The Box Office Déjà Vu You’ve Been Feeling Is Real

Breaking News, Film News

Editor’s note: Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing are co-authors of Open Wide: How Hollywood Box-Office Became a National Obsession. Hayes is Deadline’s Business Editor and Bing is Chief Communications Officer at Vice Media Group.

The more things change, the more the Hollywood studios stay the same. At least that’s one of the surprising lessons of Barbenheimer, Sound of Freedom, Indiana Jones 5, Mission: Impossible 7, Fast and the Furious 10, and the other big-budget summer box office bets trying to help the movie business pull off a historic comeback.

Twenty years ago, we wrote a book, Open Wide, about a battle at the multiplex on the weekend of July 4, 2003, for the hearts, minds and dollars of the American public. In some respects, nothing has changed. The showdown that July weekend two decades ago pitted pink against black, and a sparkly self-actualized blond heroine against a grim avatar of thermonuclear war. It wasn’t Margot Robbie and Barbie vs. Cillian Murphy and Oppenheimer, though. It was Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde 2 vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his last appearance as the Terminator before becoming the governor of California.

Terminator 3 opened at the top of the box office that weekend. But like this year, the summer of 2003 was a summer dominated by sequels – Tomb Raider 2, Charlie’s Angels 2, Spy Kids 3, Dumb and Dumberer, 2 Fast and 2 Furious and The Matrix Revolutions. Most of these failed to catch fire with the public, prompting hand-wringing from media observers (ourselves included) that the theatrical film business was in steep decline. Hollywood was barreling down an unsustainable path, the argument went, as spiraling marketing costs failed to compensate for a lack of original ideas and the pursuit of bigger and bigger opening weekends left little space at the multiplex for any movie that depended on old-fashioned word of mouth to find an audience. 

Today, the complaints about the movie business are much the same. “Hollywood has never been known for overestimating the audience’s intelligence,” Inkoo Kang recently wrote in the New Yorker, “but it’s hard not to wonder how it is supposed to be inculcating a love of cinema in children – that is, future moviegoers – when the splashiest films on offer are explicitly buckets of regurgitation.” 

As we take stock of the latest summer movie season, it’s hard not to feel a strong sense of déjà vu. This summer, once again, entertainment pundits are scratching their heads about a massive, out-of-nowhere hit, Sound of Freedom, released not by the major studios but by tiny Angel Studios. The film arrived in theaters with a novel marketing twist: In a video that plays over the credits, star Jim Caveziel implores moviegoers to “pay it forward” by purchasing multiple tickets so that other people can see it. “We don’t have big studio money to market this movie,” he says, “but we have you.”

Sound of Freedom starring Jim Caviezel

But wait, haven’t we seen this movie – also starring Jim Caveziel – before? Nearly 20 years ago, there was The Passion of the Christ, with its unconventional distribution plan outside the mainstream system and fervid following among conservative and religious audiences in America’s heartland. And well before that was Billy Jack – the biggest box office hit of 1973 – a vigilante story about an ass-kicking Green Beret trying to protect kids at a rural school and an unconventional release strategy (its producer, director and star Tom Laughlin sued Warner Bros to get the film back and “four-walled” it in hundreds of theaters backed by a flurry of TV ads, a then-innovative idea that paved the way for today’s saturation marketing plans.  

The movie business is cyclical — more than people often like to admit. In writing Open Wide, we discovered that the earliest summer blockbusters weren’t Jaws and Star Wars, as the conventional wisdom has it, but 1950s B-movies that captured the spirit of the early atomic age as radiated monsters in movies like Them! and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, trouncing across cities on thousands of drive-in and B-movie screens nationwide. The studios today often get criticized for their creative bankruptcy and their “take the money and run” release strategies designed to collect the biggest, fastest box office return before anyone realizes they’re selling a bill of goods. But that strategy is as old as showbiz itself. As Joseph E. Levine, producer of 1958’s Hercules, The Graduate and The Producers, once said, “You can fool the American public all the time if the marketing is right and the budget is big enough.”

The stakes today are higher than ever, between dual strikes, which have paralyzed Hollywood; the digital revolution, which has seen streamers prioritize volume over originality and sent the studios barreling over a cliff trying to charm Wall Street with their own streaming upstarts; and an exhibition industry still reeling from Covid and an increasing abundance of other options for families looking to entertain themselves on the weekend. And how about some original movie ideas? Everybody loves those, sure, but how to fund them when the studio’s parent company is tens of billions in debt and more desperate than ever to cut costs? Under these circumstances, it’s easier than ever to green-light a sequel to a property that has succeeded in the past. As Ted Hope aptly put it at a recent film festival, “You cannot rely on what has worked before, but when you sit down with any buyer of a corporation, that is still 100% what they’re thinking.” 

Barbie, which had one of the most profitable opening weekends in the history of the movie business en route to becoming the biggest domestic hit in the 100-year history of Warner Bros, may be the exception that proves the rule. Ultimately, Barbie may be based on a toy but it doesn’t have that much in common with the mostly forgotten sequels of 2003. Perhaps a better analogy is the top summer blockbuster of 2003, Finding Nemo, a wildly imaginative, entirely original story which burst into theaters with a series of ads that riffed on Jaws with images of Bruce the Shark positioning it as the movie to see that summer. It’s certainly a healthy reminder that the cultural watershed that is Barbenheimer, the anti-Hollywood marketing of Sound of Freedom, and the parade of largely disappointing sequels that failed to live up to the hype aren’t exactly new. Next summer (which could play out against an even more consequential sequel – the 2024 presidential race) may well look much the same. 

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