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RIP: The Hollywood Summer Blockbuster, 1970-2012


Hollywood has had a dismal summer. The bad news started coming out in late July, but there were a few still-to-come movies with promise of softening the stats. Alas, they did not. Jim and I took the kids to see one of those flicks on opening Friday night. (Does it matter which one? I hardly remember it.) Jim got tickets online early, in case our preferred 7 o’clock-hour show sold out, and we arrived early to get good seats. We needn’t have bothered. If our foursome made three dozen in the theater, I’d be surprised.

I doubt few besides Hollywood are surprised by the Hollywood bummer summer. Last May, the Wall Street Journal published an unintentionally prophetic article that concluded:

The tidal wave of expensive movies this year is part of a year’s long shift by studios to put more resources into ‘event’ films that perform best with diverse audiences around the world. Foreign moviegoers accounted for 69% of box office last year. Summer was originally viewed as the best time to open big-budget films because schools are out, but now as studios try to boost ticket sales, would-be ‘summer blockbusters’ arrive weeks before Memorial Day.

There are also idiosyncratic reasons for this summer’s busier slate. In 2012, Warner Bros.’ ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ and Paramount’s ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation,’ both scheduled to come out in June, were delayed to March 2013. This year, ‘The Great Gatsby’ (Warner Bros.), ‘World War Z,’ and ‘Elysium’ (Sony Pictures) were pushed back to May, June and August, respectively.

Despite the risks, Hollywood is hoping more films will generate good news all around. Research has shown the more frequently people go to the multiplex, the more likely they’ll return. ‘Moviegoing is a habit,’ said Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., whose ‘Turbo’ comes out in July. ‘When people see good movies, they like to see more good movies.’

Readers might note that none of the mentioned movies performed well. Shifting the release dates around to get more foreign buzz obviously didn’t help—because it’s not the dates or the event nature of movie-going. Besides, that whole “event film” idea is a fudge. Movie-going hasn’t been an event for decades. From a report on Hollywood’s misadventures in movie measurement:

Hollywood gave up counting the success of movies based on ticket sales a long time ago, because the numbers were an embarrassment. In 1946, the number of movie tickets sold was three times larger than it is today despite the fact that the population has doubled and added two additional states.

Katzenberg was right, though: people do want to see more good movies when they see a good movie. The problem is that Hollywood has no idea what a good movie is anymore. Hollywood simply assumes it is producing good movies. They have missed that for a while now. We’ve been going to the movies merely hoping to see a good one. Lately, we’ve just given up hope.

‘The Avengers’: The Last Blockbuster

If Hollywood wants us back in the theaters for blockbuster summers, they might want to study the last blockbuster. There are only four adjusted-for-inflation-but-not-astronomical-ticket-costs blockbusters on the top 100 list since that WSJ article. Two “Hunger Games” installments at Nos. 93 and 94, “The Dark Knight Rises” at No. 63, and “The Avengers” at No. 27. If we adjust for ticket cost, “The Hunger Games” wouldn’t make the list. “The Dark Knight Rises” might—adjusting for effect of ticket cost and inflation requires some assumptions. “The Avengers” is the last blockbuster.

We don’t care if the story is literal; we care if it is true.

I prefer “Batman,” but I was never a Marvel junkie, and I like the law and justice themes in “Batman.” That said, I loved “The Avengers.” I hadn’t heard that much laughter in a movie, even a comedy, in years. Joss Whedon managed to weave together half a dozen story lines in a not only coherent, but also dynamic story loaded with humor. He had story fluency, which is essential since Hollywood is out of ideas and relying almost exclusively on book or comic-book-to-movie adaptions or remakes.

If you are writing your own story, obviously you can choose all characters, and setting rules. If you are writing fan fiction (and Whedon’s “Avengers” and all adaptions are essentially professional fan fiction), then you are limited by the setting and characters already provided.

Remember the scene in “Inglorious Basterds” in which the characters are having drinks in a bar? One guy is an English spy who gives himself away by the way he asks for three more pints; he uses the English gesture, which tips the Germans off that he is a spy. When Hollywood hires mere technical skill to foster an adaption, the fans all notice the wrong gestures. These talented directors and screenwriters usually assume they weren’t literal-enough in their adaption. But, tip from a longtime fangirl: We don’t care if the story is literal; we care if it is true.

Whedon is a Marvel fan. He grew up on this stuff. He got his job when they came to him for advice on the story they had at the time. They liked his ‘I would have gone in this direction’ ideas so much that they hired him to write the movie. Add the care and skill Whedon had honed over many years of hits and misses, and he successfully joined all of the elements into a cohesive and artistic whole.

Writers No Longer Believe in Human Nature

Compare “The Avengers” against the terrible “Twilight” movies, where the screenplays were penned by a woman who has difficulty comprehending the ideals of the hero and heroine; the lukewarm fan reception to “Prince Caspian,” which was penned and directed by professionals worried about the story’s religious basis (at least they learned the lesson for “Dawn Treader,” but then it was just to literally transpose Lewis’s dialogue to screen); or the inexplicable omission in “Order of the Phoenix” of perhaps the central theme of the Harry Potter stories. All were successes, but they fell off in successive weekends due to bad or lukewarm buzz because they got the story wrong. “Superman,” the latest “Star Trek” installment, “Ender’s Game”—is there a franchise in which the movie adaption got the story right?

If the author strays too far from the archetype, then his character loses the power to propel the story forward.

Authors, screenwriters, and Hollywood powers that be, they don’t understand stories anymore. They’ve forgotten how to write them. They often start with a good premise, but then bend the story to be relevant to what they suppose a modern audience wants or to tell a modern morality tale as they believe morality to be.

They’ve forgotten how to write characters, as well. Myth stories are powerful because they use archetypes: the hero, the rebel, the rogue with a heart of gold. These reflect elements of human nature. If the author strays too far from the archetype, then his character loses the power to propel the story forward. Interviews with good writers often refer to the author having one plan for the character and the character having another. Good authors let the character win. But in Hollywood, the characters bend.

The liberalism of Hollywood provides another layer on all this bad storytelling. Liberals don’t merely dislike conservatives, they don’t understand them. Little wonder, then, that conservatives have grown almost numb to Hollywood presenting crude caricatures of us and absurd simplifications of conservative thought. One cannot write what one doesn’t understand. And audiences don’t want to pay for insults.

Hollywood needs to start hiring writing and directing talent who actually understand and love the stories placed in their care.

Skilled direction and a formula for action and special effects won’t get the job done. A good story can cover for poor direction, but flawless direction cannot salvage a poor story. Hollywood needs to start hiring writing and directing talent who actually understand—and dare I hope, love—the stories placed in their care. Then we might see a movie revival.

It’s not coming anytime soon, based on the previews from the summer movies most of us didn’t see. The preview that quickly caught my attention was for a TV show that I can’t believe got through production. Anyone heard of “Black-ish? Think “Undercover Brother” made for TV. The most notable movie previews were for “The Judge,” which I will go see, and “Mordecai,” for which I will just note the release date so I can look for the reviews from the United Kingdom. From the preview, it looks like a movie with American actors, including Gwyneth Paltrow, pretending to be Brits and mocking the British upper class. Yeah, that will go over well.