Friday, May 1, 2020

THE SHADOWS OF OLYMPUS

Manhattan art dealer and sometime art thief Ashley Sutton has been blackmailed by a mysterious client into the most dangerous job of her career-breaking into the ninetieth story office of financier Harold Northrop and stealing a disc from his safe.

The job goes badly, and Ashley and her partner Logan Scott end up on the run, from both Northrop, and her angry client.

Their only way out lies in their unraveling the mystery of the disc's contents-which leads Ashley into a dark corner of her personal past, while plunging her into the middle of a conspiracy by a secretive and powerful group intent on controlling the world's future in . . .




Available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon and other retailers.

You can also check out the book at Inkitt and Wattpad.

The First Review is In! (The Military Techno-Thriller: A History)

My book The Military Techno-Thriller: A History hit the market earlier this month.



Fuldapocalypse Fiction has just reviewed it, and I am pleased to say its assessment of the book has been favorable.

Its review praised the book's history of the field as a "multi-century tour de force" of "not only the books themselves but also the cultural context behind them," even as it manages to be "both long enough to be . . . and short enough to be easily readable, making it the best of both worlds." Altogether Fuldapocalypse rated it
an excellent book that examines an overlooked genre through a variety of interesting perspectives in a highly readable way. I cannot recommend The Military Techno-Thriller: A History enough for fans of the genre.
That's very high praise from any source--and the more meaningful because so much of his characterization of the book ("long enough to be comprehensive . . . and short enough to be easily readable, making it the best of both worlds") is exactly what I aimed for.

It's the more meaningful, too, for having come from this blog specifically. As a longtime reader (and fan) of Fuldapocalypse Fiction, and the affiliated Coiler's Creative Corner--both of which I regard as must-reads for those interested in military techno-thrillers, action-adventure ficion, and related thriller genres across the media spectrum from print to gaming--I have consistently found the author a deeply informed, incisive and tough (but fair) critic of work in the field.

The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/25/19
The Evolution of the Thriller
6/24/19
Announcing . . . A Century of Spy Fiction: Reflections on the Genre
6/17/19
Announcing . . . The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/6/19
THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY
6/6/19
The Action Film's Transitional Years: Recalling the 1990s
6/6/19
'Nineties Dreams
6/6/19
Looking Past the Hardcovers: Techno-Thrillers in Other Media
6/6/19

Monday, January 27, 2020

Are We Seeing Trolls Where They Aren't?

It is widely recognized that, from the standpoint of how people treat each other, the Internet is a good deal worse than real life, which is none too great these days. (Those adhering to the smug, stupid "Nothing ever changes" sort of irony might dismiss that, but it seems impossible that a global civilization facing multiple, systemic crises all ar ibce is not somehow a little nastier because of it.)

Because our manner of interfacing with others through the Internet seems to encourage reacting rather than thinking.

Because we are dealing with strangers all the time--and often strangers whose faces we never see, and voices we never hear, who are just a handle above a comment.

Because the Internet allows people who are deep down pure vileness a round-the-clock opportunity to abuse others with complete impunity, and they make the most of it.

Because after being brutalized by the same vermin, other people who are not pure vileness get nastier themselves.

A signal example is people's attitude toward disagreement online.

In ordinary, offline, real life inflicting totally unsolicited disagreement on a complete stranger in highly public fashion would ordinarily be considered a severe breach of etiquette, if not civility.

This does not necessarily mean that this is completely out of the question, no matter what the circumstances. But it does mean that at an absolute minimum we should display some circumspection about doing it. We should be sure that we are right and they are wrong, at the very least. (Alas, too many of those who go around "correcting" others fail to realize that to correct someone else they actually have to be correct themselves--and that they fail that test MISERABLY.) We should be sure that the wrong on their part merits the breach on our part. (Even if they are clearly wrong and we are clearly correct this is not always the case.) And we should display some caution in our approach, making the correction no more unpleasant than it has to be. (Rather than, for instance, jumping down other people's throats, giving full vent to their nastiness at any and every opportunity like the complete and utter assholes they are.)

How much of that do you see?

A lot less than there should be.

Now, strictly speaking someone who behaves in the way discussed here is not necessarily a troll. But their behavior is sufficiently stupid and nasty that those on the receiving end of it can be forgiven for not regarding the difference as terribly significant.

