Hollywood Movies

Movies Like ‘Furiosa’ Were Never Meant to Save Hollywood

May 29, 20248 Mins Read

Photo: Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.

I didn’t have any hair left to pull out over the supposed failure of Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga at the box office this past weekend because I’d already pulled all of it out over the supposed failure of The Fall Guy several weeks ago. Summer hasn’t even started yet, and already Hollywood is calling it the Summer of Woe with big releases underperforming wildly.

Honestly, most of us shouldn’t care. The important thing about Furiosa is that it exists, mad and uncompromising. So what if it flopped? So did Fight Club, and Speed Racer, and The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, and It’s a Wonderful Life — movies that didn’t make anybody any real money at first but that made the world of cinema a richer place.

But the noise is inescapable nowadays. With each new disappointment, voices emerge out of the woodwork claiming to know why the movies are failing: Some are convinced that the films aren’t good enough, others that the marketers screwed it all up, or the original properties weren’t that popular in the first place, or tickets are too expensive, or everybody’s still afraid of getting sick. Everybody has an idea, but nobody has a clue.

In truth, whenever you’re talking about individual decisions made (or not made) by millions of people, the reasons will vary greatly. This time last year, everybody was pronouncing the death of superhero movies and the sad end of the long reign of Disney and Pixar. Now the only movies this summer that seem to be guaranteed successes are Deadpool v. Wolverine and Inside/Out 2.

But Hollywood is in the midst of a transition, whether it realizes it or not. Ironically, it’s a transition that many of us have wanted for some time: Fewer gigantic productions that need massive opening weekends to justify their humongous costs; more solid films that can turn a profit over a few weeks and months thanks to good word of mouth. The smash-and-grab opening-weekend strategy was never going to be sustainable, and the industry had become alarmingly reliant on an increasingly small handful of titles saving their bottom lines. It was just a matter of time before enough of these failed to perform, sending the industry into an existential tailspin. COVID, production delays, strikes, and things like franchise fatigue have all contributed to these current doldrums.

The system currently in place still relies on massive opening weekends. The calendar remains built around tentpoles, regardless of whether those movies should be considered tentpoles in the first place. (As many have noted, Mad Max: Fury Road was itself not a gargantuan hit. It was that pesky creature Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to do with: a beloved work of art that did okay business.) Large releases get out of one another’s way so that they can each have their big weekends. Promotion and advertising are thoroughly focused on the first weekend, and they largely drop out soon thereafter. If a movie opens below expectations, people like us write about it, thus continuing to propagate the idea that opening weekend is all that matters.

Amid the hubbub, there is one small truth few people have paid attention to. In the weeks following its soft opening, The Fall Guy posted an admirable box-office hold. It dropped 50 percent in its second weekend, which is pretty great in our current, opening-weekend-focused era, especially considering that the film lost almost all its pricier premium screens (IMAX, RPX, 4DX, etc.) to Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Furiosa, a very good movie well liked by the people who did bother to see it, might do something similar. Will those numbers be enough to make back its large price tag, including marketing? No, probably not. Will any of these films leg out over several months to qualify themselves as genuine hits? No, probably not. Because they were released into a universe where opening weekend was all that mattered. Furiosa has nowhere to go but down from here as it loses screens and press and its marketing footprint vanishes. Because we’re still expecting tentpole results from non-tentpole movies.

Within the vortex of disappointment are a few bright spots. Sony’s Anyone But You, for example, opened last December below expectations but then legged it out over weeks during the holidays to a very good $219 million worldwide box office. Yes, it’s absurd to compare that movie to Furiosa. Anyone But You cost $25 million, Furiosa almost $170 million. $219 million is an amazing result for the former; it would be a disaster for the latter. But the success of a romantic comedy — a long-moribund genre — featuring two not-quite-huge stars is an indication that moviegoer behavior may be changing and that the film industry should consider changing alongside it. The rom-com was one of the biggest casualties of Hollywood’s drive toward four-quadrant mega-tentpoles, as executives convinced themselves that audiences no longer wanted to see such films — at least not in theaters. That there is life again in that old genre suggests that there may be life in other genres as well and that some movies can actually build their audiences over time. But in order to do so, we have to abandon the destructive binary in which only the biggest movies get to open in theaters while smaller, more marginal releases — the ones that actually demand attention and care — are seen as disposable streaming junk.

Because Universal has already put The Fall Guy out on digital — premium video on demand (PVOD), not streaming, so you still have to pay for it, sorry — the idea that you have to go to the theater to experience it is out the window. (Though it did post its best hold just this past weekend, when it was already available digitally.) The studio did this not because it had some petty grievance against The Fall Guy; Universal has an in-house understanding that if a movie opens under $40 million, it goes to PVOD after two and a half weeks. A similar fate likely awaits Furiosa at Warner Bros. Unfortunately, all that adds to a subconscious expectation in the mind of moviegoers that seeing films in theaters is really not that important, since the movies will be out digitally soon enough. The studios are to blame for fostering this belief in viewers over the past several years, as they’ve inadvertently terraformed a movie landscape completely hostile to their actual business. But they have to shed this kind of thinking if they are to succeed. Because along with the understanding that not all studio releases have to live or die on opening weekend must come a willingness to let these pictures live in theaters for some period of time to see how they perform as audiences actually see them and talk about them. The more you convince people that almost everything will just show up on Netflix in a few weeks, the more you poison your own well.

Remember, last year’s summer box office was also supposed to be woeful, before Barbenheimer came along and saved it. There were many reasons for the twin successes of Barbie and Oppenheimer, obviously, and both movies certainly opened huge. But they also had legs: Their opening weekends were only about a fourth of their overall box office because they stuck around in theaters for months, benefiting from the fact that people liked them and told others to see them, the discourse snowballing until everybody wanted to know what the fuss was about. That’s how those pictures conquered the Zeitgeist. Something similar happened the previous year with two other big hits of the COVID era, Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water (which, let’s not forget, opened low enough that one of my critic pals speculated James Cameron had been delusional in dedicating himself to making more Avatar movies).

But in order for the American movie industry to become saner and more sustainable, it has to give up on the idea that the only thing that matters is opening weekends and the only things that can make money are the biggest of movies. To do that will mean recommitting to making better films, and not just jockeying around the latest hot IP or drowning us in a whirlpool of overpriced sequels and prequels and reboots and spinoffs. Oddly enough, a more varied approach will be more beneficial for the bigger movies too. Because in a world like that, an expensive oddity like Furiosa won’t be placed in the suddenly untenable position of having to save an entire industry.

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