Crosstalk: Is The Blockbuster Movie Model Becoming Obsolete?

Crosstalk: Is The Blockbuster Movie Model Becoming Obsolete?

Noel: Scott, last week you scrambled out onto a shaky limb, suggesting in a blog post that Spider-Man 3 might have trouble recouping its exorbitant cost. Then the movie went on to have the biggest opening in history, and while that still just only half-covers the production and marketing budgets, I think it's fair to say that with the big numbers it's putting up overseas—and DVD revenue still to come—nobody's going to lose their jobs or their savings because of Spider-Man 3.

So you probably picked a bad example. But I still think you may be onto something.

We should probably say up-front that neither of us are inherently opposed to blockbusters. We like spectacle. We like to be entertained. We like to share an experience that the whole culture is experiencing at the same time. And I've never bought the old argument of "the money spent on Spider-Man 3 could've financed 100 The Squid And The Whales." Anyone who's ever worked for a corporation or bureaucracy knows that money not spent on one budgetary item doesn't automatically get re-appropriated. In other words, the nearly $300 million spent on Spider-Man 3 was raised to make Spider-Man 3. The people who provided that money weren't waiting around to spend it on something else—unless it was Pirates Of The Caribbean.

People want to make big movies, and other people want to watch them. What business is it of ours if a bunch of rich people want to go bankrupt trying to entertain us?

The issue as I see it is that—as you suggest in your blog post—special effects in and of themselves aren't as exciting as they used to be, and yet the studios and directors keep trying to outdo each other in that area, leading to more and more movies where the effects are intended to be the whole show. There's nothing wrong with that per se. Hollywood has a long tradition of lulling us with shiny things, and as long as we enter into that relationship honestly and openly, nobody gets hurt. But film history has also shown that effects sequences work best if we're invested in the story, or at least captivated by the situation. The origin of the Sandman in Spider-Man 3 is probably the most amazing effects sequence in the whole movie, but the amazement stems from the horrific circumstances as much as the effects themselves.

If audiences don't have even a rudimentary interest in the characters, the setting and the situation, all the neat effects in the world won't push a film to profitability. That's the difference between Spider-Man 3 and, say, Ultraviolet. And that may partly explain why King Kong was a relative box office disappointment—the shocking turn of events that first got a lot of media pundits wondering whether blockbuster filmmaking was becoming financially unviable.

The thing is though, while the sky may soon fall for the blockbuster, I don't think this is the summer it's going to happen. If anything, looking down the list of sequels and potential crowd-pleasers, I'm seeing a summer that's either going to revive the old-school blockbuster filmmaking model, or serve as its last hurrah.

I'll talk more about this "North Sea Bubble" effect in a minute, but first I'm curious. You were wrong—mostly wrong anyway—about Spider-Man 3, and your other big example of outsized cost compared to potential return is Evan Almighty. What else have you pegged as a disaster waiting to happen? I have my own list, but I'd like to hear yours first.

Scott: I'm more than a little embarrassed that Spider-Man 3 was that huge a success on its opening weekend; clearly, my skills as a box-office prognosticator are roughly equivalent to my skills as a nuclear technician. My argument, for those who missed the blog post, was this:

1. Spider-Man 3 isn't a particularly good film relative to the first two and stands to disappoint fans with its misshapen bloat.

2. The film cost somewhere between $250-$300 million to make, and when you factor in marketing and distribution costs, was starting its life about half a billion in the hole.

3. It only has two weeks to recoup the bulk of that half billion before Shrek The Third and Pirates Of The Carribbean The Third come along to claim its market share. Of course, now that it's raked in $227 million worldwide in one weekend, my feeling that Spider-Man 3 would serve as a cautionary tale for Hollywood spend-o-crats was rendered pretty much moot.

Of course, what I failed to consider was the built-in audience for sequels. When you think of the colossal failures of blockbuster past, they've usually been original films that arrived on a wave of bad buzz: Cutthroat Island, Waterworld, Wild Wild West. Audiences had nothing invested in the characters in these films, so they had to be sold on the idea of seeing them, which of course is a far greater marketing challenge than repeating a successful formula with only slight modifications. Truth be told, Tobey Maguire could have shit in a bag for two hours and Spider-Man 3 would have still made $200 million on opening weekend. Having a summer this choked with sequels doesn't stimulate me too much as a moviegoer, but the rationale of making them can't really be questioned, because studios don't have to sweat over generating a new audience for their expensive investment.