There Is No Such Thing as Respectful Disagreement
1/27/20
Of Assholes and Bullshit
4/14/19
My Posts on Trolls, Bots and Other Cancers on the Internet
3/25/19

There is No Such Thing as Respectful Disagreement

Can there be such a thing as respectful disagreement?

Well, let's consider what that word "respect" means. We can boil it down to two possible definitions.

1. Deference.

2. Esteem.

Obviously you can't disagree with someone and defer to them at the same time. To defer is to accept their judgment. So according to that definition of respect, no, one cannot disagree respectfully.

Still, that leaves the possibility of respectful disagreement when we are using ths second definition, "esteem." Still, let us consider what disagreement entails.

To disagree is to say to someone "You are wrong."

And to do that is invariably to call into question their intelligence, their judgment, their training, their experience, their knowledge and skill; to criticize them and make them feel "less than"--not least, less than the speaker, who is claiming to know more than they. The questioning, the criticism, the claim to knowing better may be very slight. And it may occur when we are engaged in dialogue with someone we ordinarily esteem (and to whom we might even usually defer). But esteem it is not. You may disagree with someone you respect, but the disagreement itself is not respectful.

That brings us to another point, which I think Carl Sagan summed up nicely in his last book, the justly classic The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
Arguments from authority carry little weight--authorities have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
No one in a scientific argument--for that matter, no one engaged in serious discussion premised on logical appraisal of the real world--has any right to demand deference. Facts and logic come ahead of anything and everything else.

But there is still the matter of basic human consideration. Of not going out of our way to be nasty.

I suspect that were there more consideration, people would be less insistent in their demands for respect, reasonable and unreasonable.

My Posts on Trolls, Bots and Other Cancers on the Internet
3/25/19

What's Coming in 2020?

Glancing at the anticipations of Episode IX's grosses recently (I got in my own two cents on that here) I saw it mentioned that the movie would probably be the last really colossal hit until 2021.

Which, of course, implies that we will go through 2020 without a really colossal hit--by which I mean a billion dollars and up global.

Given how Disney in particular seems to have succeeded in regularizing the mega-hit (with the result nine billion-dollar hits in 2019), I was surprised to read that.

So what's coming out next year, I thought? (It was next year at the time.)

I went and looked.

Of course, there are more sequels no one ever asked for.

Top Gun 2.

Ghostbusters 3. (Because, once again, they're pretending that last reboot of the franchise didn't happen.)

Coming to America 2.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure 3.

Yes, you read that right. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure 3. (And yes, Keanu Reeves--Keanu "Neo" Reeves, Keanu "John Wick" Reeves--will be Theodore "Ted" Logan.)

There's also G.I. Joe 3. (I'd be a little more enthusiastic if it wasn't an origin story for a character whose interest was substantially enhanced by his mystery and silences--demystifying the last Joe who should ever be demystified, Snake Eyes.) And if less closely tied to the '80s, I'm counting the big-screen version of The Fantasy Island TV show (1977-1984), and a second feature film attempt to adapt Dune (the first was in 1984) as examples of the same tendency.

They really, really are not letting the '80s nostalgia go--in part, I suppose, because the pickings the '90s offer are so meager. Back when the Baywatch movie appeared in the release schedule I thought that, well, they were finally getting round to the '90s anyway, but the couple of years since seem to validate my earlier thought on the matter. One may take Bad Boys 3 for an exception, but I think this is less nostalgia and more a matter of Will Smith's faltering career and plain old franchise addiction. (And it says something that instead of a Michael Bay budget and a big summer release it was backed by a "mere" $100 million and released in the dump month of January.) Mulan would seem to be more about translating any and every Disney animated classic to the screen than nostalgia for the film's first appearance. Well-liked as it may have been by fans, I just haven't seen any evidence for some special association of the material with the period.

And to be honest I don't expect much from any of it, whether the Top Gun nostalgia, the retreads of '80s comedies, or anything else. (Bad Boys 3 is, admittedly, doing well at this moment, but on the more modest terms set for it. And Mulan, I think, will be a respectable earner, not a Lion King-caliber one.)

