It's been a tough summer for the film industry. A number of high profile films have tanked at the box office, and even Steven Spielberg—the man commonly assumed to have birthed the blockbuster era—is predicting the "implosion" of Hollywood. (As a side note, earlier this month Heather Havrilesky had a good piece on why Spielberg is not to blame for the industry's blockbuster mentality.) Spielberg's theory is essentially that a studio will eventually go under after it releases five or six bombs in a row. The reason: budgets have become so gigantic. And, indeed, this summer has been full of movies with giant budgets and modest grosses, all of which has elicited hand-wringing about financial losses, the lack of a quality product (another post-apocalyptic thriller? more superheroes?), and a possible connection between the two. There has been some hope that Hollywood's troubles will lead to a rethinking of how movies get made, and which movies get greenlit by studio executives. But a close look at this summer's grosses suggest a more worrisome possibility: that the studios will become more conservative and even less creative.
Exempting kids' movies, because they exist in a slightly different universe (and by far the most successful kids' movie of the summer was the sequel to Despicable Me), the four biggest movies of the May-August period were sequels or reboots: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Fast and Furious 6, and Star Trek Into Darkness. Grown-Ups 2 was a also a hit, as was The Hangover III (which disappointed the studio but is still bringing in loads of money) and The Wolverine. Meanwhile, the biggest bombs of the summer were original properties: R.I.P.D., The Internship, After Earth (which could break even thanks to foreign sales), White House Down, Lone Ranger, and maybe Elysium, which had a mediocre opening this weekend. (Pacific Rim is doing very well overseas but was a disappointment in America.)
There were some non-sequels that did well: World War Z, The Heat, The Great Gatsby (despite being one of the worst films in recorded history), The Conjuring, and Now You See Me. (Regarding The Heat: if Hollywood continues to release only one major movie per season starring women, that film is likely to do well!) As for sequels that bombed, there's Red 2 (which was made cheaply) and that's it.
So, let's say you are a Hollywood executive surveying this scene. What do you take away from it? The first lesson is that foreign grosses can save a crappy movie, especially one with action. But you already knew that. So what else? The most sanguine possibility is that you look over this roster of dreck and decide to make fewer derivative and dumb movies. (Oblivion, After Earth, and Elysium all have a similar plot; White House Down was nearly identical to this spring's hit Olympus Has Fallen.)
Still, it's easy to imagine Hollywood studios learning precisely the opposite lesson. The problem isn't derivative movies, the thinking might go; in fact, the most derivative movies sell. Superheroes sell. Enough of these new and risky products like R.I.P.D. and Lone Ranger: just look at where quirkiness gets you. Instead of taking a bet on an original (albeit not very good) movie like Elysium, why not make Grown-Ups 3, even if no one is exactly begging for it? Instead of White House Down, how about paying Robert Downey Jr. an extra $15 million above-and-beyond his already otherworldly salary for another Iron Man? It's true that every studio needs to keep creating franchises as well as nurturing its existing ones. But who is to say that an extra sequel can't be made, and that the new projects cannot just be reboots. No, the real lesson of the summer might very well be that audiences want what they already know. Don't expect much to change.
A friend said to me over the weekend that there hadn't been a single summer blockbuster he wanted to see. And yet it really could get worse.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.