The death of the summer movie

(Will Miller)

(Will Miller)

By Ian Flanagan / Culture Editor

This summer may go down as one of the most disappointing in recent memory — and the start of a downward trend for Hollywood in many capacities.

In the 21st century, we can’t always have the critical and commercial excitement of summer blockbusters like “The Dark Knight” or “The Avengers,” but usually, even if the summer is dominated by predictably popular fare, there are box office surprises that end up being breakout hits of their own. Such is hardly the case for this year.

For instance, in 2009, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was the landslide winner for highest grossing film of the summer, but the unexpectedly high revenue of “Up” and “The Hangover” has rendered these latter two the most culturally relevant and celebrated of that summer’s fare.

Similarly, last year’s “Jurassic World,” in all its derivative glory, grossed insane numbers both here and worldwide. But the success and adoration of “Inside Out” and even the cult-like praise lauded on “Mad Max: Fury Road” suggest these smaller pop culture triumphs will remain in the public consciousness longer than the hollow noise of endless sequels — “The Dark Knight” and “Fury Road” notwithstanding — reboots, spinoffs and forced, pointless adaptations.

The average number of these “unoriginal” films has doubled since 2000, and from May to August of this year, nearly 20 will hit theaters before the season is out. They range from the idiotic — “Ben-Hur” and “The Angry Birds Movie” — to the unnecessary — “Now You See Me 2” and a fifth “Ice Age.” Blockbusters that are actually worth something usually offset the rising norm of pushing established brands and further installments no one asked for, but this year’s balance is truly out of whack.

In 2014, for example, typically inexpressive pictures like “Godzilla” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” stood aside impressive sequels like “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “22 Jump Street.” Meanwhile, originals like “Edge of Tomorrow” and — the Marvel brand aside — “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which was the first non-sequel to top the summer box office in over a decade, ended up on many critics’ end of the year top 10 lists.

Though it’s great when a known brand or franchise puts out something special, it is truly rare that original films connect with critics and still turn out sizable numbers at the box office. Cultural moments like “Inception” or “Inside Out” are all too rare, but the likes of 2016’s summer calendar has nothing remotely comparable to offer.

Sure, Disney’s outings summer outings have gotten overwhelmingly positive, if not ecstatic, reviews, and have easily connected with their built-in audiences. Regardless, not only has the overall quality of 2016 summer films seemed to have taken a nosedive — “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” may be the most inspired wide release I’ve seen so far this summer, and it didn’t crack $10 million domestically — but the box office figures are equally skewed.

Disney’s future places “Star Wars” films at tail end of the winter season, and live-action reboots of their famous animated classics of yesteryear, such as “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” come during the spring. Needless to say, the studio also has had no problem placing a monopoly on the summer season as well — “Finding Dory,” which is already the highest grossing animated film of all time, only recently out-grossed the latest Marvel episode, “Captain America: Civil War.” Both easily crossed the $400 million domestic mark.

The next highest grossing film in these past few months of summer so far? “The Secret Life of Pets,” which has passed $200 million with ease. The film has taken its relatively small budget and simple, animal-focused premise to the typical success of Universal Studio’s Illumination Entertainment features like “Despicable Me.” The enormous skew continues as “X-Men: Apocalypse” inched past the $150 million mark, a discouraging return for the franchise, and Kevin Hart’s comedy “Central Intelligence” rounds out the top five grossers thus far.

Disney’s stranglehold on the market led it to become the fastest studio to gross 1 billion in a year May 8, after the first weekend of “Civil War.” It beat the previous record — set last year by Universal, with the seismic help of “Jurassic World” — by over a month.

While Disney’s films are not without their merits, they’re earning a disproportionate amount of the attention from domestic audiences via the company’s aggressive manipulation of nostalgia. There are three more Pixar sequels planned before the decade is out, ranging from the very necessary “The Incredibles 2” to the potentially toxic “Cars 3.” Marvel’s monopoly on the superhero game also won’t end until many more billions are made.

The most egregious example of recycling content is in Disney’s arsenal of animated films throughout the 20th century, which lend it endless recognizable properties to be revamped with modern actors and a bloated budget — simple fairy tales and children’s stories given a glossy sheen.

But Disney’s conglomerate empire does not excuse the weak output from other studios. Though DC and Warner Brothers’ latest comic movie “Suicide Squad” and a revived Matt Damon-led “Bourne” sequel may end up being surprises, my bet is that Seth Rogen’s clearly toke-session-inspired animated comedy “Sausage Party” may be the late cultural zeitgeist of the summer.

Without the rarity of films that are both popular and good, we would never recognize them as such. That being said, maybe Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ omens of the forthcoming “Hollywood Crash” — the cinematic kin of the bursting housing bubble of 2008 — are worth heeding. The prediction involves either ticket prices soaring in reaction to diminishing attendance and inflation or the other studios eventually losing too much — likely in competition to Disney — on predicted hits that flop. We’re clearly already on our way there.

And with the random success of “Deadpool” and the anticipated but muted success of “Batman v Superman,” released February and March, respectively, this summer also proves that the steamy season is not the only fertile time for huge box office numbers.

Given the gap in this year’s mediocre numbers since May, many highly budgeted films will be seeing weak to no returns. Releases such as “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Independence Day: Resurgence” and “Warcraft” have struggled. While the public doesn’t always swarm toward the most valuable cinematic summer excursion, Hollywood should at least learn what will not guarantee the best commercial results — milking old brands and throwing away money and effort on pointless sequels.

With so many unpromising factors in both blockbuster quality and box office numbers, the summer of 2016 could be remembered as the beginning of the end for Hollywood, the summer movie and the blockbuster as we know it.

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