Still, I don't think my prediction was all that irrational and I believe pretty firmly that the Blockbuster Era may be reaching a crisis point. Last summer's box-office boon was considered salvation for Hollywood, which had in previous summers seen much of its audience siphoned off as the cost of movie tickets and the availability of high-quality formats like DVD had convinced many to stay at home. To say that's somehow changed on the strength of one summer—and probably two, given the can't-miss quality of much of this year's crop—is like saying an especially bitter winter in Chicago is evidence that global warming isn't a problem. While production costs continue to escalate, the audience for movies (at least in theaters) will continue to diminish, and these trends are merging into a real crisis. Is there a point at which studios will be taking maximal risk for minimal gain? And will that even force them to change their ways? Here's a cynical assessment from "Tourneur" on the blog comments for my Spider-Man 3 post:

We are in the era where no failure is big enough to change our predetermined course—corporately determined course, naturally - or to become successful. If anything, we the people will just have to adapt to liking these films, not the other way around. Same with weather... war... reality TV... Dane Cook and Jamie Kennedy... visionary music collectives from Canada... and so on.

I'm not so sure I'd lump Arcade Fire (a genuinely visionary music collective) or Jamie Kennedy (whose Kickin' It Old Skool just tanked) into the mix, but I think the point still stands with regard to how studios operate. If only the war in Iraq were going as well as Spider-Man 3, we'd have reason to "stay the course," but the summer blockbuster season does have an element of predetermination that makes you feel powerless as a viewer. Like the military-industrial complex, it's a beast that needs to be fed and it will keep on eating long after it's healthy to do so. This causes all sorts of creative problems—which I'll address later—but from a business standpoint, I'm left to wonder: If the studios ever found themselves in a quagmire over high costs and low returns, would they ever change course? After feeding gigantic corporations on nine-figure-grossing blockbusters, is it even possible to imagine a studio settling for modest spending and solid singles up the middle? I'm guessing not.

To address your question about this summer, I think the sequels will have no trouble by-and-large; I've learned my lesson on Spider-Man 3, and have no intention of learning it again with Pirates Of The Caribbean, Shrek, Ocean's 13, Live Free Or Die Hard, Fantastic Four, or The Bourne Ultimatum. Of course, Evan Almighty stands out as a probable flop in relation to its absurd $175 million budget, though its kid-friendliness and Biblical themes may well drag it out of the muck. As for other possible bombs, there has been some grumbling lately that Ratatouille—an original project with a hard-to-pronounce title and a story about a rat infiltrating the rarified world of French haute cuisine—but it's a Brad Bird/Pixar film, so how can it lose? I guess I'll have to go with Hairspray, which actually looks worse than The Producers, a more successful musical that flopped in big-screen form. I also have my doubts about The Simpsons Movie, but only because the creators have sat on the idea of a Simpsons movie for over a decade after the show reached its creative peak.

So on your list of potential disasters, Noel, are there any sequels beside Evan Almighty? Or are all the problem pictures unknown quantities? Be sure to bold in your predictions, so you'll be extra embarrassed when they don't pan out in a few months. 

Noel: Actually, I think Evan Almighty is probably a slam-dunk success. Comedy, animals, God…unless it's so sacrilegious that it has protesters camped in front of multiplexes, I see it going over well with families and church groups. I have far more doubts about Live Free Or Die Hard, a sequel that dials down the R-rated action of the earlier films to PG-13, presumably because there's nothing that that the under-17 crowd likes more than action heroes their dads think are cool.

I'm also starting to wonder about Shrek The Third. Computer animation seemed to have a built-in audience before last year, when cartoon after cartoon went into ol' tankeroo. As an established franchise, Shrek might duck the curse, but isn't in the nature of kid-dom to move onto the next snazzy thing? At a certain point, doesn't a new Shrek movie have about as much cachet as another Rugrats movie? Y'know, there's a reason why Disney releases the sequels to their classic features straight-to-DVD. They know Cinderella has brand recognition, but they don't trust that brand enough to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into a feature film that has a very definite audience ceiling.

