'Tomorrowland' Exposes Hollywood's Originality Problem
Courtesy of Disney

Tomorrowland’s” middling debut points to a nagging problem in Hollywood. As much as people claim they love fresh and unique movies, they’re more likely to shell out money for sequels and reboots.

Despite the combined star power of George Clooney and “The Incredibles” director Brad Bird, audiences weren’t sure what to make of this fantasy adventure. The film opened to $41.7 million, and with a production budget of $180 million, plus millions more in promotion and distribution expenses, “Tomorrowland” looks like a money loser for Disney.

“‘Tomorrowland’ is an original movie and that’s more of a challenge in this marketplace,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “We feel it’s incredibly important for us as a company and as an industry to keep telling original stories.”

Hollis is right that if Hollywood wants to replenish the franchise cupboard it will need to continue signing big checks in the hopes of discovering the next “Star Wars” or “Fast and the Furious.” The problem is that these gambles result in more “Jupiter Ascendings” than they do Indiana Joneses. Going forward, there may be more of an emphasis on cost-control.

“To create original movies and original concepts you really have to watch your budget limit,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “The industry needs to examine and strategize how they create new franchises out of whole cloth.””

Even calling “Tomorrowland” an original movie points to the way that adjective has become neutered in today’s movie business. It’s not a remake or another installment in a long-running franchise, but its storyline and title references Disney theme parks, making it instantly recognizable to most of the population. Would Disney have greenlit the film, however bold Bird’s futuristic vision had been, had it not seen an opportunity to burnish its theme park brands?

Still, scanning the list of summer releases, “Tomorrowland” does stick out as one of the season’s riskiest films. The only other original gamble on the same scale is the Dwayne Johnson disaster film “San Andreas,” which opens next week. Most of the other major action-adventure films, such as “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Ant-Man,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” are sequels or adaptations of popular comicbooks.

“Hollywood is relying more and more on the safety net of sequels,” said Jeff Bock, box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “You always run the risk of box office burnout when you keep pumping out sequels, but so far we’ve not seen that happen.”

Originality can still be a virtue in comedy, where “Trainwreck” and “Spy” have had promising and high-profile screenings, but even that genre has become sequelfied. “Vacation,” a reboot of the Griswold family’s getaway sagas, and “Ted 2” are among the more promising summer releases looking to deliver laughs and riches for the studios that back them.

The most audacious film to hit screens in the coming months also hails from Disney. “Inside Out,” an animated look at a preadolescent girl’s dueling emotions, has a narrative daring that is largely absent from big-budget releases. But it has the Pixar name behind it, and with it a Teflon brand that carries the universal appeal usually reserved for top-shelf film franchises.

Hollis wasn’t ready to label “Tomorrowland” a failure, noting that there is still time for moviegoers to discover the picture.

The problem is that competition this summer is brutal, with films like “Jurassic World” and “San Andreas” all on the horizon and a new tentpole picture debuting weekly. That means that films have to deliver an enormous percentage of their lifetime gross in their first weekend in theaters or risk becoming old news. Films used to stick around for months, but now they debut in so many thousands of theaters all at once that their theatrical run is often winding down by their fourth or fifth week of release. That prevents a film from growing organically and it limits an audience’s ability to discover a picture at a later date.

In the case of “Tomorrowland,” Disney may have erred in keeping too many of its secrets close to the vest. Aside from a magical pin, Clooney as a crusty inventor and a few sequences of spaceships hurtling through what appeared to be a cornfield, it wasn’t always clear what the movie was about.

Compounding matters, reviews for the film were lackluster and Clooney’s fans skewed older, missing out on the teenagers “Tomorrowland” needed to attract to succeed. Adults made up 61% of the opening crowd, something that Hollis admitted surprised him.

Some analysts cautioned against reading too much into the failure of one film. After all, original pictures like “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” and “Inception” have enjoyed commercial success.

“It still always comes down to powerful directors and powerful stars and what content they want to make,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “As long as they’re making studios money, I don’t see a problem with original movies getting made.”

Yet “Tomorrowland” exposes the limitations of stars like Clooney, who still pop up on magazine covers and gossip columns, but can’t be relied on to open movies with their names alone.

Ten years ago, films like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “War of the Worlds,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” competed in the height of summer, armed primarily with star turns by the likes of Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. Some of those films, massive hits in their day, might have trouble getting made in the current environment regardless of the name above the title. That’s a problem because diminishing star power means that the number of people who can get risky projects greenlit has narrowed, and studio executives are not routinely known for taking the path of more resistance.

Fortune may favor the bold, but not in Hollywood.

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