No dramas: superhero movies and their opening weekend cash cows crowd out realistic films

It was not a shock to hear Jane Campion become the latest in a growing line of high-profile directors to announce her dislike of superhero films. But the issue is not just about taste – it is about money and how the movie industry now provides less opportunity to show dramas and real-life comedies on the big screen.

I’ll be upfront: I don’t mind superhero movies. I have watched plenty and enjoyed a few of them more than once. For the most part though I find them forgettable: redolent with deus ex machina saved plot holes and over-praise for not being completely terrible.

I agree with Ethan Hawke’s view that “they tell us Logan is a great movie. Bien, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands.”

Hawke is now in an upcoming Marvel película, so not thinking they are great art doesn’t mean they are not worth making or watching.

Thus when Campion said that she “hated” superhero movies, I could not agree with her. Partly this is because The Piano is the only film I have paid to see and then fallen asleep while watching in the cinema. So I’m not quite the Campion stan.

I do love Martin Scorsese films though, so when he threw shade at superhero movies as not being cinema, I agreed with him. But I also thought that at least they’re not as long and self-indulgent as was The Irishman.

All of this, por supuesto, is a matter of taste.

I sense Campion’s, Scorsese’s and others’ real complaint is not so much about superhero movies, but about how they crowd out real-life movies.

And the reason that is the case comes down to two things – opening weekends and the non-US box office.

In the early 1980s, movies had plenty of time to build word of mouth, because there wasn’t a new film coming out next week that would blow it out of the water.

Films back then made around 15% of their box office in the opening three days. Now it is a third or more – Avengers: Endgame made 42% of its total US box office in the first three days:

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Word of mouth requires the film to be good; a big opening weekend only needs the film to be anticipated – it is a shift from quality and reviews to marketing.

The other big difference is that non-US box office now accounts for two-thirds of worldwide box office – compared to around half in the early 1990s:

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You might think that is a good thing – less monoculture, seguramente.

But no. The US might not be the dominant audience, but it is still the dominant producer.

These two factors mean studios want movies that make a lot of money in the opening weekend, and which can play everywhere – from the US to Europe and especially Asia.

It means making sure people know what they’re getting. That means IP (intellectual property) either through adaptation of something well known (think Spiderman, Harry Potter, Guerra de las Galaxias) or sequels:

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But what it really means is more of three things: superhero movies, animación, and sci-fi/fantasy – big-event films with IP that exist in a world of make-believe anyone can relate to and are less reliant on good reviews:

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And that also means fewer films that speak to a certain time and place, or culture and sense of humour – ie dramas and comedies:

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Through to the mid-1990s at least 30 of the top 50 films in the US would be dramas or comedies; now it is usually less than 20 (and the same is the case in Australia or the Reino Unido). And many of the dramas have IP attached (eg Downton Abbey, Mamma Mia! and Bohemian Rhapsody)

And this is not just limited to the big hits. Fewer dramas and comedies make it into the bottom half of the top 50 as well.

This means less likelihood that your wonderful drama or insightful comedy is going to make enough money to justify Mr and Ms Paramount giving you lots of money to make it.

And so directors work on superhero movies or other franchises in the hope that this might give them the chance to later make a more personal film.

But the cycle perpetuates.

Fewer risks, fewer films that are original and say something about your life unless it is an undercurrent of a film involving people flying.

It doesn’t really matter whether you like superhero and other make-believe movies or not – it is that they have undoubtedly crowded out dramas and comedies.

The good news is streaming services are filling the gap somewhat – with films such as The Irishman, Campion’s The Power of the Dog, and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.

But even they are already falling into the same measures of looking at revenue – making a big deal about how many people streamed Red Notice on the opening day rather than wanting good word of mouth. Indeed it has already been supplanted at the top by the new series of Tiger King, showing that Netflix as much as any movie studio likes a franchise.

And so it would not be a surprise if in a decade’s time we will be able to write this same article but about streaming services.

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