This is why your predictions about Spider-Man 3 weren't entirely crazy, Scott. The problem with franchises is that the fees for all the participants go up while the box office—usually—doesn't. Don't be surprised if Sony takes the massive success of this movie as a sign that they can make money off Spider-Man no matter the quality of the product, which means there's no need to pony up big dough for Tobey, Kirsten and Sam next time. In the end, maybe it may be the effects and the costume that are the stars.

Other would-be blockbusters in trouble? Ocean's Thirteen, because tongue-in-cheek only carries so far, and because it's got a cast full of people that I think the public is getting kind of sick of. (Not me, though—it's one of the movies I'm most looking forward to this summer.) Ratatouille, because the subject matter's a little esoteric for a family film. (Though again, I'm stoked to see it.) Stardust, because fantasy whimsy's a hard sell, even when it's from the mind of Neil Gaiman. And finally, Rush Hour 3, because can't people already see it on TBS?

Even if any one of these movies has a decent opening, they're going to find it hard to maintain momentum with so many other big movies on their heels. Because studios really don't give each other room to breathe, do they? It would be one thing if each major only had one big film to trot out every summer, and they could stay out of each other's way. But none of them can afford to put all their eggs in one basket and hope a fickle audience doesn't upset it. So we get this weekly derby, set up with two ideas in mind: that more than half the audience will quickly forget "the biggest motion picture event of all time" in a week, and the other half, just looking for something to do on a hot summer night, will go see just about anything. The release date alone is enough to put at least 10-20 million in the bank for just about any big studio summer movie. But how long can this model—still relatively new—remain profitable? It already seems like some movies have been out forever, long before they actually get released. At what point does the crowded schedule cause audiences to forget when a movie's opening day actually is?

I've got some further thoughts on how math-based business decisions are both good and bad for us, the audience. But first I want to hear what you think is wrong with the blockbuster. What makes a good one? What makes a bad one?

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Scott: Before I get into what make a good blockbuster and what makes a bad one, I want to talk first about why a great one is rarely possible. And for that, I turn to a favorite quote that director Jonathan Nossiter made while touring with his ambitious but flawed anti-globalization drama Signs & Wonders: "You can't fall in love in a McDonalds." I think he's right, though I'd amend it slightly to say you can't fall in love in a McDonalds unless Wong Kar-wai is involved somehow. The reason, of course, is that all McDonalds are essentially the same—big, sterile, impersonal—and deliberately so, since homogeneity and mass appeal are important for brand continuity and recognition. But the moments and memories worth cherishing in life are specific and personal, and that always favors the entrée that could only come from the little Italian bistro around the corner, not the same value meal that's simultaneously being consumed in synthetic environs from Eugene to Poughkeepsie.

So it's no act of snobbery to say that blockbusters don't stand much of a chance of making my Top 10 list, because they're prepared for mass consumption and rarely bear the strong, personal stamp of a single creator. Take these two examples: Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies and Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. To my mind, these are about as good as modern-day blockbusters get, and that's owed to the fine work of both directors, who were able to corral elephantine productions while inserting a significant piece of themselves into the material. Just the thought of a nine-figure production like Spider-Man pausing for a scene in which Peter Parker visits Aunt May in the hospital (and maybe squeezes out a tear or two) makes me smile, because it's a character moment that out-of-proportion with the rest of the movie. And the moments of unbridled whimsy, not to mention the Bruce Campbell cameos, are also rare for this sort of thing. Jackson's Rings movies are more workmanlike—how can they not be given so much terrain to cover?—but his willingness to embrace Tolkien's fantasy without a trace of irony or "hipness" is a risk that paid dividends and is reflective of his taste as a filmmaker.

