The rise, fall and potential renaissance of the summer blockbuster

Closeup of smiling young man with glasses

By Nikolai Hogan

Knightly News CPC Film Series Correspondent

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Summer Blockbuster season reigns, drawing audiences to theaters in droves, often luring them back for repeat viewings and driving unparalleled ticket sales and profits.

It is this standard, however, that is making it more confusing than ever that several supposed blockbuster movies are underperforming at the box office. While most of these films are making money, they are floundering compared to previous entries in this movie category because of inflated production budgets and marketing expenses.

One of the key takeaways from a majority of the 2023 blockbusters is that they are part of more extensive franchises that have included successful films in the past.

Summer 2023 appears to have the most blockbuster releases in quite a long time. Films like “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer” and “The Little Mermaid,” and others, had been anticipated for years, yet only the former two films fit the term “blockbuster” by making a considerable profit over their budget, with “Barbie” currently standing at over $1 billion at the box office against an estimated $100 million budget, and “Oppenheimer” standing at over $850 million, also against an estimated $100 million budget.

Others, like “The Little Mermaid,” “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning,” “The Flash” and “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” have barely broken even against their massively inflated budgets, and it is worth noting that this inflation doesn’t include their marketing expenses.

An important point worth noting here is that marketing budgets typically appear in a film company’s financial statements under the heading Distribution and Marketing or Promotional Expenses, reflecting the costs associated with advertising, public relations, promotional events, and other efforts to publicize and distribute the film to audiences. So, the budgets do not include expected marketing expenditures for a film because these budgets are typically set annually by the parent distribution company and are similar from year to year, regardless of the specific films.

For us to see why these films are considered “disappointments” or “failures,” it is essential to narrow down just what a blockbuster is, how this type of movie came to be and why that title is important to the lacking profits of these movies.

The history of blockbusters

According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, a blockbuster is “(A) thing of great power or size, in particular a movie, book, or other product that is a great commercial success.” This means that movies meant to be a more significant deal than others are given higher budgets and marketing pushes with the hope that the films make astronomical amounts of money to keep a franchise alive and put money toward smaller films. A blockbuster is a spectacle; for the amount of money invested in its production and distribution, the film industry expects the movie to generate massive returns.

Blockbuster films can be traced to 1975, with the release of “Jaws.” Films like these were created because of the rising popularity of television. Because of that, studios had to put more money into films, with more prominent names, scores, better cinematography and (at the time) experimental filmmaking to compete with television to keep studios and theaters in business. It set the template for the modern blockbuster model still used today, characterized by wide releases, significant marketing campaigns and record-breaking box-office receipts.

The blockbuster would become two years after “Jaws,” more of what it is today, with the release of “Star Wars: A New Hope,” a franchise in which each entry is considered a blockbuster release today. For instance, the “Star Wars” franchise’s nine films have grossed more than $8.5 billion, counting only the episodes from the original universe and not films outside the three trilogies.

With the template in place, it seemed the film industry expected that: just because there is a big budget for a film, big receipts will follow.  This year alone, several films anticipated to be massive successes are being called “flops” and “disappointments.” The massive film budgets are making this so because no matter how much money a film earns, if that revenue stream doesn’t amount to at least double or triple the input, it is seen as a failure.

For example, the industry could look at a film like “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” as a flop because it had a worldwide gross of just over $382 million on an estimated $294 million budget, again, not including marketing. But to simply look at the box office as the sole indicator of a film’s success seems shortsighted, to say the least, as these films will have a long life of use for the film companies who produce them via streaming, cable distribution, video on demand, product licensing and the like.

Successes (and failures) of 2023

The blockbuster is far from obsolete, though. Films like “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer” and, to a lesser extent, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (released in the spring), have earned significantly more than their budget and are still playing in theaters. Why are these movies so successful when others follow the same marketing style and exist in large franchises? The answer is multifaceted.

For one, these movies’ budgets are beyond what they should be, not including the marketing budget. “The Little Mermaid” is seen as only a relative financial disappointment because the film had a $250 million budget but has brought in over $565 million. The question remains: Why was the budget for this film so high? Could the same (or highly similar) film have been made from a smaller budget?

The same applies to “The Flash,” with a $200 million budget, which was considered a legitimate box-office disaster. The film has brought in only about $265 million since its release, even with one of the most nostalgic castings — Michael Keaton reprising his role as the Caped Crusader.

Overconfidence about these films’ success seems to lead studio executives to invest too much money in development. These films have average computer-generated imagery, at best, showing that the extra money is not going toward more immersive effects but just because of the effects used, the movies are expected to be massive hits.

Reasons for underperformance

Another reason that so many blockbuster releases this summer have been floundering is because of franchise fatigue. Since the conclusion of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), moviegoers have been more critical of the Marvel franchise’s insistence on bimonthly film releases, on top of many Disney+ miniseries. People are more excited to see something new instead of another sequel or reboot, especially with the frequency of release.

While “Barbie” and “Mario” are large franchises, their film adaptations are doing well because Barbie’s nostalgic appeal as an adult-oriented take on the doll shows newfound interest in the property; it’s the same with “Mario,” which is the first Nintendo film in over 30 years and the first animated effort. This, alongside the considerable popularity of both films, led to massive box-office numbers. Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” has been a fantastic success, too, which is even more surprising because of the film’s R rating. In fact, at the current more than $850 million in receipts, “Oppenheimer” has a realistic chance to overtake “The Joker” as the highest-grossing R-rated film in history. This again illustrates the public’s interest in new ideas over reboots and franchises.

Are summer blockbusters fading into the sunset? Not even close. Sure, pumping out the same kind of movie every year can get old, and those huge budgets? Maybe a bit much. But here’s the thing: With a little patience between releases (thanks, SAG-AFTRA strikes, for the nudge) and a dash of fresh storytelling, summer blockbusters can come roaring back. Let’s keep things fresh, mix it up and trust that movie magic will make summers unforgettable for fans and filmmakers alike.

Hogan is The Knightly News’ Central Penn College (CPC) Film Series correspondent.

Comment or story idea? Contact KnightlyEditors@CentralPenn.Edu.