Summer Blockbusters, Superhero Franchises, and Media Monopolies

With the summer blockbuster season 2017 tucked away, many articles have been circulating about how this was the lowest-grossing season since 2006. Naturally, these articles include speculation over why this happened, everything from audiences being sick of "gimmicks" such as 3D to superhero movie fatigue. I think that these speculations (which don't have any hard data to back them up, of course) overlook some very key details about the current state of filmmaking, why superhero movies aren't going anywhere, and how the current state of summer blockbuster movies reflect the current state of Hollywood, which is dominated by a handful of powerful media mega-monopolies.

One thing I've noticed that is consistently missing from 2017 summer blockbuster commentary is information about the ongoing rise of high-definition, on-demand video technology. These days, just about any device that has an internet connection and a screen (i.e., HD TVs, smartphones, and touchscreen tablets) can be used to binge watch movies and TV series at any time the user desires; movie theaters can't accommodate such impulsive viewing habits.

It could very well be that in the years to come, the summer of 2017 will be regarded as the tipping point where blockbusters at the box office have been completely overshadowed by home video entertainment technology and services. The film industry has competed against TV, cable movie channels and video rentals before, but internet-supported digital HD video technology has pushed this competition into places where no one could have anticipated. Years ago, I never would have imagined a time where even the makers of video game consoles would feel compelled to include video rental services in order to remain competitive, and yet here we are.

This brings me to Hollywood's current interest in developing shared, multi-movie "expanded universe (EU)" franchises, particularly with superheroes. If you pay attention to which franchises that Hollywood is looking to reboot into an EU franchise, you'll notice that at least six traits have to be present within the franchise for it to be considered:

  • Name recognition
  • A built-in, cross-generational fan base that can sustain varying levels of interest (i.e., both obsessive fans and casual audiences)
  • A wide range of merchandising opportunities
  • Opportunities to use cutting-edge special effects
  • Opportunities for content development across multiple media platforms (e.g., cartoons, novels, TV shows, video games, etc.)
  • A huge inventory of pre-existing characters and stories

DC and Marvel superheroes have all of the six traits listed above. Because of these traits, they've proven that they can (largely) bounce back from even the most spectacular failures at the box office. Even if Warner Bros. completely mishandles its current attempts at building a live-action EU movie franchise around DC superheroes, it can still make tons of money off of these characters in many other ways in the meantime (such as the primetime superhero TV shows on CW) until it gets the movies right. Likewise, if Marvel's current live-action EU franchise ever falls apart, it can always try again later as long as their characters remain popular in other mediums and continue to sell a wide selection of merchandise (e.g., toys, clothing, candy, etc.).

Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy movie merchandise.

Other kinds of franchises aren't as reliable, but that hasn't stopped Hollywood from using them. Star Wars, Star Trek and Transformers have the six traits too, but how robust their traits are and how long they'll last are uncertain. Some may have questioned why Universal wanted to reinvent its classic movie monsters as the "Dark Universe" EU franchise and point to the dismal domestic performance of this summer's The Mummy as evidence, but these monsters have most of the six traits and could potentially be groomed into something with a wider audience appeal. Then there's the Terminator franchise: Most of its popularity among wider audiences has been closely tied to the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger. As his popularity declined, the popularity of the franchise declined; furthermore, Terminator projects that did not include Schwarzenegger (e.g., the undeservedly underrated Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series) failed to capture the public's attention. Whether Jim Cameron can break this trend with the upcoming Terminator sequel/reboot by getting Linda Hamilton back into the franchise remains to be seen.

Personally, I think that the movie industry's over-reliance on EU franchises to produce its blockbusters stems from the fact that the dominant players in the U.S. entertainment industry are a handful of mega-corporations that much prefer to invest in "sure thing" creative properties in order to keep box office revenue going. It hasn't always been this way: According to Ben Bagdikian in his book The Media Monopoly, 50 corporations owned 90 percent of the U.S. media in 1983. Now, over 30 years later, more than 90 percent of the U.S. media is owned by just six companies: Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time Warner and Disney. Thus, even if an EU franchise film fails at the box office, it is still worth something if it can be used to sell merchandise until a better film is made; in contrast, a completely new film cannot guarantee any kind of significant revenue, either at the box office or elsewhere. I don't see this changing at all until the media corporations somehow get smaller and feel more comfortable with investing in creative risks.

One movie, four formats: the Wonder Woman DVD, Blu-ray, 4K UHD, and 3D Blu-ray.

As for the near future, I think that we'll probably see increasingly shorter delays between a film's release in the movie theaters and subsequent release on home video. We may see more blockbusters spread out to other seasons, instead of saving them for just the summer season. We might also see more perks added to home video releases, such as limited time discounts on bulk rentals and the release of different hard copy editions of the same film. Regardless, even if digital technology unravels what is commonly understood as the "summer blockbuster season", Hollywood's reliance on DC and Marvel superheroes and other EU franchises isn't going anywhere.


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