Warner Bros, Universal

The rise of the ‘event film’: lessons to learn from the 2023 box office

Despite being touted as the birthplace of original ideas, Hollywood often leans towards a more cautious approach. Faced with the need to satisfy investors and shareholders in the short term, nothing gratifies the major studios more than tried-and-tested intellectual property. Even still, with book and comic adaptations there is an inherent risk in that it’s not guaranteed that their following will be sufficient to fill movie theatres. However, there’s one remarkably safe bet – the sequel. In 2022, a staggering nine of the ten highest-grossing films of the year were sequels, with the sole ‘original’ film being a Batman reboot – the seventh live-action iteration of the character.

Several high-budget sequels have bombed on such a scale that not even J. Robert Oppenheimer could have imagined

However, a shift in the paradigm has become apparent in 2023. Several high-budget sequels have bombed on a scale that not even J. Robert Oppenheimer could have imagined. The Marvels, sequel to the billion-dollar Captain Marvel, has barely passed the $200m mark. The fifth Indiana Jones entry, The Dial of Destiny, will lose well over $100m at the box office. Whilst the famous argument that ‘a good movie will always succeed’ could be held against these two divisive entries, the same argument cannot be lobbied against Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. The seventh entry of Tom Cruise risking his life for our entertainment scored an excellent 96% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes and an ‘A’ CinemaScore with audiences, yet has certainly lost money.

Surely, it’s just that audiences are yearning for new and fresh ideas, right? The cultural phenomenon of ‘Barbenheimer’ seemed to prove that thesis right. Barbie and Oppenheimer‘s joint arrival at the cinemas created one of the top five biggest weekends at the box office of all time; Barbie has gone on to become the highest-grossing film of the year with a mouth-watering $1.4bn in gross earnings, whilst Oppenheimer, the three-hour biopic about the troubled father of the atomic bomb, has almost crossed the billion mark too. Despite carrying a big budget, both these films were directed by genuine auteurs. Oppenheimer had one of the greatest directors of our time, Christopher Nolan, at the helm, whilst Barbie surprisingly had three-time Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig of Little Women fame. So expectations were high for a revitalised box office when the legendary Martin Scorsese and his three-and-a-half-hour thrilling odyssey about the Osage murders, Killers of the Flower Moon, entered theatres. Despite starring Leonardo DiCaprio, a man who can make a film where he lives inside the carcass of a bear gross $533m (The Revenant) the film made just $150m on a $200m budget. This figure, which doesn’t account for marketing or distributing costs, is the lowest of Scorsese and DiCaprio’s collaborations thus far. Although the strictly no-intermissions runtime and serious source material could have potentially dissuaded viewers, it fails to explain why the original sci-fi film, The Creator, also bombed to oblivion.

With the ability to pause the film at your will and head off to the toilet, audiences became accustomed to watching films made for the big screen in the comfort of their home

Of the few successes for studios so far, what ties them together? Barbie, Oppenheimer, Super Mario Bros and Five Nights at Freddie’s all had one thing in common – the phenomenon of each film being seen as an ‘event’. Since the pandemic began, it has become clear that it takes more than ever for an individual to leave their couch and go to the cinema. During the pandemic, audiences were trained to stay at home and catch not only shows but also films on streaming services. This corresponded with film studios launching several hotshot streaming services attempting to ride the wave that Netflix started: Disney Plus, HBO Max, Paramount Plus, and Peacock. With the ability to pause the film at your will and head off to the toilet, audiences became accustomed to watching films made for the big screen in the comfort of their home. To watch a film at the theatre, there must be an incentive.

The double billing of Barbie and Oppenheimer captured the cultural zeitgeist in an unprecedented manner. With the striking clash of colour palettes between the two features, Barbenheimer gained immense traction on social media, starting with the general public but also reverberating into the spheres of world leaders and politicians, with both UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Canadian leader Justin Trudeau tipping their hat in Barbie’s direction. If there’s one thing people have a fear of missing out on, it’s a trend. Women of all ages found a universal calling card with unashamedly pink Barbie, whilst men asked themselves if they were ‘Kenough’. Even those who hadn’t previously considered a trip to the cinema found themselves drawn in, as they became part of the latest topic of discussion, akin to the fervour surrounding the World Cup final or a breakout Netflix sensation.

For Five Nights at Freddie’s, the confluence of optimal scheduling during Halloween and the communal engagement of fans of the video game series contributed to its success. The ‘event film’ trend has manifested in all years post-Covid. This has been epitomised by Spider-Man: No Way Home, with all three Spider-Men returning, and Top Gun: Maverick standing out as a quintessential summer blockbuster celebrating masculinity and the American spirit, something which has become rare in recent years. Both those two films, along with Super Mario Bros, and to an extent Jurassic World: Dominion, all shared a common factor: a shared thread of nostalgia. A collective yearning for a simpler time before Covid struck us, fostering a gathering of individuals of all ages to unite around a shared experience.

Whilst studios must learn from what failed and succeeded, it’s key they don’t take the wrong conclusions. Mattel immediately commissioning multiple toy-based films including Polly Pocket and Hot Wheels is a complete misjudgement of what made Barbie special; it wasn’t because it was celebrating a toy, but rather womanhood and femininity, and was a rare example of a blockbuster made specifically for women of all ages.

Moreover, the impact of ballooning budgets cannot be ignored. Although Covid protocols have had a hand in these exorbitant costs, there’s no reason for a film like The Marvels to cost @250m, nor Dial of Destiny to cost a remarkable $300m. Despite The Creator losing money, the fact that such a visually striking film could be produced for $80m is beyond belief.

For too long, studios have coasted on the name of their IP, rather than giving viewers an incentive to watch each specific film in theatres. Again, take The Marvels, where the overconfident Marvel Studios seemed to believe that their audience would buy tickets to whatever content they pumped out, even if it required mandatory of viewing of two Disney Plus shows and no singular hook to catch audiences with.

Producers are undoubtedly sweating as they face ever-mounting challenges in the pursuit of crafting a commercially successful film. However, sometimes it is beneficial for them to sit back and let things play out and see if lightning again is caught in a bottle. As put poignantly by the usually elusive Cillian Murphy: “Audiences don’t like being told ‘You should see this, you should see that.’ They will decide, and they will generate the interest themselves.”


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