NEW YORK -- 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 marketing budgets in the hundreds of millions.
As the studios have focused increasingly on the fortunes of monster-sized "tentpoles," as they're known in the trade, 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. Some have flopped. But more than most summers, the content of this year's seasonal crop of spectacles has felt like a pummeling, leaving both moviegoers and some in the industry dazed from the onslaught.
Zombies swarmed over much of the planet in "World War Z." Sea monsters rose from the ocean and battled giant robots in "Pacific Rim." Superman's Metropolis was haphazardly laid to rubble in "Man of Steel." For the third time, Roland Emmerich destroyed 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in "White House Down." A fiery Rapture engulfed "This is the End."
Studio balance sheets have been hardly less volatile.
The latest bomb came last weekend with "R.I.P.D.," in which Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds star as ghost cops. The poorly reviewed Universal film opened with 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 less than $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.
But although "The Lone Ranger" was an admirable attempt to update the Western, the film's unbalanced tone fell extremely flat with moviegoers. Made for some $215 million, it has earned $81.3 million domestically in three weeks.
Also underperforming, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, has been:
• "White House Down" ($68.5 million domestically in four weeks, despite its silly popcorn fun and Channing Tatum's rising star).
• "After Earth" ($60 million domestically in eight weeks, despite Will Smith's steady history as a box-office draw).
• Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim" ($68.2 million domestic, despite its well-crafted pop sensibility). Launched with franchise aspirations, "Pacific Rim" may end up in a better situation, since it has quickly made $110.3 million overseas.
So what IS working? Many of Hollywood's classic genre standbys:
• Low-budget horror ("The Conjuring," "The Purge").
• Animated family films ("Monsters University," "Despicable Me 2").
• Some A-list star vehicles (Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man 3," Brad Pitt in "World War Z," Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat"). Of course, Reynolds, Smith and Tatum would be the exceptions here.
But when Hollywood puts its eggs in fewer baskets, the risks -- along with the rewards -- grow. In June, even Steven Spielberg, the father of the modern blockbuster, bemoaned the business' swelling 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 -- a perpetually fickle industry built on the rare megahits -- 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 in 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 on Monday announced that 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 and Fly through the Air while Transforming 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."
Some filmmakers, most notably Steven Soderbergh, have fled to cable television, a medium that in some cases offers more creative freedom. Soderbergh earlier this year released his $23 million Liberace biopic, "Behind the Candelabra," on HBO. He has quit Hollywood for now and is prepping the 10-episode series "The Knick," starring Clive Owen, for Cinemax.
Yet, there's plenty for Hollywood to be proud of right now. The summer's smaller counterprogramming has included Ryan Coogler's devastating debut, "Fruitvale Station"; Richard Linklater's serial romance "Before Midnight"; an acclaimed rendition of Shakespeare from Joss Whedon ("Much Ado About Nothing"); and possibly the best Woody Allen film in a decade ("Blue Jasmine").
The summer isn't over yet. If audiences have any stamina left, there are several big action films coming before Labor Day, including Hugh Jackman's "X-Men" spinoff "The Wolverine," which opened this weekend; the cop thriller "2 Guns," with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg; and Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi epic "Elysium." Blomkamp, whose latest film cost $115 million to make, broke out with the $34-million sci-fi smash "District 9."
That and the recent success of "The Conjuring," "Monsters University" and "The Heat" show that sometimes a movie doesn't need to cost $200 million-plus, run 2½ hours or put the fate of the world in peril. Thankfully, human-sized tales with a little wit or a bit of fright still get the job done.