There's more superhero stuff, a lot of it--Birds of Prey and The New Mutants and The Eternals, and Venom 2, and Wonder Woman: 1984, and Black Widow. I don't know what kind of anticipation there is for BOP or The Eternals, those properties being lower-profile. (I remember the Birds of Prey mainly because of a very short-lived TV show back in 2002-2003--one reason, clearly why it looks like the BOP movie has been turned into a Harley Quinn movie, though again, don't know how well that will work--while I suspect most are only dimly aware of The New Mutants or The Eternals, certainly in comparison with the stalwarts of Marvel and DC.) The first Venom film did all right with audiences, better than I would have expected it to, frankly. Wonder Woman was a hit as well, though not quite so big a hit as one might think given the fuss in the press at the time of release. (It took in $800 million global--less than Venom, actually--and that with the advantage of a summer of weak competition. Respectable, but at least in this way, not really epochal.) I don't know how the audience will respond to sequels to them, though (and can't help noticing that the new Wonder Woman is, again, playing the '80s card).

Given how even single-character Marvel movies have been doing lately (Captain America 3, Black Panther, Captain Marvel) and the May release date I would think Black Widow has a good chance at at least a billion dollar gross. But I don't think it has much chance of the two billion-plus the last two Avengers movies made. And altogether there is no denying that this Star Wars-less year also has the MCU's profile lower than when, for instance, it crammed Black Panther, Avengers 3 and Ant-Man 2 into six months, or last year's one-two punch of Captain Marvel and the Avengers (which had these two sets of films pulling in $4 billion each globally in 2018 and 2019), and the superheroes altogether looking less formidable than when Spiderman, Aquaman and even The Joker pulled in billions more on top of that.

There is some spy stuff, of course. The next Bond--No Time to Die.

Another Jack Ryanverse film--Without Remorse.

A Kingsman prequel, creatively titled The King's Man.

Fast and Furious 9. (Or 10 if you count Hobbes and Shaw? After all, we count #3 part of the series' main line, don't we?)

I know it has been a really long time since I've been bullish on the James Bond franchise--longer, in fact, than I've been writing for this blog, but I'll say it anyway: I'm really not sure how Bond, who has been subject to one of the longest delays in the franchise's history, and is now apparently receiving yet another post-mild-disappointment makeover, will do this time around. (And I will say it again--the involvement of Phoebe Waller-Bridge--groan--does not get my hopes up.)

Still, I think it seems safe to say that even if Bond 25 underperforms we will see the series march on into a seventh decade two or three or even four years from now--and that it will probably take in more money than the next two films on the list.

Without Remorse (an origin story about a side character in the Ryanverse that has already been rebooted twice on-screen to disappointing results, and of which audiences are already getting their fill on Netflix) and Kingsman (the last two films made about $400 million global each, while the period setting may be a risk) seem unlikely to be more than limited earners.

Still, to go by the way Hobbs and Shaw pulled in $750 million, the Fast and Furious franchise seems a safe bet to break the billion dollar barrier at least one more time.

So I do think there will be at least a couple of billion dollar grosses from among this lot. And I'm sure that given inflation, and the innumerable options for calculating earnings for the sake of giving the PR hacks a chance to crow ever lowering the bar for what constitutes a "record" gross (the highest eleven-and-a-half day gross in Smarch for the fifteenth installment of a franchise since 2012), even a few records broken. But I also have to agree that the 2020 lineup promises a dip in earnings as compared with 2019, and maybe the several years before it with Star Wars, the Avengers and the rest boosting the market.

On Action Hero Prequels
1/9/20
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker--Box Office Projections
12/2/3/19
Crunching the Box Office Numbers, Again: Are the Biggest Movies Really Making More of the Money?
12/18/19
The Spectre Behind Us
10/9/19
Solo: A Star Wars Story Update
7/19/18
Surviving Failure, Post-Solo: The Experience of the Bond Franchise
5/28/18
Star Wars Has Flopped. Long Live Star Wars(?)
5/28/18
More on Solo Flopping
5/27/18
Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Anticipating Solo?
5/24/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels, Part II
8/27/13
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12
In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels
6/5/12

Thursday, January 9, 2020

On Action Hero Prequels

The pop culture of our time appears to be dominated by relentless, shameless exploitation of a small set of rather tired IPs--mainly because this is what is most conducive to the short-term profit of those in the media industry, regardless of what audiences may actually want. And part of that is the way that we have become deluged with prequels, not least prequels about action heroes.

"But don't you wonder how those heroes came to be what they are?" those selling the prequels will ask leadingly, as if we could not deny it.

