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6 Lessons the Big Studios Should Learn from This Year’s Blockbusters

We complain every year that Hollywood doesn’t give us what we want… but to be fair, we send mixed signals all the time. A studio executive could reasonably infer, for example, that we like superheroes, but only some superheroes. We say we want original concepts but only seem to reward them at the box office when they come in animated form. And we absolutely love franchises, until we suddenly don’t.

So let’s clear a few things up. Not every box office lesson is a positive one, but looking back at the year’s biggest hits, here are a few things the big studios can learn from this year:

1. Be Fun


This should be obvious. People go to the movies–the big, popular ones, at least–to have a good time. And if your movie is about superheroes fighting, they definitely expect it to be fun. So while Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice both had cinematic pluses and minuses, audiences rewarded the former a great deal more, and cut it more slack, because even in its darkest moments it embraced a sense of humor and joy. People want Batman and Superman, but they don’t want them to be miserable all the time. Hell, Deadpool‘s about a guy with incurable cancer who spends a long stretch of the movie being tortured, but director Tim Miller never let the character or the film lose its levity.

2. Sell the Fun

Star Trek Beyond

The Kelvin timeline Star Trek movies succeed to the degree that they do because they’re well cast. Zachary Quinto was always the ideal young Spock, and the chemistry between Chris Pine and Karl Urban or Simon Pegg, is always enjoyable for the viewer. But Star Trek Beyond didn’t sell itself as, “The gang’s back together for a fun romp.” It sold motorcycle chases, Beastie Boys (an unfortunate plot point that might have been better left a surprise), and implied a Kirk romance with Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah, which in fact was a total misdirect since all her chemistry was with Scotty (we see what you did there, co-writer Simon Pegg!). By the time TV spots got around to selling the actual plot, they only managed to do so using a massive spoiler that everyone who saw told their friends to avoid. Also: “Beyond” what?

Meanwhile, Suicide Squad arguably sold more fun than it had, implying in trailers that Jared Leto’s colorful Joker was the main villain rather than the dour, grim Enchantress. That worked out well for them in box office, though there was some audience backlash. But the most fun that any marketing campaign had all year was that of Deadpool, which accurately represented the movie, but also may be impossible to duplicate because it relied on the dedication of Ryan Reynolds to keep churning out original material for promo stunts. Studios may conclude they’ll need to force other stars to do likewise, but it only works if they care about the material as much as Reynolds clearly did.

3. Make Sure People Actually Want the Sequel

Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

It’s ridiculous that it took three movies for Summit/Lionsgate to realize that nobody was passionate about Divergent. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back miscalculated Tom Cruise’s fading star. An Independence Day sequel without Will Smith probably should have been a non-starter, ditto a Snow White and the Huntsman sequel without Kristen Stewart. And even if your first movie was a big hit and your sequel is qualitatively better, people who felt burned the first time won’t come back. Both Alice Through the Looking Glass and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows improved markedly upon their predecessors, but once audiences decided they didn’t like Johnny Depp’s body-popping Mad Hatter or Michael Bay’s turtles on steroids, they weren’t willing to give the improvements another shot. On a smaller scale, the makers of God’s Not Dead pushed their luck with a less-successful sequel, missing the point that the originality of the premise the first time was the hook, and repeating it is inherently not.

The sequels, prequels, remakes, and spin-offs that topped the box office all had one thing in common–they did something genuinely different from the prior installment. Pixar switched protagonists, Star Wars changed tones and its focus, and superhero sagas added new and compelling characters.

4. Video Game Movies May Never Take Off

Assassin's Creed

I finally watched Warcraft the night prior to writing this piece, and it was actually pretty good. Yet even the name value of the property and a highly acclaimed director couldn’t make it as big a hit as it needed to be, as non-gamers found the mythology too dense, and gamers wanted it to play more like the game. Assassin’s Creed with Michael Fassbender sounded like a potential breakout, but that hasn’t happened either, with reviews likewise indicating that the plot seems incomprehensible to non-gamers and the action lacking for the fanbase.

Pretty much every video game movie has had the same problems, to some degree. Except Angry Birds, which wound up doing okay, and will probably yield a Candy Crush cartoon.

5. Representation Matters


This should be obvious by now, right? But people who wrote off Suicide Squad in its second week seemed not to notice that the cowriter of the original The Fast and the Furious was working similar magic with the DC universe, in assembling a diverse crew of operators both legal and illegal. Director David Ayer had always wanted a Mexican superhero onscreen, so he fought for the recent incarnation of El Diablo. Deadshot and Killer Croc were casually race-flipped, and because race is not integral to who they are as characters, it worked just fine. Poor Katana suffered a bit in the edit (on the extended cut, she’s much less of a stereotype), and Native American Slipknot got knocked off too quickly, but their being there was more than most movies managed–even the villains took the bodies of a woman and a black man.

But representation isn’t just about race. Though no doubt a point of controversy, Suicide Squad‘s character Harley Quinn did reverberate with some viewers as a woman who found strength in herself following her experiences with abuse. Meanwhile, Finding Dory put a character with a mental disability front and center, celebrating her strength as well in the face of adversity. You may not have thought of Dory as being disabled during your first go ’round with Finding Nemo, yet when my grandmother exhibits similar memory loss, it’s a sign of dementia.

Meanwhile, Disney managed to get a story about the dangers of racial profiling and stereotyping to over $300 million domestic with Zootopia, Black Panther made a big debut in Captain America: Civil War, and the live-action The Jungle Book was headlined by young Indian actor Neel Sethi, whom I hope we’ll see a lot more of. And let’s not forget Rogue One giving the Star Wars universe its first significant Asian heroes (yes, Ken Leung and The Raid guys got screen time in The Force Awakens, but not much).

True, the all-female Ghostbusters remake didn’t do as well as was hoped at the box office ($128 million is good, except that an excessive $144 million was spent on it), but on the convention circuit it inspired many costumes, and will probably continue to do well on home video. And amid all the noise and the shouting, nothing could get past the issue that people really wanted to see a (not-possible) sequel rather than a remake, and the trailers confused the issue, referencing the old movie even as the new film pretended to ignore it (only to throw in a ton of cameos and easter eggs that distracted from the new gang).

6. When in Doubt, Add a Familiar Character With a Wheezy Voice and a Black Cape


Well, him or the other one…

Got any of your own suggestions for the big movie studios? Sound off in the comments!

[Editor’s Note: Nerdist Industries is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.]

Images: Disney, Fox, WB, Paramount

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