The Wolverine, the latest X Men spin-off, is hoping to claw back some Hollywood pride after a string of big-budget flops have left major Tinseltown studios licking their wounds.
Starring Hugh Jackman, the film is forecast to make over $70 million this weekend after opening on Thursday, in what trade journal Variety said could be one of the best debuts of the summer. North America's normally lucrative summer movie season has seen a series of movies with budgets over $150 million bomb at the box office, at the expense of cheaper but more profitable films. The first dud was After Earth, in which usually sure-fire blockbuster star Will Smith was joined by his son Jaden, but which has made a pitiful $59 million in North America since opening on May 1, on a budget of $130 million.
It was followed by White House Down with $68 million so far on a budget of $150 million, and the The Lone Ranger which has made only $81 million of its $250 million budget despite starring Hollywood A-lister Johnny Depp.
More recently Pacific Rim has made a disappointing $72 million on its $180 million investment, while the last super flop was R.I.P.D., which cost $180 million to make and made a paltry $15 million on its opening weekend.
The bad run for Hollywood's major studios bosses comes after veteran directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas warned in June of a "meltdown" of the traditional model of releasing films in movie theaters.
"There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm," said Spielberg.
Kathryn Arnold, a producer and industry expert, said the problem is partly due to the mediocre quality of the latest batch of mega-budget movies.
"The studios are intent upon reaching a global audience and sometimes believe they need to simplify the storyline and ramp up the action in order to appeal to non-English language speakers," she told AFP.
But she said: "Audiences are smarter, have more options for viewing content and are connected to media more than ever before. Studios must learn not to short-change the storyline when making big budget movies."
She cites as good examples Fast and Furious 6, World War Z and Iron Man 3, all three of which did well at the box office. "When the studios make a large budget movie that has a good or interesting story such as World War Z, something that engages audiences on a new and different level, it will succeed," she said. Another question is whether sequels pay off: studios will spend $400-500 dollars for a franchise, in the hope of striking success like this summer's Iron Man 3, which has made $1.2 billion at the box office.
"Even though After Earth, Lone Ranger, White House Down, Pacific Rim and now RIPD all bombed domestically this summer, (big budget films) are the key to driving the box office," said box office analyst Jeff Bock. "And, like it or not, the lackluster performances of these original films will most certainly keep Hollywood churning out sequels to established properties by the truckload," he added. But Arnold disagrees, saying studio bosses should learn from the series of flops. "It should certainly make them pause, especially when you look at the success of movies like Magic Mike, Silver Linings Playbook, Identity Thief and The Heat," she said. "All these movies were made for budgets under $50 Million, with star talent, have good stories that connect on an emotional level with the audience, get good word of mouth and thus do well at the box office. "When you do the math...it makes sense and more profit."
Jason Blum, producer of Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister, goes even further, citing the success of "micro-budget" films costing less than $5 million but making 10, 20 or even 40 times their budget. "When people get established in the movie business, for whatever reason it's like 'Now that I'm successful, I'm gonna go make expensive movies'," he said. "The minute you start to spend a lot of money, you can't take risks anymore, you can't kill the lead of the movie, there are things you just can't do. But if you make movies inexpensively, you can try new weird stuff."