Reading the film-related news every morning has been a struggle for me lately. Not that I don’t enjoy staying on top of things and even the sheer volume of articles to flick through is not the problem – the content of said news, on the other hand, usually is the problem. At this point in time I think my stance on the state of mainstream cinema is pretty clear and I just might tip my hat to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ prognosis that the industry is now speeding towards a brick wall. I might disagree with their premise of ‘if people like Spielberg and Lucas find it hard get money to make films, then the industry is in a pretty bad shape’, because what I think will bring about the inevitable is the obsessive sequelitis that has been going on in Hollywood for years now, and while the point they’re making still illustrates the problem, it lacks dimension. Additionally, the blind faith in throwing more money at established box office blockbusters and turning everything into trilogies is only going to speed up the process of decay. The recent news of green-lighting “Taken 3” and rebooting “The Terminator” franchise already into a stand-alone trilogy can only testify to the trend I find most repulsive. With these two titles being added to the 2015 release slate, that already includes a massive amount of high-profile sequels, like “Star Wars Episode VII”, “The Avengers 2”, “Independence Day 2”, or “Jurassic Park 4”, I think this might be the summer of apocalypse Spielberg was referring to, when we would all call the film-makers on their bulls**t and this house of cards would crumble to the epic tune of Hans Zimmer’s score.
While I’d like to rant a bit more about that (and I actually might, but we shall see), the reason I’m here now typity-type-type-typing away is because for once somebody out there in the sunny California might have been listening to us, the movie-goers. This morning the news broke out that Pixar – the pioneering studio in the field of CG animation – has decided to scale back on the sequel production and focus more on creative new IP [standing ovation on my part]. Now, that’s just music for my ears, because it would seem that somebody in Pixar noticed that their audience needs more than just another “Toy Story”.
Believe it or not, but this is a business of making money and a film’s goal is to make a profit (that excludes the indie projects, so stay where you are). However, while the mainstream opinion in Hollywood might be along the lines of ‘diminish the risk, increase the reward’, it not always pans out, as illustrated by Pixar’s case. I don’t think these guys need much of an introduction past the fact they had single-handedly kicked off a major revolution in the world of animation back in the day. They have not been the most prolific of studios out there with only 14 titles released to date (starting in 2006, averaging one theatrical release per year), because they claimed to have been focused on the quality instead of the volume of releases… and good for them.
Nevertheless, right around 2009 they have fallen victim to peer pressure and have jumped on the sequel bandwagon hoping they would get filthy rich in no time. And so, out of all 14 releases in Pixar’s portfolio, 4 are direct sequels, or prequels (“Monsters University”, currently in theatres), and while their first sequel on record – “Toy Story 2” – was released in 1999 as both an attempt to make up for a disappointing “A Bug’s Life”, and a genuine answer to the demands of the fan-base, the remaining 3 sequels have been released nearly back-to-back starting in 2010.
What I think stands behind Pixar’s decision to concentrate their efforts on new ideas, can be explained using pure calculations. If you have a look at how Pixar’s films did in the box office against their respective budgets, you should immediately notice the trend. Note that the worldwide box office is missing from the graph, as it only adds to the noise; however, it has to be noted that, in total, all Pixar films have made a profit. Upon examining Pixar’s financial results, I could make a couple useful observations that feed into their plan for future releases. First of all, it seems that the more money Pixar has dished out on a given project, the worse the revenue was (with a notable exception of “Toy Story 3” that breaks the trend). Additionally, in their case, attempting to recreate the financial result of a given release (again with the exception of “Toy Story” franchise that has made continually bigger profit, but on increasing budgets) with a sequel has not been all that fruitful; “Cars 2” required the non-US revenue in order to break even. Even a new IP – “Brave” – that was released the following year seems to have suffered from the bad rep Pixar has garnered in the wake of “Cars 2”. Therefore, with constantly growing budgets and dwindling revenues, Pixar has noticed they needed to go back to their roots and rake in the money with fresh ideas in order to stop the decline.
Much has been said about the apparent sad state of affairs in Pixar and their financial results I have shown here only corroborate other people’s observations. Quite recently Christopher Orr over at The Atlantic has published a piece that illustrates how bad things are going with Pixar films by plotting their respective Rotten Tomatoes scores. While the declining trend can be noticed if you disregard the concept of an outlying value, the whole idea lacks substance, in my opinion. I believe that an average score awarded by film are not always the most reliable measure of a film’s quality, because it’s the tickets that ensure its success in the long run (at least in the mainstream cinema). Such approach certainly is informative, but I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from it.
What will better illustrate the problem than simple numbers again? If you divide film’s box office revenue by its budget, you should theoretically obtain a numerical value that shows this film’s financial potential, with best results being produced by the films with the smallest budgets. Applied to all Pixar films, the trend clearly shows that only “Toy Story” (made 6 times the budget domestically and 12 times worldwide) and maybe “Finding Nemo” (4 times the budget domestically and 10 times worldwide) have been at all successful, but the general trend is headed towards disaster.
I find it most welcoming that the guys over at Pixar have noticed they need to listen to us – people who buy the tickets – if they want to be successful. Positive reviews are crucial as well, but for the most part (unless your name is M. Night Shyamalan) good reviews are usually reflected in the box office. So, how long before the rest of you, people, wake up and smell the coffee? I, for one, don’t want to live in the world where every single release has a number on it and I count on Pixar to lead the crowd towards improvement.