All Quiet on the Hollywood Front

Los Angeles Theatre - c. 1931The Oscar battle of 2006 is a distant memory. The victors have already counted the spoils (I can still see Marty standing up there on that stage though, finally clutching the little gold man), leaving the losers to cart the bodies of Eddie Murphy and Dreamgirls off the field. With the battle lines not yet drawn for 2007, the movie calendar is seemingly a no man’s land of rejects and studio castoffs. Sure, there have been a few surprise hits (300 and, inexplicably, Wild Hogs) to balance the box office duds (Zodiac and Grindhouse), but as Hollywood catches its breath, all is calm. Don’t let the stillness fool you though. The Summer Blockbuster season is nearly upon us.

For the next 3 1/2 months or so, every week or two will be met with one detonation after another as the studios bring out their big guns in this year’s fight for Top of the Box Office. The cinema landscape will soon be riddled with smoking craters strewn with the carcasses of the smaller films that didn’t have the good sense to duck and cover or just get the hell out of the way. Each concussion will suck the very air out of the cineplex and only the strongest or the luckiest will remain standing.

The opening salvo will be launched May 4 with Spider-Man 3. On May 18, Shrek the Third will hit followed on May 25 by Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The first body count will be tallied up around Memorial Day followed by a brief lull in the action before things start up again with Ocean’s Thirteen on June 8. That’s 4 threequels in a row for those of you keeping score at home. A week later, it’s hand-to-hand combat as we’re pummeled by Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer on June 15; Evan Almighty on June 22; Live Free or Die Hard on June 27 and Ratatouille on June 29. If anyone is actually still breathing or even conscious after this one-two-three-four punch, Transformers will go off on the 4th of July (a crushing blow to the groin if there ever was one) followed July 13 by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The last assault begins July 27 with The Simpsons Movie followed by The Bourne Ultimatum on August 3 with Rush Hour 3 left to pick up the pieces on August 10.

A numbing array of diversions to satisfy all but the most hard core of meth-heads to be sure, but what are we really looking at here? Of the 13 films I just listed, 10 of them are sequels. Of the remaining three, one (The Simpsons Movie) is based on a long running TV cartoon and the other (Transformers) is based on some glorified 30 minute animated Hasbro toy ads from the 80s about alien robots that inexplicably transform into assorted trucks, automobiles and airplanes and spend their free time knocking the crap out of each other. Why? I haven’t a fucking clue. This may have had a perfect logic when I was 14 and had not yet known the touch of a woman, but now I get a Michael Bay sized migraine just thinking about it.

That leaves one potential summer blockbuster that is neither a sequel nor inspired by another property: Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille, the animated story of a Parisian rat who dreams of being a chef in his favorite 5-star restaurant.


It sounds like a charming story, but not surprisingly the geniuses at Disney are scratching their mouse-eared heads over how to sell the thing to you the viewer.  Apparently, the marketing stooges who run things have a pretty low opinion of their audience because they can’t imagine you’ll show up for a movie that doesn’t have a Roman numeral following the title or isn’t based on a TV show.  They think you need extra convincing.  This is what happens when your mission directive is to always cater to the lowest common denominator.  It’s been so long since some of these people have had an original idea, they haven’t a clue what to do with one when it’s tossed into their laps.  This is particularly sad coming from Disney, a company built in the spirit of originality, innovation and, goddamnit, showing the people something they hadn’t seen before.

Now Hollywood is content to take refuge in the familiar.  It’s not just contentment, it’s a fucking business model.  So much is riding on these enormously expensive tent pole films, it’s too dangerous and costly to take a chance on something new.   Though Sony denies it, Kim Masters of Radar Magazine reports that Spider-Man 3 will cost $350 million thus making it the most expensive movie ever made… for now.  By way of illustration, if you took 350 million one dollar bills and lined them up end to end… you’d have a line… 350 million dollars long.  That’s a long goddamn line, let me tell you.

Who in Hollywood has the stones to cough up that kind of money on an untested commodity?  No one apparently and maybe that’s the smart play.  Movie history is littered with expensive duds that weren’t sequels:  Final Fantasy (2001), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) and The Island (2005) to name three just from this century.   It’s probably easier and safer to take a property with built-in name recognition and throw it up on the screen because half of the selling job has already been done.  The risk of a proven commodity is lower and the prospects of vast profits from the toys and the Happy Meals and the cereal box tie-ins are more secure.   If the sequel somehow ends up tanking, whoever was responsible for it can shrug and point out that it worked the last time.

