The summer 2016 movie season was a disappointment by almost any measure.
As is now required for the hottest months, Hollywood treated audiences to yet another plodding procession of sequels and remakes, franchise starters and extenders, reboots and reimaginings, too few of which provided even the most basic cinematic pleasures: romance, excitement, escapism, comedy, spectacles worth projecting on a 50-foot screen. Most summer movie seasons are built on formulaic productions, but this one felt worse somehow — as if the old formulas suddenly no longer worked.
Summer is when Hollywood launches its biggest and most expensive projects, the nine-figure, crowd-pleasing "tentpole" films that are, at least in theory, supposed to support the rest of a studio’s slate. As recently as the early 2000s, this season began in earnest with Memorial Day weekend, then trailed off sometime around the end of July with the start of the new school year.
But over the past decade or so, the summer movie season has expanded to claim more and more of Hollywood’s release calendar. This year, it began in the still-chilly month of March, with the release of Batman v Superman, and soldiered on through the middle of August in order to accommodate an ever-larger number of tentpole-style releases.
Alas, it turns out that more summer movies does not mean better summer movies, in part because far too many of them rely on old ideas. Nearly all of this summer’s most expensive, expansive releases, from the superhero sequels to the live-action reboots of animated classics, were based on existing media properties of some sort — so that every week felt like the cinematic equivalent of reheated leftovers.
Recycling can work, of course, and at best, films like Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and Star Trek Beyond proved the essential durability of their characters and concepts. But too often, these dutiful follow-ups were simply tired. Most of them felt like movies that only existed because they had to. They asked viewers to show up out of love for the preexisting property, not because the latest entry had anything new or exciting to add.
Indeed, story often seemed to be an afterthought, a luxury deemed unnecessary for the studios’ true targets: international viewers at the global box office. Two of the summer’s most abysmal films, Warcraft and Independence Day: Resurgence, were targeted heavily toward the increasingly influential Chinese movie market. Both were flops in the US and made most of their money overseas.
The former was based on a video game with an enthusiastic Chinese player base; the latter was helmed by a director whose films often perform well in that country, and included popular Chinese actors in key roles. Both films exemplified the worst tendencies in modern big-budget filmmaking, relying on expensive but often cruddy special effects to spackle over nonsense stories.
Studios are spending so much money on their blockbuster slates that they can’t take any risks
To be clear: It’s not Chinese viewers or cinematic expectations that are the problem here; it’s Hollywood’s lazy pandering to overseas viewers, which makes movies worse for everyone.
But much like the overreliance on well-known properties, that pandering is just a symptom of the larger problem. Today’s tentpole movies are so expensive that they cannot take risks on untested concepts, and they have to appeal to just about everyone — or at least every potential moviegoer — not only in the United States but in the entire world.
The term blockbuster used to denote films that cost $100 million or more to produce; in 2016, $100 million is the budget a second-rate director gets for a low-rent remake released in the dregs of August. The biggest franchise films now cost well over $200 million and sometimes push past $300 million or more.
For example, some unconfirmed reports last year suggested that the budget for Batman v Superman, widely reported as $250 million, ultimately ballooned past the $400 million mark. Warcraft, which grossed just $47 million in the United States, cost a reported $160 million to make. And the price tag for marketing these mega-movies can run nearly as high.
The overabundance of gargantuan films is why the summer movie season is now drawn out over almost half the year, and why it is so hard for tentpole films to do anything that might truly excite or thrill or delight or surprise us. That would require studios to take risks, and big-budget projects have to be a sure thing. But as this summer of $100 million flops and disappointments showed, a lot of Hollywood’s previously sure things aren’t sure things anymore.
Yet there were cinematic surprises and delights to be found this summer, from the offbeat pleasures of many of the smaller movies released during the first half of the season to the visceral genre thrills of R-rated late-summer releases Hell or High Water and Don’t Breathe, both of which arrived in the depths of August, when studios tend to dump third-rate action fare that wouldn’t compete during summer’s peak.
If you wanted a fresh take this summer, you had to look to the small screen
For my tastes, at least, the two most engaging cinematic experiences of the summer didn’t play on the big screen. HBO’s The Night Of and Netflix’s Stranger Things both rolled out over the course of eight episodes, staking out a comfortable middle ground between the two-hour movie and the 10- to 13-hour television season that’s become the norm in the era of peak TV.
The Night Of wasn’t perfect, but for most of its running time it worked as both a satisfying exercise in crime-solving and a procedural indictment of the criminal justice system. Even as the series’ narrative flaws started to reveal themselves toward the end, it remained a stylish and sophisticated piece of visual storytelling — a marvelous mood study, directed with the kind of patience and subtlety that used to be limited almost entirely to feature filmmaking.
Stranger Things, meanwhile, was a not-so-subtle amalgamation of feature film tics and techniques drawn mostly from the popular classics of 1980s science fiction and horror films. The show offers its nostalgia openly and unapologetically, even reverently, and reportedly managed to rack up more than 14 million views during its first month on Netflix. Assuming that data is accurate (it was collected by a third party, as Netflix famously refuses to reveal its viewership numbers), the show’s audience would translate to roughly $130 million in box office earnings.
Sure, it sometimes feels a tad too immersed in those references, as if it is a step removed from reality as it was actually lived, viewing ’80s life entirely through the pop culture that inspired it. Yet unlike so much of the cheap ’80s nostalgia with which Hollywood is currently saturated, it never feels like a simple game of spot the reference.
Instead, it plays like a well-shaken cocktail of pop influences, blended to something close to perfection: It’s Stephen King meets John Carpenter meets Steven Spielberg meets David Cronenberg — with a dash David Bowie, Jim Henson, and Vangelis. In other words, it’s the antidote to the stale summer movie season: a loving throwback that takes all the old formulas and makes them work again.