Friday, January 7, 2011

"Was 2010 the Worst Year for Movies Ever?"

Continuing in the vein of "2010 in review," Moviefone's Gary Susman offers his take on the year's films, and it is far from celebratory. Of course, measured in dollars and cents, this wasn't a bad year at all for Hollywood, which took in over $10 billion in the North American market. Still, the figures reflect rising ticket prices and the high take of 2009's Avatar, which actually pulled in most of its money in the early months of 2010. This compensated for a rather long string of disappointments. They were especially concentrated (and commented upon) in the early part of the summer season, but after that the flops never stopped coming.

Looking for an explanation, Susman points to the plethora of reboots, remakes and sequels; "warmed-over" '80s nostalgia; stalled star vehicles; failed new franchises; and the rush after 3-D movie experiences.

Of course, except for 3-D, none of this may seem to represent a significant change from the norm in recent decades. Stars have never been bulletproof, just about always enduring flops as well as appearing in hits, and at any rate, most of the talk about actors' bankability confuses correlation with causation. Nor is the crashing and burning of a would-be franchise a new development; that problem too would seem to be as old as the idea of a film series. Indeed, these points hardly seem to be worth discussing. Besides, reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels and the like have been mainstays of the box office ever since there was a box office. (In 1983, for instance, eight of the top twenty movies fell into this category.1) And before warmed-over '80s nostalgia, there was warmed-over '50s, '60s and '70s nostalgia. (Remember the #1 hit of 1985, Back to the Future, and the career trajectory of Oliver Stone in that decade? The big-screen spin-offs of shows like The Fugitive, The Flintstones and Mission: Impossible, the return of John Travolta and Pam Grier to starring roles, the comeback of the martial arts movie in the '90s?)

Still, an objective look at the numbers does show an increased propensity for retreads through the last decade. In the 1980s and 1990s, the average was closer to three to four of the top twenty grossers in a given year (3.9 for the years 1980-1989 and 3.7 for 1990-1999, respectively). From 2000 to 2009 the average was twice that high, seven to eight (7.5) of each year's top twenty commonly falling into that category. By my count, six of the top ten and nine of the top twenty movies of 2010 are retreads (while the category accounts for at least twenty-one out of the top one hundred).2

Additionally, as heavily as the 1990s mined the 1970s, the last few years may have worked the '80s still more aggressively, as the propensity for retreads suggests. (Where Travolta made his comeback in new movies with little relation to his earlier screen image, Stallone paved the way for his by reviving his '80s-era franchises-Rocky and Rambo-with himself in the starring role, and finally The Expendables, an "homage" to exactly the kind of action movie Rambo epitomized. And certainly the '90s had no equivalent to the success of The Transformers franchise.)

In short, while these approaches are far from now, Hollywood has relied on them even more heavily than before.

That said, after a string of flops like this year had, it's traditional for observers to predict big changes in how Hollywood will do things-changes that will see the Suits concede creative freedom to the Artists-and Susman is true to that tradition. Still, the pipeline movies must pass through is a long one, and even if the system were to do a one hundred and eighty degree turn today in its green-lighting of new projects, it would be 2013 before a full year's slate of movies might look substantially different. Besides, the truth is that, with inflated expectations the norm (even a $400 million global gross is "low" enough to stall or even kill a franchise), disappointment is a way of life, and it takes more than a few bumps in the road to shift the characteristic operational style of the bloated, bureaucratized studios. The causes of the preoccupation with retreads, spin-offs and the like have very deep roots, not least in
the ever-bigger gamble involved in gigantic and still-growing budgets, shortening theatrical runs, ever-more fickle attendance at theaters, and the ever-louder pop cultural cacophony which a project needs to get above to be seen or heard, something easier to do with an already-established IP.
It would also be a very great mistake to underrate the intrinsic appeal of "high concept" for a company run the way the studios are, or of the added control over the creative process that comes with assigning someone to work on a studio-owned IP, compared with the challenges involved in dealing with a new artist bearing a new concept. Likewise, it would be a mistake to overlook Hollywood's global orientation, which helps drive its present tendencies. The mid-budget dramas and comedies which Susman sees renewed studio interest in tend not to travel so well abroad as the glossy, spectacle-heavy blockbusters that remain Hollywood's strength, and the foreign grosses on those make a lot of difference. (Even a mediocre performer like Prince of Persia nearly quadruples its income with the help of those receipts, bumping its $90 million take in the U.S. to a $335 million global total--which leaves a sequel highly unlikely, but is certainly enough to make the nine figures laid out for the budget tolerable, especially when DVD sales, broadcast rights and the like are added in later. By contrast, the ballyhooed The Social Network did little more than match its domestic earnings.)

My guess is that the Suits are far more likely to dig in their heels and push the product they are most comfortable with all the harder, the critics be damned. Accordingly, it seems far more likely to me that there will be a convergence between (somewhat) chastened expectations and some lucky strike that will renew Hollywood's always incredible self-satisfaction . . . until the next run of disappointments, the inevitable talk of the studios changing their way and the repetition of the whole stupid pattern all over again.

In short, if there's going to be change, it will probably be in the direction of still more retreads. Bet on more nostalgia, too, though my guess is that the passion for the '80s will give way to one for the '90s any year now.

Remembering the '90s far better than I do the '80s, I'm already aghast at the thought.

1. In 1983, Return of the Jedi was #1, the Bond movies Octopussy #6 and Never Say Never Again #14, the Dirty Harry movie Sudden Impact #7, the Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive #8, Superman III #12, Jaws 3-D #15, the remade Scarface # 16, and Psycho II #20. The data used in this article all comes from the yearly listings of the Box Office Mojo web site.
2. The count goes even higher if one include in this count the remakes of films made overseas like Edge of Darkness, Death at a Funeral and Dinner for Schmucks, as well as the new versions of previously filmed stories like Alice in Wonderland and Robin Hood.

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