All that said, however, how many Raimi fans prefer the Spider-Man movies to Evil Dead 2? And how many Jackson fans like Lord Of The Rings more than Heavenly Creatures? Both of these filmmakers began as sandlot fantasists, and it's that go-for-broke, homemade touch that makes their earlier work seem so much more inspired and tactile than their studio films. I try not to be that big an auteurist, but I tend to favor blockbuster directors who are capable of managing enormous productions while still having a forceful enough vision to shine through. Historically, no one has done that better than Steven Spielberg, who virtually pioneered the modern blockbuster with Jaws and has made several truly great films—E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and A.I., to name a few—in this format. But Spielberg's a bit of an anomaly, an uncannily gifted filmmaker who's also a true populist in the Capra mode, and instinctually wants to appeal to the masses. I don't think anyone has Spielberg's talent for making blockbusters, but there are a handful of names that get me excited: Pixar's John Lasseter possesses the most distinct sensibility in American studio animation since Walt Disney, and Pixar recruit Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) seems like a prize pupil; Joss Whedon's terrific Serenity may have tanked and his Wonder Woman project withered in development, but he's got the chops (and the ear for snappy dialogue) to be a great popular filmmaker; and I'd like to see Guillermo Del Toro take another shot at Hollywood blockbusters after Pan's Labyrinth, given the stylish work he did on Hellboy and Blade 2.

As for what makes the bad ones bad? I submit 1998's Godzilla as Exhibit A-Z: Anonymously produced and directed, willfully compromised in its attempt to appeal to the broadest possible audience, made with total disregard to the essence of the Godzilla myth, and pre-sold to every fast-food chain and toy manufacturer willing to participate in promotional tie-ins. It is, in a word, product. And as a moviegoer, being presented with "product" doesn't exactly fill me with goodwill, since the bottom line in my critical ledger is entertainment, not how well what I'm seeing might perform in Malaysia and other crucial overseas markets. As for other bad blockbusters, there are just too many to name, since overproduced, pandering behemoths are generally par for the course. (Okay, I'll give you a hint on one: It rhymes with "dreck.")

I usually enter the summer blockbuster season excited and optimistic, and leave it feeling drained and undernourished, because the sum total of all that effort and expense amounts to precious little. I honestly enjoy the ritual of seeing these summer movies in a theater with popcorn just like everybody else, but don't you find that fatigue sets in after a couple of months? I know it's a clichéd expression, but aren't these movies just empty calories?

Noel: Maybe. But keep in mind that you're talking to a guy who probably could "fall in love in a McDonalds." I think we Americans get too embarrassed sometimes about the cultural trappings that define us, from the strip malls to the theme parks. A well-balanced aesthetic diet makes room for art, pop, and all the gradations between, and a well-balanced cultural diet should be able to appreciate an actual forest and the little landscaped troughs and islands surrounding your corner fast food joint.

And remember this: even though a Big Mac never changes, you change. The McDonalds you've known, in all the places you've lived and visited, are transformed by your memories of who you were then, and what you were doing with your life that either led you to darken that McDonalds door or to drive on by it, nose in the air. The same is true with blockbusters. Godzilla was awful from an aesthetic perspective, but from a cultural perspective, it stands as a monument to what the Hollywood excess of 1998 looked like. We can still study it, even if we don't enjoy it, exactly.

Because here's the thing: You can't have a Spielberg unless you have several dudes with spreadsheets, crunching numbers and reducing art to an equation. What's great about Spielberg is that he's learned how to work the system to his advantage, delivering commercially saleable properties that also display his fascinations with certain kinds of human behavior. There's always going to be some here-today-gone-tomorrow Hollywood yahoo who thinks that if a frozen pizza cooks for ten minutes at 400 degrees, it'll cook just as well for one minute at 4000 degrees. But there are also going to be those who think that the most important line item in the budget is the director's salary, and who'll trust the ones who've made them money before to make them money again.

Yes, I enter blockbuster season every year with the same enthusiasm you do, and walk away a little exhausted. But I think I enjoy the whole experience more than you do, because I'm always looking for that little bit of kink that a smart director can bring to a property that sold on formula alone. Even some of last summer's "letdowns," like Superman Returns and Poseidon, had moments of real tension and/or poetry, and I remain convinced that The Break-Up, for all its flaws, had a sensibility unlike any other, which isn't always easy to pull off.

In some ways, it's a miracle that any movie exists, given how pricey they are to make and how many people have to say "yes" along the way. These big comedy and action behemoths may be less miraculous, because they represent the kind of "pick the low-hanging fruit" mentality prevalent in corporate America. But it's important to engage with that mentality too. It's all a part of the world we live in. And let's face it: if that low-hanging fruit doesn't get picked, it'll fall to the ground and rot. (Though some might argue that it's rotten already.)

