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Hollywood’s summer season — usually rife with blockbusters and massive hits — took a beating this year as the worst summer in over a decade.
US audiences avoided cinemas like the plague, resulting in a 14.6% drop in revenue from 2016. The last time sales were this low, The Da Vinci Code was airing and we were all excited for the second Pirates of the Caribbean installment.
There have been a number of reasons put forward for this drop: franchise fatigue, increasing ticket prices, and the demand for online streaming all surely play a part in keeping viewers away from the theatre.
But what did this drop mean for South African audiences, and did we suffer as terribly as the US?
I contacted Times Media Films for the SA box office numbers from “summer” 2016 and 2017 (May to August), in the hopes of finding commonalities that could more easily point to what exactly was going wrong with the industry.
The data, unfortunately, isn’t conclusive: the 2016 numbers reflect films’ returns at completion, while some 2017 films are still showing. Times Media also couldn’t guarantee that the numbers from other distributors were entirely accurate.
But they are enough to spot general patterns in South Africa, and provide interesting starting points with which to further studies.
As a whole, SA’s box office has taken as big a dip as the US. In 2016, the summer box office closed out on R379.8-million. Fast-forward a year, and that number sits at R316.6-million; that’s a 17% drop. If we’re generous and allow for a R20-million margin of error, it would still be sitting at a 12% decrease.
A lot of the blame for the recent box office bombs has been geared at major studios relying heavily on franchises, too afraid to take a risk on original films and concepts. Series like Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek and X-Men have all seen instalments released in the summer season these past two years — all with budgets well over US$100-million.
The graph below examines these high budget movies alongside their South African earnings. With one look, the graph proves that high budgets don’t always equal box office returns — if it did, the numbers would lie closer together in a more satisfying trend.
This year, three films were released that cost over US$200-million to make: not one of them could pull in over R21-million in South Africa.
Transformers: The Last Knight cost US$217-million, and made only R16-million in SA. The fifth Pirates cost US$230-million, and only managed R17-million. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 smashed the international box office, but in South Africa just barely cracked over R20-million.
In 2016, only Finding Dory cost US$200-million — and it pulled in more than Transformers and Pirates combined. The other high-earning film of the year — Oscar-winning Suicide Squad — cost US$175-million and raked in over R36-million.
These stats hint at the truth behind franchise fatigue. While both Dory and Suicide Squad are part of larger franchises, the former came out 13 years after the first instalment, and the latter featured nostalgic characters new to live action cinema.
In contrast, there has been a Transformers film almost every two years for the past decade, and we’ve been watching Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow since 2003.
What Dory also has over the other films is that it’s geared towards children: a fact that will always pull big numbers in SA. A prime example is Despicable Me 3, the best-selling film of the 2017 season.
The minion-led film doesn’t show up on the previous graph because of its US$80-million budget, but place it on a graph with all those that made over R10-million and its success is staggering.
Despicable Me 3 sits high above 2017’s other films, pulling in R20-million more than the runner-up of the season Spider-Man: Homecoming (which only made R26-million, despite working on a budget more than double the victor).
What this chart shows is that there there were more lower-budget successes in 2016 than 2017. Films like Me Before You, Bad Moms, and Mechanic: Resurrection all made over R10-million despite budgets below US$40-million. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart’s Central Intelligence did exceptionally well last year, earning more than even Spider-Man on a US$50-million budget.
In comparison, this year only Girls Trip (which is still showing) made over R10-million on a budget below US$60-million — and it’s already pulled in more than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk which cost nearly four times its budget.
This year, both the smaller films and the major franchises let SA’s box office down, and unfortunately this includes locally produced films.
South African films made over double what they did this year in the “summer” period, but mostly because double the films were released.
One of the issues with SA cinema is that there aren’t major studios like Sony or Disney with the capacity to map out their whole year and release blockbusters at their most lucrative time. This means that the year’s local lineup is never as predictable as Hollywood’s.
Films like Mrs Right Guy and Dis Koue Kos, Skat were such big hits they themselves made more than all of 2017’s combined. This year, Krotoa and Nul is Nie Niks Nie were the bestsellers, though combined they still made R500 000 less than Mrs Right Guy.
Of course, this doesn’t say much for the year’s local performance (Keeping Up with the Kandasamys, released in March, did exceptionally well on the charts), but it is a sobering look at an industry that still doesn’t feel like it knows what it wants to do with itself.
It shares that in common with Hollywood.
If the SA charts prove anything it’s that high budgets don’t equal high returns, and whatever preconceptions major studios had about what sells needs to be reexamined. For years we have been told what audiences want (white male protagonists and straightforward plots) but tired franchises and unoriginal ideas consistently result in lower box office numbers.
It’s time for a change-up, and I, for one, can’t wait for 2018.