I, for one, do deny it.

I don't read an action-adventure novel, or watch an action movie, and wonder "How did the hero become who they are?"

In fact, I'd rather not know.

Perhaps this is just a matter of my talking as a member of a video game-playing generation, but it seems to me that where ordinarily fleshing a character out fully makes them more "real" to us, enabling us to care about them, action heroes (save for those in the more pointedly artistic efforts where the story really is more than just an excuse for a bunch of action scenes and we actually do care about it), tend to be vehicles for the fantasies of the writer and reader--a sort of print, textual "avatar," lending itself to a different sort of audience identification than the dramatic one we learn about in Literature 101, with the fact the more significant because we are not there to get entangled in their personal drama, but rather to thrill vicariously to the external action. (To extend the metaphor, someone else may be pushing the buttons on the controller, but we are there with them nonetheless as they jump off the cliff to escape pursuers or drive the car or do any of that other stuff.)

The more we know about the figure, the more character-like and the less avatar-like they become, which may well increase the dramatic interest, but in the process make the action less engaging. Whatever one may say of the superiority of character drama to set pieces, an action film becomes something else when we care more about the characters than the action. (That Ian Fleming never bothered much about Bond's past until he had to write an obituary for him in the character's eleventh adventure seems to me testament to this reality.)

Prequels raise these issues in especially pointed form, because they are all about knowing more about the character, while bringing still more troubles in their train. Certainly looking at a superheroic figure, and looking back at them when they were not superheroic, when they were ordinary or even awkward naifs whom we see just starting to learn to do what they do, is the opposite of the entertainment their adventures give us--and tends to diminish them in this way as well.

And that is even where the writer succeeds in pulling off the whole conventional characterization thing. A great many writers who happen to be great action-adventure storytellers do not do this kind of thing particularly well--and arguably cannot, and not simply because even accomplished writers are apt to do some things well and other things not so well. This is also because, in writing, as in so much else of life, "less is more." The writer of fiction, after all, is not documenting reality, just giving us the illusion that they are. The writer cannot really "know" everything there is to know about their subject, however much hack teachers of writing may insist otherwise--and carefully retailing the absolute best of what they know, while maintaining strategic silences over what they do not know, where prequels have them doing the opposite, gabbing along and usually giving themselves away again and again, at the expense of those illusions.

Because of the law of diminishing returns, again operative in writing just as it is operative elsewhere. The odds are that the writer has told us the most interesting part of the story already--and anything else they tell us will be less interesting.

Because superheroics (and I would count even, for example, Mack Bolan's being a "perfect" sniper as a sort of superhero ability) mix uneasily, if at all, with the real world in which really three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood characters are rooted. (Indeed, while it may not be fashionable to favor DC over Marvel these days, it does seem to me that there is something to be said for Superman's living in Metropolis, and not New York.)

And because, when they are doing this years, or even decades, after the character first came along, not only will the material be that much less fresh, but consistency the less likely. Even if it was the same original writer doing the job, they are probably not the same person, thinking the same things, that they did when starting out. And when we have, oh, another writer who never even met them just doing a job decades or generations later, the resemblance is apt to prove very superficial indeed.

In fact, I remember how for a patch I was enthusiastically reading my way through Robert Howard and had finished his whole output of Conan the Barbarian tales. I found that L. Sprague de Camp wrote some Conan stories and looked them up. As soon as I found out that he went back to Conan's teenage years I lost absolutely all interest. For all I know de Camp may have written excellent continuations. But the angle he pursued is just that unappealing to me.

Thus has it been for me ever since.

James Bond and Britain's Small Wars
7/22/19
The New 007 Is . . .
7/22/19
Announcing . . . The Long Drawdown: British Military Retrenchment, 1945-1979
7/17/19
The Delay of Bond 25
7/9/19
The Historiography of Paramilitary Fiction
6/29/19
The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/25/19
The Evolution of the Thriller
6/24/19
Announcing . . . A Century of Spy Fiction: Reflections on the Genre
6/17/19
Announcing . . . The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/6/19
THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY
6/6/19
'Nineties Dreams
6/6/19
Looking Past the Hardcovers: Techno-Thrillers in Other Media
6/6/19
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on the '80s Action Film
8/27/13

January-February 2020

Are We Seeing Trolls Where They Aren't?
1/27/20
There Is No Such Thing as Respectful Disagreement
1/27/20
What's Coming in 2020?
1/27/20
On Action Hero Prequels
1/9/20

2020

January-February 2020

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Rise of Skywalker: After the First Weekend

The final installment of the latest Star Wars trilogy has, of course, just hit theaters.

