Michael Bay, James Foley, Danny Boyle, Denis Villeneuve. Among other things, these four directors all helmed sequels to major films this year. However, while two were following up cinematic masterpieces: Blade Runner and Trainspotting, the two whose films made the most money (by far) were Bay and Foley with the new installments in the Transformers and Fifty Shades franchises. This is emblematic of a sizable problem in today’s Hollywood; well made films don’t make money.
There is no doubt Blade Runner 2049 was one of the best achievements in film in recent memory. The cinematography alone makes this worthy of most praise it has gotten, and the plot nearly lives up to the incredibly high bar set by Ridley Scott’s original. Still, it’s been a flop at the box office. With an embarrassing $31.5 million in its opening weekend, it is doubtful that the movie will perform well enough to completely recoup its $150 million budget and make a profit, especially since this budget likely doesn’t factor in marketing and other incidental costs. Blade Runner 2049, for all the beauty of the film itself, is a failure. Logically, the only next step for Hollywood in general would be to cease to make similar films: understated, contemplative, but grand. Another option would be to expel such projects to the realm of independent film, forced to operate on low budgets and to play in minor theaters like Cinemapolis. This was T2: Trainspotting’s fate; it played at Cinemapolis earlier this year. I ignored it. The fact that Marvel and DC movies dominate the box office is a symptom of this greater problem. The general audiences don’t want self-contained stories, they want IPs they are familiar with, whether that’s Batman or Pixar, they want continuity and a brand they can trust. Blade Runner 2049 was a challenge to this mentality; it was a sequel to a 35 year old film that is a cult classic in its own right, and wasn’t a success by any measure. In the end, film is a business, and 2049 is bad for business, so its spiritual successors will likely have a tough time getting through. Villeneuve is set to direct Dune next, but how much freedom will he be given now that he is no longer a proven commodity? Sicario and Arrival were great successes at similar numbers to what 2049 has now, but they had none of the expectation. Now that he has this blemish on the record, he will have trouble getting the ambitious allowance he needs to make films like 2049 and Arrival.
Blade Runner 2049 also makes clear that audiences will not tolerate ambiguity. This has been apparent for years, as can be seen in the failure of Mother!, and now 2049’s failure. Films in which the message is obscured, however slightly, do not succeed. Audiences want films where they can turn off their brains, not ones where they must be constantly interpreting. The Last Knight wouldn’t be called a good movie by nearly anyone, yet it still managed a B+ Cinemascore, the same as the abomination 50 Shades Darker. Blade Runner 2049 received an A-, but that didn’t translate to success in any way, likely due to length and content. The fact remains that the average person isn’t chomping at the bit to sit in a theater for 3 hours, especially if they are unfamiliar with the property and the director.
The biggest takeaway from these recent failures has to be that giving directors 100% free reign is a bad idea. Aronofsky and Villeneuve made beautiful, weird films with nearly 100% freedom, and the companies suffered for it. For Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune and other future big budget “independent” films, directors will be on a much shorter leash, and quality will take a dive. That’s what we get for being ungrateful.