Ultimately, I think that while we may agree that the cost-to-benefit ratio may soon sink the blockbuster as we know it, we're probably of two minds about whether that's a good thing or not. I want to keep the spectacles coming, reliably confined to the months of May, June and July. I get the feeling that you'd miss them if they were gone, but you wouldn't weep.

Scott: I get what you mean about the importance of a well-balanced cinematic diet, but unless you're talking about the Atkins Diet, that's not what we're getting. Because after awhile, choking down one sweaty meat patty after another makes you feel a little sick. Given your oft-professed affection for fast food, I had a feeling my McDonalds metaphor wouldn't fly, but I still stand by it. When you say, "even though a Big Mac never changes, you change," I can see how that might apply to your memories and the power of your own imagination to convert the homogenous into something special. But keep in mind, the movies are the Big Macs here and it becomes a struggle to eke substance out of the experience. You might be able to glom onto certain moments in films like Superman Returns and Poseidon—the former, especially, features some strikingly ironic images—but even if these films were perfectly flame-broiled, could you really fall in love with them? I don't think so. Fast-food restaurants are about stepping up the trough like everybody else, swiftly consuming your meal, and forgetting about it the second you leave the place. Like I said, I think the metaphor plays.

It's here I should probably make a disclaimer, because I feel like I've been disproportionately harsh on the blockbuster and perhaps not true to my real feelings, which are more ambivalent than hostile. Spectacles are an irresistible part of what the movies are all about, and that's been true since their inception, when films were exhibited throughout the country like a traveling circus. I would miss them if they were gone, because after all, man cannot live on wine alone. Every summer, there are always a handful of blockbusters that justify the form, and deliver the sort of experience that you can't get from high-toned art films, which rarely have an interest in genre, much less spectacle. While I expect the bubble to burst on blockbusters as we currently know them, escapism of that sort won't ever go away and I don't wish it to.

All that said, the season of spectacles may be confined to the months of May, June, and July, but the blockbuster mentality persists 365 days a year and that can get pretty insidious. As I mentioned before, with the likes of Spider-Man and other "tentpole" franchises on the docket, studios would rather bet the farm on high-risk/high-reward prospects than collect the dividends from a dozen minor hits made possible by prudent spending and modest expectations. (They're giant corporations, after all, and what's a few million dollars profit to the likes of Sony, anyway?) This isn't the best example, since it was a standard studio dump job, but it was absurd to watch Lucky You come out on the same weekend as Spider-Man 3; even if it were impeccably executed, like Wonder Boys from the same director, it would seem hopelessly out of its element, doomed to be dwarfed by movies that are too big to care much about the human condition. Studios still make a few movies a year like it, mostly to get bestowed with a certain amount of prestige during awards season, but character-driven dramas are more often than not the province of boutique arms like Fox Searchlight or Warner Independent, or genuine independents. In this climate, a solid, no-frills docudrama like Shattered Glass—which in the past would have been produced and released nationwide by a major studio—now becomes an arthouse movie.

I was disheartened by the sentiments of some A.V. Club comment-boards regulars who said they'd only open up their wallets for effects-driven spectacles like Spider-Man 3 because other types of movies would play just as well on DVD. To a large extent, I blame the independent movie scene—specifically, its hasty embrace of digital video—for degrading the value of film as a photographic medium. If filmmakers don't care a whit about the quality of their images, then viewers are correct in believing they can just as easily watch a movie on television without losing anything. Now, I don't wish to open up the small-screen/big-screen can of worms again, because we've been down that road before in another Crosstalk, but it's a sad side effect of the blockbuster mentality that other types of films are being dismissed as inessential theatrical experiences.

I leave you with another favorite quote, this one from a scene in Bull Durham in which veteran catcher Kevin Costner gives some advice to the young speedballer played by Tim Robbins: "Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring, and besides that they're fascist. Throw some ground balls. They're more democratic." In this scenario, think of the studios as Roger Clemens. And even if you don't hate Roger Clemens, you certainly don't wish to see the fucker pitch every night, do you?