It took in about $175 million at the North American box office.

Ordinarily $175 million is considered a very respectable run for a major feature film, and a spectacular opening weekend. But for Episode IX it is less than spectacular--being about a third less than what The Force Awakens earned in 2015 ($247 million), and a fifth less than The Last Jedi in 2017 ($220 million).

It has been noted that where Episode VII displayed some legs, making about four times' what it did in its opening weekend over its full run, Solo, a comparative flop, pulled in only about two-and-a-half times its disappointing opening weekend earnings ($83 million). Were Episode IX to do as well as The Force Awakens this would give it $700 million--more than The Last Jedi made. Were it to perform more like Solo it would take in about $440 million. I suspect it will be somewhere in between--but closer to Solo than to TFA. Even a $600 million take seems like a longshot, $500 million more probable.

Given that with this franchise the global take tends to about match the North American, it will probably break the billion dollar barrier, but not by all that much. This would likely leave it the second, perhaps more likely, third, biggest hit of the year at the U.S. box office, and at or below that in the global figure--well behind not just The Avengers and The Lion King, but maybe just barely in the top ten (which already contains eight billion-dollar hits this year).

I recall that earlier this year Scott Mendelson published not one, but two, predictions regarding the film--one optimistic, one pessimistic--which suggested $1.7 billion and $800 million as the boundaries of the possible earnings range. My guess based on this weekend's figures has the series closer to the latter than the former--and I suppose, powerfully testifies to the erosion of interest in the films.

Of course, erosion is a natural enough thing for a long-running series. The appearance of Episode VII was an event in a way that the third installment of the saga, the fifth Star Wars film in four years, could not be. But that erosion so commonplace reflects something else that is commonplace, namely the flagging of interest. By contrast the Avengers films, which stands as the ultimate example of what Disney aspired to make of the Star Wars films--the mega-franchise that reliably puts out two or three films a year instead of one film every two or three years--went from strength to strength, with the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America sequels topping their predecessors by long margins, and Avengers 3, and then 4, topping everything else that preceded it, the latter of them becoming in the process not just the #1 grossing film of that franchise, but all time.

In short, the Star Wars brand is not what it used to be. Like the James Bond franchise that paved the way for Star Wars (as the first truly high-concept, blockbuster-marketed action-adventure franchise), the once ground-breaking series has become simply "another blockbuster"--and if it is far from sputtering out in the manner of Paramount's once-mighty Transformers franchise, or Warner Brothers' attempts to create a DC counterpart to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or Universal's disappointing Dark Universe franchise, it can appear in danger of that if foolishly handled, such that the usually bullish execs of Disney have already shown greater caution--and perhaps, so has the team of Weiss and Benioff, which recently decided to forgo a crack at a Star Wars trilogy in favor of other projects.

I am sure that we have not seen the last of the franchise, for all that. But I am also sure that there is no going back to 1977 for it, or 1983, or even 1999. The next Star Wars films will, as is already increasingly the case for the series, be judged as films, and at that, films of a now familiar and indeed long abundant type, making it ever harder to stand out from the pack.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker--Box Office Projections
12/2/3/19
Crunching the Box Office Numbers, Again: Are the Biggest Movies Really Making More of the Money?
12/18/19
The Spectre Behind Us
10/9/19
Solo: A Star Wars Story Update
7/19/18
Surviving Failure, Post-Solo: The Experience of the Bond Franchise
5/28/18
Star Wars Has Flopped. Long Live Star Wars(?)
5/28/18
More on Solo Flopping
5/27/18
Solo Flops?
5/27/18
Anticipating Solo?
5/24/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels, Part II
8/27/13
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12
In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels
6/5/12

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker--Box Office Projections


I wrote this post a while back--but as I am just getting back to this blog after a long, unplanned interruption, and it seems to offer a bit of perspective on a topical matter, I thought I'd put it up anyway.

Forbes' Scott Mendelson recently devoted not one but two different projections for how Episode IX of the Star Wars saga will do, one optimistic, one pessimistic.

