For Movie Industry, an Epic Summer for Blockbuster Flops

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Hollywood is discovering that it’s not smart to release a bunch of $100 million movies at the same time.

Every summer brings with it an onslaught of action-heavy, special-effects-laden big-budget movies. But the summer of 2013 is different in that studios have gone over the top with an unusually large number of over-the-top productions, released in close proximity to each other. A condition that’s been dubbed as “summer blockbuster fatigue” has affected moviegoers, who aren’t heading to the theaters more often just because there are more films out there that cost $100 million or $200 to make.

The Hollywood Reporter declared the current season “the most crowded summer in the history for tentpoles,” a.k.a. the expensive, widely released breed of film that is supposed to justify its huge budgets with huger profits at theaters. But because the field is so crowded—and perhaps because many these films just aren’t that good—several expected summer blockbusters are shaping up as busts.

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The season’s biggest flop is probably “The Long Ranger,” featuring Johnny Depp as Tonto, Jerry Bruckheimer as producer, and $225 million as a budget. Businessweek reported that Walt Disney will probably wind up taking a writedown of more than $100 million on the film. Mediocre ticket sales for big-budget movies like “Pacific Rim” and “White House Down” are likely to result in losses of tens of millions for studios as well.

Analysts and studio executives are blaming bad scheduling as the main culprit for underwhelming box office results. “The biggest issue is dating,” one studio head told Hollywood Reporter. “You had too many $100 million-plus movies, not to mention $200 million-plus movies, jammed on top of each other. There isn’t enough play time, and the result has been more movies that wipe out.”

And the result of this summer’s many big-budget busts is that studios are likely to be more careful about timing their releases, and also more likely to scale back on how often they take the risk of funding a $100 million or $200 million film, even if Johnny Depp or Will Smith is on board to star. “The trend is definitely to reduce tentpoles,” Bruce Nash, founder of the box-office sales tracking site The Numbers, said, according to CNBC. “One of the things we’re looking at as a company and is being talked about in the industry is that films are either huge hits or completely flop. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground anymore. That puts huge pressure on the studios, particularly on franchise films.”

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It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the summer of 2013 is looking like a high point (low point?) for blockbuster flops. Before Memorial Day, many analysts and movie insiders were looking ahead and seeing far too many big-budget films competing for the attention of essentially the same movie goers. And with too many tentpoles being released in too short of a time period, it was inevitable that several came out as losers.

“All the studios have decided that big-event movies are a better business,” Doug Creutz, an entertainment analyst for Cowen & Company, told the New York Times in mid-May. “When everyone decides that, it’s a problem. Look at the history of motion pictures. There have been time periods when certain strategies worked, and, temporarily, the economics got better. Then the profits got competed away. So here we are again. There’s a glut.”

And here we now are, in the middle of the summer, seeing the effects of that glut.