For many years Hollywood has increasingly relied on the box office performance of sequels as an integral part of their business model and lesser so on original product, but the summer of 2016 has shown a consistent pattern of lacklustre performances – especially from sequels. While outlets have been quick to label this a “sequel slump”, there’s a larger and more worrying issue at play here.
In a post World War 2, the cinema industry was booming – in the US, attendance peaked, with 4.7 billion yearly admissions. Of course, there’s too much of a good thing, and attendance slowly began to fall in the 50’s as TVs became more and more affordable in family homes, and this is a pattern that was seen worldwide. While cinema attendance has fallen (an average of 1.35 billion over the past 10 years in the US), the 2015 yearly report from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) showed that attendance among those aged 18-24 fell dramatically, and this trend appears to be continuing into this year.
Moviegoers 18-24 are a key demographic as, traditionally, this group is seen as having disposable income with the free time to spend it – this is why television advertisers put so much stock in the 18-24 ratings, over and above the combined ratings of a show. As such, they are important for the future of the film industry – they usually show the most urgency in seeing new releases, which heavily factors into crucial opening weekend figures, they are the most active on social media and so are better placed to spread positive word of mouth, as well as being most likely to have disposable income and to attend as part of a group. The drop-off in attendance from this demographic is significant and if it continues, theatre chains should worry.
With the rise of convenient and cost-effective VOD services over the past few years, the competition that cinemas face today is stronger than ever. Of course, theatre attendance figures have seen heavy blows before – the advent of television and later home video were at one point or another hailed as the death of the cinema. But attendance is falling year upon year, and cinema chains as well as distributors are failing to combat the issues at the root of this.
Falling out with the Neighbours
In May, Universal Pictures released Neighbours 2, a follow up to the successful 2014 Seth Rogan comedy co-starring Zach Efron, which grossed $49m US domestic opening weekend. A sequel made sense; comedies featuring raunchy and slapstick humour with a college sorority backdrop (see earlier hits like Animal House, American Pie, Superbad) appeals heavily to a younger audience who, you will remember, are the most urgent in their movie going habits. However, Neighbours 2 opened to $20m and struggled to hold in the weeks following.
And it isn’t just Neighbours that suffered from performance anxiety – with the exception of a few franchises (looking at you Disney!), this summer has proven to be a difficult landscape for sequels in general. For me, the biggest surprise came when 20th Century Fox released the sequel for Independence Day. Having grown up in the mid-nineties, Independence Day is a somewhat guilty pleasure of mine and I know plenty of people the same age who feel the same way about it. At the start of the summer I was sure that Independence Day: Resurgence was going to be a hit. However the film opened in the US to a modest $41m gross – to put that into perspective, the original film opened to $50m in 1996 without the assistance of IMAX 3D premiums bolstering the gross. When adjusting for inflation, that is $98.4m in 2016 dollars.
While outlets blamed the lacklustre reviews and lack of star power, my belief is that the film failed to connect with a younger audience. The studio realised this in the weeks leading up to release (let’s just not talk about the Goldblum meme generator okay?), but it was too late. Independence Day didn’t hold the same nostalgic notes that led to the success of Jurassic World just a year earlier and, as a result, failed to appeal broadly.
The blame game
So what is the issue here? Some argue that studios should be blamed for creating movies that people don’t necessarily want to see, or that budgets are escalating and movies are seeing less of a return, and there’s truth in both of these arguments. However, it’s not all doom and gloom just yet from this key demographic – just earlier this month, the low-budget movie Nerve managed to resonate solely with a younger audience while horror films such as Lights Out and Don’t Breathe have become breakout hits of the summer season thanks to savvy and targeted campaigns for the younger moviegoers. But I think what is the most worrying thing here is that lack of urgency – a lot of people are deciding to not part with their money and to simply wait for it to hit home entertainment platforms instead. The once-reliable summer hits have missed this year and the effects of that will be felt heavily within the industry.
With exhibitors bolstering prices of admission and distributors exporting content without demand, 2016 has proven to be a bit of a wake-up call for everybody in the industry. As a form of entertainment, the silver screen has remained largely untouched for over 100 years but as newer generations’ attendance continues to trend downwards, we could be about to see a resurgence of our own.
And while I don’t believe this is death to the old and humble cinema, it may be the start of a slow death to cinema as we know it.