The optimistic figure is in the $1.7 billion global gross range. The pessimistic is less than half that--under $800 million globally.

The essential range (reflecting the weaker interest of overseas audiences, especially in the hugely important Chinese market) strikes me as plausible.

Mendelson's argument for the latter seemed to me to be the more accurate in its description of the franchise at this moment, as not meaning what it used to--a movie that is "just another mega-budget franchise-friendly IP" in a market crowded full of them. Indeed, he spelled out a good many of the reasons why this seems the case, among them the series' loss of so many of its iconic characters at this point ("Luke is dead, Han is dead . . . Leia is a glorified cameo"), while the relentless milking of the franchise (five movies in scarcely four years, with more to follow soon enough come what may) can leave this one feeling like not just "more of the same," but a "lame duck," amid yet another crowded holiday moviegoing season (with Jumanji 3 plausibly expected to be a tough competitor).

Indeed, he put the matter more mildly than he could have, writing, apparently without irony, of the makers of Episode IX being too preoccupied with "'recapturing the magic' of The Force Awakens" (TFA, after all, was all about recapturing the magic of the original, so what would that make Episode IX in this case?), and fairly dismissive of the criticism of the last two films and what they may augur for the franchise (to the point of not even mentioning Solo's landing with a thud last summer).

Despite all that being the case, I suspect the final take will be at the more optimistic end of the spectrum, for the same reason that the Marvel Comics Universe has gone from strength to strength, and Bond 25 will be coming our way this April--in franchise-land, like everywhere else these days, the rich usually get richer, not least because the general audience is relatively undemanding and very forgiving where Big Names are concerned. Even Twentieth Century Fox's X-Men franchise, a lightweight next to these colossi, subjected that audience to a staggering amount of mediocrity and worse, and sheer repetitiveness--indeed, nothing less than a remake of the underwhelming (for some, deeply disappointing) Last Stand for movie number twelve sandwiched in between Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home in the brutally competitive summer of 2019--before interest declined to the point at which it reduced its big summer release to a "mere" $250 million earner. The purist and the highbrow alike may lament the fact, but this shows no sign of changing anytime soon.

Crunching the Box Office Numbers, Again: Are the Biggest Movies Really Making More of the Money?
12/18/19
The Spectre Behind Us
10/9/19
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels, Part II
8/27/13
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12
In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels
6/5/12

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Crunching the Box Office Numbers, Again: Are the Biggest Movies Really Making More of the Money?

The other day I happened across the article "In Blockbuster Era, No Room at the Box Office for the Middlebrow," which revisited the old problem of how the studio system seems geared toward making blockbusters, with every other kind of film crowded out.

The piece offered disappointingly little historical perspective, or for that matter, hard data--the more problematic since this is, after all, a complaint we have been hearing from filmmakers and critics for decades, usually in the context of the tired theme of how George Lucas "destroyed Hollywood." (Biskind's book on the rise and fall of New Hollywood, for instance, closes its rather negative discussion of Star Wars with quotes from Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese to exactly that effect, way back in the '90s.)

This is not to deny that blockbusters have been crowding out other kinds of film, of course. No one who remembers what movies were like forty or twenty or even ten years ago can deny that there are more of them than before, more prominent than before, more seen than before. (I have noted myself how where in the '70s one might not see a single action film, or animated extravaganza, in the year's top ten, now they're pretty much the whole of the top ten, on the basis of the actual statistics in case anyone would be curious to see them, here and here.) Nor can they deny that this has been at the expense of other kinds of films, which have a harder time than ever finding backers, or landing screens at the multiplex.

Still, the article gave the impression that the matter had recently worsened appreciably, and I wanted to determine whether that was the case myself. To that end I checked out the stats at The Numbers (my go-to place ever since, in yet another ill-conceived attempt to force users onto its paid service, IMDB subjected Boxofficemojo.com to an unattractive and inconvenient redesign), and looked at their database of the earnings of films released in North America going back to 1995. In the two decades afterward the norm for the distribution of earnings was the top five movies of the year taking in 13-18 percent of the earnings(with the average 16 percent), the top ten taking in 23-28 percent (with the average running 26 percent, as the sixth through tenth biggest hits claimed another tenth of the box office), and the top twenty, 36-44 percent (with the average running 40 percent, thanks to the next ten movies claiming another 10-15 percent of the total). Years with especially big hits--Titanic, The Phantom Menace, Avatar, The Avengers--saw a higher proportion of the gross go to the top earners, and years without them, vice-versa.

