The Sci-Fi Budget Bubble: Why It's Going to Burst and the Future of Sci-Fi Movies

Scene from Ender's Game.

Scene from Ender's Game.

Given the relentless rate of high-budget, effects-heavy blockbusters that burst onto the big screen across the country, sci-fi fans have certainly come a long way from believing that the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was a real news announcement over 50 years ago. 

 

The famous hubcaps-on-strings spaceships from Plan 9 from Outer Space.

 

Both moviegoers and movie makers alike have abandoned tolerance for Plan 9 From Outer Space — quality visual effects long ago, and now CGI giants like Jurassic World often dominate the box office for weeks at a time. We know that modern special effects allow cast members to be extinct and other marvelous feats of physics to become possible, but we also know that too much of a good thing is ... maybe not so good anymore.

I saw Terminator: Genisys over the summer, which was one of the last action-packed CGI-fests of the season: the prime time for blockbuster releases. My mom desperately wanted to see it, longing for a satisfying tribute to the original 1984 movie with 2015 CGI power — and while the effects may have been flashy, freshly-waxed, and hyper-polished as only a Hollywood movie can do, I watched on apathetically.

This is one of the first images that show up when you Bing Terminator: Genisys. This will be a relevant point shortly. 

This is one of the first images that show up when you Bing Terminator: Genisys. This will be a relevant point shortly. 

When modern sci-fi movie producers are in a position where they have the tools to make anything possible on the big screen, two things happen. The first is that we as viewers become desensitized to fantastic CGI, and the second is that movies, in turn, push the limits of reality in increasingly ridiculous ways in a desperate attempt to elicit some sort of response from us.

This apathy and addiction-like need for more and more stimuli to entertain us is what some call "the Michael Bay effect."

Michael Bay and explosions was the Internet’s favorite joke for a while.

Michael Bay and explosions was the Internet’s favorite joke for a while.

Hollywood is constantly barraging us with an assault of forgettable sci-fi blockbusters that are a product of “Michael Bay-ing” (does anyone remember the Battleship movie? It wasn’t actually anything like the game Battleshipbut was instead about Transformers or something?). Despite its astronomical $209 million budget, Battleship was a box office flop that cost Universal Studios “$83 million loss of cash flow,” and Terminator: Genisys followed a similar path with a $170 million budget and less than stellar reviews.

Interestingly enough, the very audience members that give these movies a low Rotten Tomatoes (26% for Terminator: Genisys, 34% for Battleship) are simultaneously the reason for their continued existence. The message viewers want to send with their comments is clear: big budgets and big effects don't mean big profits. However, they also don't seem particularly sold on films with anything less than a mind-numbing explosion fest — as of 2011, the thought-provoking District 9 was the only sci-fi film to gross over $100 million dollars with a budget of less than $45 million.

A ship from District 9. Not bad for $30 million!

A ship from District 9. Not bad for $30 million!

This statistic is pretty alarming for sci-fi fans since it seems like we're only inflating the "sci-fi bubble" of stagnant plots more and more with each generic release ... but the numbers are also four years old. The bubble will burst soon (check out Ridley Scott's upcoming film The Martian, for example), but in the meantime, we can look to our friends (and often cross-genre collaborators) the horror movies for signs of hope.

Horror has, much like sci-fi, always been sort of a cult genre. For horror films, a big studio and flashy cast almost make things less scary because of overproduction. This means that "indie horror" has been given room to flourish.

Take the success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, which was filmed in 8 days with a rumored budget of $20,000-$35,000 dollars. It went on to become one of the most profitable indie films of all time, never mind just the horror genre. Even though it wasn't the first found footage film ever made, many see it as a milestone for films with lower budgets that can have original plots and still be box office hits (see Paranormal Activity, for example). This this is where sci-fi directors can take a hint.

The Blair Witch Project was also the first film to heavily rely on Internet marketing, which is a solid strategy for indie films.

The Blair Witch Project was also the first film to heavily rely on Internet marketing, which is a solid strategy for indie films.

Found footage is borderline overdone in horror nowadays, but the only sci-fi movie I can recall offhand using this technique is 2008's Cloverfieldwhich is honestly not even a sci-fi movie. A whole new wealth of possibilities for plot and storytelling in the sci-fi genre can be explored using this indie film strategy that has boasted good box office ratings time and time again in the horror genre.

Science fiction has always been about pushing the limits, and audiences are slowly (and perhaps in a convoluted fashion) letting us know that the limits sorely need to be pushed in a different direction. Based on the success of indie horror films, sci-fi directors will hopefully gain the courage to go where no man has gone before in the genre (yes, I couldn't write an article about science fiction without a single Star Trek reference).