Cinema in Crisis: How Hollywood Created Its Own Problem

Consecutive disappointments of The Stuntman, Imaginary Friends, and Furiosa put the studios in despair

Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Hollywood is in crisis. Again. After 2023 mixed with the hype of the first seven months, especially with Barbie and Oppenheimer, with tensions behind the scenes due to strikes, the industry is now in despair due to constant disappointments at the box office in 2024. It's been a year marked by debuts that, although good, don't far exceed projections and others that fail to reach estimates, culminating in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga's $32 million to top the worst box office in three decades at the Memorial Day holiday in the United States.

Apart from a few exceptions (we'll talk about them), there are basically two sides to the 2024 box office. In one of them, there are well-reviewed titles, which are far from being big failures, but which don't make high enough numbers to be considered huge successes. Think Rivals, Civil War, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. On the other hand, there are the famous bombs: The Stuntman, Imaginary Friends, Argylle, etc. I'm convinced that, despite this first weekend's result, Furiosa will eventually fall out of this group. The new Mad Max, however, is unlikely to join the winning team.

The question is: what is happening?

We can mention the same villains as always, and some of them are still true. Post-pandemic life has left many people accustomed to streaming only. Studios and exhibitors love to ignore the ticket price issue because, naturally, they want the freedom to charge more and more. In an increasingly expensive society, however, this factor can never be ignored. When it costs R$75-100 to go to the movies on the weekend with your family, spouse, or group of friends, it's natural for the schedule to change. Except, of course, when there is something that convinces us to spend it.

Devaluation of Films

Experiences that justify the effort and cost of going to the cinema and having a community experience are only available there. Until 2019, that meant big franchises like Marvel and Star Wars. Post-pandemic, this seems to represent so-called “event films.” Whether part of popular cinematic sagas or not, these are sold as social programs that you need to be part of to avoid feeling excluded, they involve clothing, dominate social networks, and with few exceptions, use the idea of the grandeur of the big screen and sound, typically in IMAX, to help convince audiences to leave the house. Think about the six biggest hits of the last two years: Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, Super Mario Bros: The Movie, the Barbenheimer Duo, and Dune: Part 2.

But Hollywood studios, as always, are tripping over themselves. Do you know what all these films have in common too? Long windows of exclusivity at the cinema. The smallest in this group was Super Mario Bros., with 41 days. It's not that long in historical context, but today, the average time between theatrical release and PVOD release is just 30 days, and PVOD is increasingly important. In a world with a million streaming services that get more expensive every six months, audiences are embracing PVOD — an acronym for "Premium Video-on-Demand"; basically digital rental and purchase — most often, which suggests a preference for paying more for a movie to get exactly what you want, rather than paying less for 1000 movies and not wanting to see any of them. This format may seem old-fashioned (who rents a movie in 2024?), but it has been growing especially in the United States, where the practice boomed in 2023.

And what's happening in 2024? That window is shortening. Whether for failures (The Stuntman; 19 days) or not (Rivals; 23 days). And if there's a way to communicate to the public that you don't need to go to the cinema, it's by putting them on PVOD with such speed. Just like streaming, this puts in people's minds that it is not necessary, nor valid, to go to the cinema. What could be an event becomes content. This is not just an economic issue — PVOD prices can be more expensive than a ticket on a business day — but one of creating behavior. If you condition people to receive releases two weeks after they go on display, what do you think will happen? This won't affect the next Spider-Man or Jurassic Park, but it reduces the chances of The Stuntman being the next John Wick, whose last film exceeded expectations and became one of the biggest hits of 2023.

The Expectation Problem

And then we come to this word. The most important of this entire text. Expectation. This is the biggest problem for Hollywood that still insists on measuring current box office success with that of the pre-pandemic years, when streaming services like Disney+ and HBO Max were still being formed, when major franchises were at their creative and commercial, when PVOD wasn't as popular as it is today and when a series of damaging factors for the global economy hadn't yet happened (looking at you, COVID).

Hollywood lives in a game of expectations that changes from one year to the next. In 2023, due to low expectations, everything was a pleasant surprise (John Wick 4, Creed 3, Through the Spider-Verse, Sound of Freedom, Wonka, and even the Oppenheimer trio, Barbie and Super Mario). In 2024, the US$700 million of Dune: Part 2 — US$300 million more than the first film, in a heady sci-fi film lasting almost three hours — was considered by many to be a disappointment. I thought it was impressive that Dune 2 went over $600 million, but Hollywood, it seems, wanted the billion.

Ah, the billion. It became so common in the 2010s that it stopped impressing. In 2019 there were nine billion-dollar titles, with one worth nearly US$3 billion. In 2024 there will be a maximum of three, and at least one (Deadpool & Wolverine, Despicable Me 4 and The Joker are the candidates), but here's the truth: if any of these make US$800 million, a great number, the press, and the Hollywood studios will still be able to present it as a failure because the billion didn't come.

Expectations became a serious problem there. Furiosa is part of the Mad Max franchise, which has never been a box office giant, and now Warner is shocked by the failure of George Miller's (great) film to save Memorial Day. Expectations for the year impede this year's successes (Godzilla and Kong, Kung Fu Panda 4, Bob Marley: One Love, Beekeeper) seem like hits, even if they exceed their individual expectations. There is no point in comparing 2024 with 2023, much less with 2019. Each year is a year, and each film is a film. Expectations, however, require the creation of a standard, and like any standard set by Hollywood, it is impossible to achieve it every time.