However, 2015 represents a break point here. In 2015 the top five movies made 23 percent of the money, the top ten 35 percent of the money, the top twenty over half the money (51 percent). The next year the figures were less spectacular, but remained well above the norm, with the top five taking in "only" 18 percent, but the top ten a still well above average 32 percent, the top twenty a similarly above average 47 percent. And 2017 and 2018 were closer to the 2015 highs than that. In short, during the last four years the average was the top five movies taking in 21 percent of the total earnings, the top ten 34 percent, the top twenty 49 percent, a rough quarter to a third more at each level.

So there you have it, a bit of empirical, quantitative evidence that the biggest movies are, on average, making more money than ever--significantly more.

Which means that everyone else is making that much less money, all those other movies that come out splitting a pie about a sixth smaller than before (and it had already been too small for comfort).

What happened? The answer to that question would seem to be the success of the studios at regularizing the release of those virtually sure-fire, colossal hits that skew the market. The tendency is, of course, exemplified by the Disney movie-machine, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) really hitting its stride (we had Avengers 2 and 3, and the comparably successful Captain America 3 and Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy 2), and Disney churning out similar hits via its Star Wars films (all but Solo a #1 of the year hit) and live-action adaptations of its animated classics (The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast), on top of its Pixar and other animated blockbusters helped by still more sequels here (the Incredibles 2, as well as originals like Zootopia). And of course 2019 looks to go much the same way the last four years did (with Avengers 4 and Captain Marvel, with The Lion King and Aladdin, and with Frozen 2 just breaking the billion dollar mark and Episode IX out this weekend).

In short, yes, with each passing year the superhero movies (and the rest of the movies that go by that shorthand) really are making other kinds of movies less and less likely to get made or seen than before, no matter how much the suck-up industry "analysts" deny it. And the diminished domestic prospects of those films are only one side of the matter, with a consideration of the global market apt to leave them even less well off (because nothing travels so well as the action and animated blockbusters, while where it comes to "middlebrow" films, other countries can quite eas easily produce their own fare). Indeed, many a filmmaker has decided to give up on the studios and on theatrical distribution, and make even their high-profile, star-studded, big budget projects for streaming (Scorsese, for his part, taking his latest gangster epic, The Irishman, to Netflix).

That makes the real question whether the studios will be able to sustain their record of success at exploiting this strategy. MCUs do not grow on trees, as Disney itself has found with its faltering milking of the Star Wars franchise, and as its counterparts have virtually all discovered (Paramount with the Transformers, Warner Brothers with its disappointing attempt at a DC-version of the MCU in its Justice League films, Universal with its now officially defunct Dark Universe). Considering how Avengers: Endgame now stands as the highest-grossing film of all time, I find myself wondering if that mega-franchise has not peaked, with the MCU's shift to other, less proven material in an ever more-saturated market that has seen it all before (even in 2008, was there anything really new or fresh from this quarter?) paying off less well. Indeed, it may not be unimaginable for the tentpoles of old to increasingly follow all the rest from the studios to online, as the replacement of the theater with the home theater that started in the Golden Age of Television runs its course.

Peter Biskind and Star Wars
5/25/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Animated Films at the U.S. Box Office, 1980-2016: The Stats
8/18/17
The Action Film Becomes King of the Box Office: Actual Numbers
7/5/17 Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Spectre Behind Us

As word trickles through the entertainment press about what the world can expect of "Bond 25," a glance back at Bond 24 seems appropriate.

When the movie, coming on the heels of the highest grossing Bond film of the series' history, finally hit theaters the common complaint was that Spectre was rather a generic Bond movie, a charge for which there are ample grounds, not least in the action scenes and their settings. The opening sequence, a chase through a costume-packed Latin American festival (Mexico City's celebration of the Day of the Dead), recalled the Junkanoo in Thunderball, and still more, the Carnival in Moonraker. The car chase in Rome had Bond using the gadgets in his Aston Martin to escape pursuers after he glimpsed a meeting he was not supposed to see, at one point making use of an ejector seat--all of which was very Goldfinger (with yet another touch of Thunderball). During this he was being pursued by a giant of a killer who uses metal-plated portions of his body for murder, just like Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me--who, again as in that film, comes after Bond and Bond girl on a train rolling through a desert in the north of the African continent. The airplane-car chase in Austria evoked, variously, Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill in its use of a vehicle that comes apart, as well as many a ski chase (some of which also happened in Austria, like the one in, again, The Spy Who Loved Me).

