Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 30, 2010

Summer Box Office Busts (Recession + Remake = Rough Road)

My man Randy Newman, composer extraordinaire, with the two kings of the new Hollywood universe.

The summer movie season will unofficially draw to a close this coming weekend, and I was somewhat surprised that several movies didn’t do the big box office that was expected from them.

The floppishness and dip in quality was to some extent predicted back in late spring, in this enlightening article at Time magazine. Among other relevant facts, it gives stats showing that even without Avatar in the mix, 2009 was a record-breaking period for Hollywood movies (though this was also due in part to hikes in ticket prices). Then came spring 2010, with Sex and the City 2 and a host of other bad ideas. Looking down the road, Time’s Richard Corliss also saw accurately that only Toy Story 3 and the newest Twilight saga film would have any kind of serious draw on July 4th weekend, the traditional breakout date when studios and distributors show their hand.

But this summer has been weird. According to a box-office stats site,  The Numbers, the biggest movies of 2010 so far mostly came out well before July 4. Number one, Toy Story 3, came out 6/18/10. Number two, in a major left turn, has been Avatar, which was released 12/18/09 and is now BACK in theaters — thus proving that this summer is not going as the major theater chains had planned. #3 was Alice in Wonderland, released May 5th.

The latest release on the list is Inception, which came out July 17, and is currently at #6. It’s still playing in select IMAX theaters, and even moving up from #9 last week to #7 for this past weekend… but IMAX is it’s own phenomenon, and thus Inception might not count for much in this discussion.

So the question is, where did all the blockbusters go?

The most important other trend to note: of 2010’s top ten through Labor Day, four are animated, with another three of the non-animated (Alice, Karate Kid, Iron Man 2) being clearly for young people. Plus Alice, Avatar and Iron Man 2 may as well be called animated, considering how much CGI was needed.

Who needs actors with real flesh and blood anymore, who can take a punch or cry on cue? Right?

There’s much that’s been said since the more recent Star Wars trilogy, and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, about the movement toward high-concept, heavily digital live-action films being the new norm. My wife is a classic example: for about seven years, her main standard for whether to see a movie in the theater has to do with whether it will translate just as well on the tv screen via DVD in six to nine months. And with the growth of internet-related movie consumption like On-Demand and Netflix, even the brick-and-mortar video chains like Blockbuster are slowly sliding into oblivion.

I’m not 100% in agreement on this point: I still like seeing a small movie, a drama or quirky indie film, on a big screen. I’m in a different mode when I’m in that theater, and the laughs and gasps of my fellow viewers usually change the viewing experience in a pleasant way.

Plus, I can tell the difference between a car CGI-exploding, and a genuine explosion or car crash like we used to see in classics such as Bullitt or Raiders of the Lost Ark. So CGI trickery on a big screen only makes it seem more fake to my well-trained eyes, and now I’m thinking about the effect and not the story anymore. So the effect failed. But I can see where people like my wife are coming from: why pay $10 to watch Will Ferrell clown around when YouTube can deliver us some great Ferrell material at a moment’s notice.

Yet this summer, even visually stunning projects like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter have mostly flopped. The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia, both released in late spring, went nowhere (Persia with good reason, from what I’ve read…) . Even Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, heavily promoted –and, via Nic Cage, positioned to get the Generation X parents of those sugared-up kids to come out– did very poorly. The Disney magic, at least when Pixar isn’t in the picture, has apparently faded greatly in the new era of moviemaking.

It’s not always the case, but one old truism is still holding on pretty well: crass and derivative crap doesn’t sell. What was mediocre in the Eighties, like The A-Team (note the recent flop of a film), is still mediocre, and everyone knows it. When Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie plays a sexy spy or assassin for the third or fourth time (maybe fifth, let’s see… do the Lara Croft films count?), people are eventually going to stop letting her indulge herself, as they’ve done in paying so little attention to Salt.

So I’m no trendsetter, but if you’re going to see a flick at the multiplex before the summer is out, why not make it Dinner For Schmucks (a unique screwball comedy if ever there was one, cut from the same cloth as Preston Sturges, or Trading Places). Or try The Tillman Story — an “ugly truth” documentary about former NFL player and Army Special Forces soldier Pat Tillman, and the cover-up of his death by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

If summer 2010 is going to be weird anyway, why not just go with the flow and see something weird?! Maybe together we can make weird the new normal…


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