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Big-budget films struggling to find audiences

Much like the line up of summer films

Much like the line up of summer films that had been expected to be blockbusters, but are sinking instead, Tonto (Johnny Depp) and the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) sink into sand in a scene from the one of the expected blockbusters, "The Lone Ranger." Credit: Disney / Peter Mountain

On and off screen, it's been a bruising summer for Hollywood.

Every weekend, the multiplex has been under siege like it has rarely been before. One after another, they have come: big-budget, globe-trotting blockbusters backed, like goliaths with air support, by mega marketing budgets.

As the studios have focused increasingly on the fortunes of these monster-sized movies, weekend real estate in the summer months has become precious, fraught territory. In the season's packed schedule, there's little breathing room for the blockbusters: They need to open big, right away.

Some of these films have succeeded, but some have flopped. The latest bomb came with "R.I.P.D.," in which Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds star as ghost cops. The poorly reviewed Universal film opened with a box-office take of just $12.7 million, suggesting it won't come close to recouping its $130-million-plus price tag. The failure was all the more pronounced because of the robust opening ($41.5 million) for Warner Bros.' "The Conjuring," an old-fashioned horror film made for under $20 million.

It's become a recurring theme of summer 2013: Non-sequel, big-budget films have struggled to find audiences. Most striking was Gore Verbinski's "The Lone Ranger," which Disney had hoped would ignite the same interest as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series that also teamed Verbinski with Johnny Depp. It fell flat with moviegoers. Made for about $215 million, it has earned $81.3 million domestically in three weeks. Also underperforming domestically have been "White House Down," "After Earth" and "Pacific Rim."

So what is working? Many of Hollywood's classic genre standbys: low-budget horror ("The Conjuring"), animated family films ("Despicable Me 2"), and some A-list star vehicles (Brad Pitt in "World War Z").

But when Hollywood puts its eggs in fewer baskets, the risks grow. In June, even Steven Spielberg, the father of the modern blockbuster, bemoaned the business' trajectory.

"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," Spielberg said at an industry gathering.

His comments reverberated because of their source: If even Spielberg is giving up, what hope does anyone else have?

Certainly, Hollywood has often been a victim to over-the-top "the-sky-is-falling" worries. The box office to date is, after all, up 12 percent from last year. This year's movies followed one of the more robust Oscar seasons in years, one that saw a slate of both lucrative and acclaimed best-picture nominees that together totaled more than $1 billion at the box office.

But the movies are undergoing yet another period of transformation. With the increasing appeal of cable and digital entertainment, and the bottoming-out of the home video market, Hollywood has tried to lure moviegoers with bigger (and more expensive) 3-D extravaganzas.

As usual, there's rebellion in the works from filmmakers who feel marginalized by the studios' shrinking purview. Spike Lee last week announced he would seek financing for his next feature film through the online crowdsourcing site Kickstarter.

"Super Heroes, Comic Books, 3-D Special EFX, Blowing up the Planet Nine Times . . . is not my Thang," wrote Lee on his film page, where he's asking for $1.5 million. "To me it's not just that these films are being made but it seems like these are the only films getting made."

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