies just need to get (somehow) bigger. More cinematic universes! (Let’s ask the makers of The Mummy and King Arthur how that’s working out.)
The fact of the matter is that the prevalent thinking in these boardrooms, for years, has been one of unprejudiced nostalgia: that literally anything that people have heard of before and remember with something resembling fondness is a sure thing. And audiences, to be fair, have not proven terribly discriminating on this point. (Let’s not forget how well those garbage Jurassic World films have done.)
But if studios want to stop lighting money on fire, they have to develop some sense of people actually want more of. It wasn’t the idea of men in black suits tracking aliens that we loved; it was that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were in those suits. If audiences were going to see Samuel L. Jackson play Shaft again, they weren’t necessarily interested in seeing him play a broad sitcom caricature version of Shaft. And while Secret Life of Pets was a clever enough concept for a movie, it also wasn’t one that seemed to lend itself to multiple installments.
And that’s what’s important to keep in mind, if you know your movie history: the massive, game-changing hits, from Easy Rider to Star Wars to Titanic, were not carefully-constructed replications of what was selling tickets when they were made. They were out of left field, new takes on the kind of movies (Westerns, Saturday serials, epic romances) that weren’t supposed to make money anymore – and instead, they laid waste to the ones that were. I’m not suggesting anything so simple as that in the current, multi-furcated media landscape, Men in Black International, Shaft, The Secret Life of Pets 2, and Dark Phoenix are the Paint Your Wagons and Hello, Dolly!s of today, or consequently that some tiny, idiosyncratic work will soon light the match that burns the whole industry to the ground.
But one can hope.