Who loses?  The audience loses.  You lose.  Unless you’re some kind of retard.  Sadly, with lower risk there is less chance for something exciting, original and memorable.  Sure, some of these movies will probably be pretty good and I’m even looking forward to some of them myself.  Besides Ratatouille, I’d like to see Spider-Man 3, Ocean’s 13, and The Bourne Ultimatum.  I have no doubt large numbers of people will show up en masse to see these movies and the others, but will people really enjoy themselves?  Who cares?  It’s all about the box office.  In his yearly ’20 Weeks of Summer’ column, David Poland at Movie City News is projecting that this will be a $4 billion summer with 6 films making more than $200 million and 3 of those making more than $300 million.  This is the same guy who was so sure about Dreamgirls winning the Oscar he practically had it tattooed on his ass, but if he’s correct, all 3 figures will be records.  If you took 4 billion one dollar bills and…oh  never mind, it’s a lot of money.   

What can be done about it?  Probably nothing.  As long as these battleships keep making money for the studios, they’ll keep cranking them out.  It would be interesting though to see if a couple of these things sink whether it would take the studio down with them.  Doubtful I guess.  With DVD sales and overseas markets hungry for product, it seems almost impossible to really lose money on a movie these days.

I understand Hollywood has always been about money, but didn’t it used to be a little different?  Maybe it’s just the revisionist thinking of a crank remembering the ‘good old days’, but it seems like before the studios were run by giant media conglomerates, the goal was to entertain the audience first and to let profits flow from that.   Now it’s all about the shareholders’ bottom line.  Decisions used to be made by entertainers and now they’re being made by people who don’t even like movies.

Was it that long ago when, with a few exceptions, the idea of a sequel was almost laughable?  Sure you had Godfather 2 and The Empire Strikes Back and others, but I remember sequels being fewer and farther between.  I like a fun sequel or another entry in a popular franchise as much as the next guy, but now it seems like the balance is out of whack.  Too many studios are cranking out too many movies with too few original ideas.  They don’t even have to come up with new titles if they don’t want, just slap another number at the end.  

Well, they can put a pretty dress on a crack whore but she’s still a crack whore.  You can either close your eyes and pretend you’re banging the prom queen or stay home, read a book and occasionally stand on your front porch, shaking your cane and yelling at the kids to get the hell out of your yard.

Which will you choose?


4 thoughts on “All Quiet on the Hollywood Front

  1. I hope Spidey is good, Raimi made an honest to God, unpretentious, great fucking movie (nearly a classic) with A SIMPLE PLAN, and I still believe that SPIDERMAN 2 is one of the most pure, un-self-conscious fantasies conjured by Hollywood in a long time. But I’m thinking Raimi might be too intently trying to top himself here, and the result may be a bloated re-tread, he got it right last time.

    I wish Raimi would have moved back into Scott Smith territory again with the forthcoming adaption of THE RUINS, its a terrific read, and would have brought back Raimi’s leanest, meanest instincts. The villian of that book even recalls a certain famous nature violation in Raimi’s debut.

  2. I share your skepticism that Raimi might be overreaching with Spidey 3, Chuck. I liked 1 but was actually surprised how much better 2 was. I had high hopes for 3, but in some ways it seems like a bomb waiting to happen.

    I wonder if he can return now to something on a smaller scale or if he’s forever tainted by the Summer Blockbuster.

  3. It is telling that the marketing weasels at Disney have so little faith in Pixar’s forthcoming Ratatouille that the during the teaser and the trailer, the logo flips momentarily to reveal the title spelled out phonetically.

    They may be on to something because I consider myself to be a couple rungs higher on the evolutionary ladder than most American Idol viewers yet I’ve been blissfully comfortable all this time that ratatouille was an Italian dish. Imagine my shock to learn it was French.

    OK, my shock lasted a nano-second, sure, but I guess my point is that this one is kind of a hard sell because the concept requires more than a five word sentence to get across. Two sentences really, but that is far more than the attention span of your average movie viewer in America.

    Sad. This summer will be painful to sit through. Good books, here I come.

  4. Yes I can see people bellying up to the box office all over the country saying “Four for Ratatweel please.”

    In some ways I suppose we’re getting the cinema we deserve. Hollywood is just delivering what we’ve trained it to think we want. If Poland is right and they make $4 billion (why…that’s a thousand millions…times four!), then who am I to really argue with them?

    To borrow a phrase from a box office bomb of yore: I’m not even “a drifter who found a bag of mail”, I’m just a stooge with a keyboard and a DSL connection.

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