The derivativeness extended to this film's immediate predecessor, Skyfall--Bond once again pitted against an enemy with British intelligence in his sights, and Bond himself in his sights, because Bond was the "favored brother," which leads to the climax being back in Britain, complete with a pursuit in London. There was also something of Quantum of Solace in the danger being within the Establishment. Alas, I was not an admirer of the family dynamic aspect of Skyfall, and I did not think it was executed any better this time, Bond's connection with Blofeld thinly sketched, unsatisfying--and unnecessary, as if "drama in the family" had simply become another box the producers felt that they had to tick, while the big reveal of the villain was just as flat as Silva's appearance in the last movie. And the way it all goes down in the end struck me as generic, in this case in an action-movies-in-general way. Had the last confrontation been in Los Angeles rather than London, I would have expected to see Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer's names on the screen at the start of the credits. Or maybe Joel Silver's. And it was, alas, not the first time this could have been said of a Bond film. (A principal criticism of 1989's Licence to Kill was its looking and feeling so much like a regular '80s American action film, and what happened in it when someone makes the "big mistake" of killing the hero's "favorite second cousin.")

I was somewhat more intrigued by the mass surveillance element. Still, the use of the theme seemed less daring and serious than the resource politics in Quantum where the supervillains were the same people many regard as the supervillains in real life. Moreover, I remember watching Quantum, and then Skyfall, and being struck by the film's backing off from that critical touch, which made the attempt to retcon the four films into a single narrative all the more problematic.

The result is still, on the whole, a watchable action film, at points more than watchable. Sheer scale and visceral staging elevated the Day of the Dead chase above the level of a mere repeat, while there was here and there an entertaining twist, in cases sufficient for the generous to call it homage rather than rip-off. All the same, it takes more than merely "watchable" to justify a $350 million entry in a half-century old series. Which brings me back to the first impression the world had of the film, by way of the "Sony hack of 2014." I suppose nothing since quite compares with that brief opening of a window on the cynicism and mediocrity of those who call the shots in Hollywood, reflected in the executives' panic at their own perceptions of the blandness of the film they had backed. ("There needs to be some kind of a twist rather than a series of watery chases with guns"; "the 'meanwhile' action for bond is simply fighting henchmen in many overblown and familiar sequences--helicopter, elevator shaft, netting." They said it before anyone else could.)

The final product testifies to their limitations in trying to clean up the mess they made. ("No, James Bond, I am your brother"--for the second underwhelming time in a row--may have been the best they could do.) And that, in turn, testifies to the greatest lameness of all--the PR hacks posing as journalists, the bowing-and-scraping business class-worshiping conformists, who would have the public in awe of Suits like these as "the smartest guys in the room," richly deserving of their seven, eight, nine figure compensation packages.

James Bond and Britain's Small Wars
7/22/19
The New 007 Is . . .
7/22/19
Announcing . . . The Long Drawdown: British Military Retrenchment, 1945-1979
7/17/19
The Delay of Bond 25
7/9/19
The Historiography of Paramilitary Fiction
6/29/19
The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/25/19
The Evolution of the Thriller
6/24/19
Announcing . . . A Century of Spy Fiction: Reflections on the Genre
6/17/19
Announcing . . . The Military Techno-Thriller: A History
6/6/19
THE MILITARY TECHNO-THRILLER: A HISTORY
6/6/19
'Nineties Dreams
6/6/19
Looking Past the Hardcovers: Techno-Thrillers in Other Media
6/6/19
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on the '80s Action Film
8/27/13

Monday, September 9, 2019

Just Out: What is Neoliberalism?

What is neoliberalism? How does it stand in relation to the rest of the liberal tradition? Were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (and the Democratic Party more generally) neoliberals, as many of their critics charge? And what has neoliberalism meant for the world?

Nader Elhefnawy's What is Neoliberalism? addresses, and answers, all of these questions—so critical to making sense of the world this past half century, and of currents events now.



Get your copy today.

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