Hollywood apocalypse not now despite summer flops and directors' strops

US film studios unlikely to be chastened by big-budget failures from The Lone Ranger to Elysium and change business model

When Hollywood does armageddon it tends to be in the form of asteroids, aliens or zombies, with the action on screen.

This summer has seen a plethora of such fodder – After Earth, Pacific Rim, Elysium and World War Z – but an arguably more compelling disaster storyline has been unfolding in Hollywood itself.

A series of mega-budget flops, notably Disney's The Lone Ranger, has hit almost all the major studios, carving hundred-million dollar holes in balance sheets.

Box office turkeys are nothing new but the bad run comes amid evidence that American audiences are cooling towards 3D – once billed as the saviour of the blockbuster – and warnings from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg that an industry "implosion" owing to big box office crashes will see even established directors frozen out.

"The pathway to get into theatres is really getting smaller and smaller," said Star Wars creator Lucas in June, pointing out that his own passion project, the war drama Red Tails, and Spielberg's Oscar-winner Lincoln barely scraped into cinemas. "You're talking about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can't get their movie into a theatre!"

Television seems to be showing the way with critically acclaimed hits on Netflix and HBO, prompting contrasts with the big screen and debate about whether this will be the summer that changes Hollywood.

"Too many tent-poles: Hollywood's homegrown summer movie crisis," declared The Hollywood Reporter. "An epic summer for blockbuster flops," reckoned Time magazine.

Dead-on-arrival attempts to launch new franchises, such as RIPD, Universal's ghostbusting action comedy starring Jeff Bridges, appear to back up the jeremiads from Lucas and Spielberg.

With the labour day weekend closing the summer season in the US on Monday now might have been the moment for studio executives to be in introspective mood and consider new strategies. Except they aren't, said analysts. Hollywood is barely chastened and is not about to change its business model.

"I think the only thing that will change is that Johnny Depp won't play that type of character again and Disney, which is always cautious, will become even more cautious," said Peter Bart, a film producer and editor at Variety – referring to the actor's outing as Tonto in a potentially $190m-loss making Lone Ranger.

Hollywood was locked into a vicious cycle of special effects-driven blockbusters, Bart said. "The industry is just committed to excess. It's a poker game and everyone keeps raising the bets. They can't stop themselves." He noted that his 1974 production of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford, cost $8m (about $37m in today's money). This year's Baz Luhrmann version with Leonardo DiCaprio cost $128m (£83m).

Hollywood is unlikely to change because the existing model, for all its high-profile fiascos, still pays. This summer's US box office gross is estimated to be $4.71bn, up 10% on last year's figure, and significantly more than the record-breaking summer of 2011.

"This was the biggest revenue generating summer of all time. It was one of the biggest revenue jumps that we've seen," said Paul Dergarabedian, head of Hollywood.com's box office division.

High-profile failures such as Lone Ranger, After Earth, White House Down and RIPD fuelled a media narrative of box office apocalypse that overshadowed the success of Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Despicable Me 2 as well as medium- and low-budget fare such as Sandra Bullock cop comedy The Heat and coming-of-age tale The Way, Way Back.

"Perception becomes reality in Hollywood. Too many high profile big budget failures are not good for the industry irrespective of the fact the overall industry is going gangbusters," said Dergarabedian.

It is true that American film-goers padded revenues in recent years by paying an extra $2 or $3 to see films in 3D and this summer fewer did so, opting instead for old-fashioned, cheaper 2D showings.

But this was a natural plateauing as the novelty wore off and not cause for panic, said Dergarabedian. "Hollywood is way, way up this summer."

Not all are so sanguine. Nikki Finke, the founder of entertainment site Deadline.com, said the revenue spurt stemmed largely from ticket price inflation and masked a downward trend in attendance.

Hollywood was not making enough films that people wanted to see, she said. "There is no predictability anymore because tracking has been completely useless. And there is a complete disconnect between critics and audiences."

The secrets to the studios' healthy profits this summer were pricing and spinoffs. "These people know to squeeze every last dime out of every movie. They can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. They cut margins into infinitesimal ways."

But the principal milch cow is now overseas, especially burgeoning markets in Asia, Russia and Brazil which have undimmed enthusiasm for 3D and Imax.

China's box office revenues jumped 30% last year to $2.7bn. With 10 new cinema screens opening daily it is expected to overtake the US within a decade.

"Overseas has saved so many movies this summer. The numbers in China this summer were incredible. There were new [overseas] records set everywhere," said Finke. "A lot of these big budget movies are about what the overseas market wants. It becomes irrelevant what the domestic market wants."

Hollywood increasingly tailors casting and storylines to appeal to young males who may not speak English. So expect more explosions and less dialogue; continued big roles for Depp, Tom Cruise and Will Smith, who now play better overseas than at home – and more sequels.

"I was working in the industry when studios made pictures that executives themselves wanted to see. That's no longer the case," said Bart, who was also a senior executive at Paramount and MGM in the 1960s and 70s.

The success of indies such as The Butler and Blue Jasmine and the string of blockbuster flops will make executives more wary of green-lighting mega budgets but film-goers over 35 should not hold their breath for a boom in quality films aimed at them, he said. "Hollywood is greedy for international box office. It's all about the international marketing machine."

The Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has lamented the treatment of directors and said he does not expect to work in cinema again. "It's become absolutely horrible the way the people with the money decide they can fart in the kitchen, to put it bluntly," he told a New York magazine earlier this year. Soderbergh's latest film, the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, was screened on HBO in the US.

Flatulent or not, cinema seems unlikely to implode in the foreseeable future. And optimists may draw heart from the fact that even the stars of television's new golden age still seem keen to be part of the film business. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, made his directorial feature debut last year with Not Fade Away. Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, is about to launch his own film, You Are Here next weekend at the Toronto film festival.

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