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What the Hell Happened to Good Movies?

transformers

Yesterday, Jeff the Wild Man posted a thoughtful article asking the timely question “Why Must Blockbusters Be Dumb?”  Jeff made several good points about the ways in which the summer blockbuster has come to dominate Hollywood’s release schedule year-round.  I actually have quite a bit to say on the subject, so I decided to post an article as my response rather than limit my thoughts to the comments section.

jaws

Conventional wisdom has it that Jaws and Star Wars are to blame for our current state of affairs.  While these movies are great, they do shoulder their share of the blame.  To fully understand why, you need to go back and look at the cinematic landscape PJ (pre-Jaws).  Prior to 1975, the summer movie season as we know it did not exist.  It was a dumping ground for B-movies.  The studios released movies that were made for this kids on the cheap.

Today, Jaws as seen as a masterpiece.  But before it was released, it was viewed as just another monster movie.  Spielberg was just a kid who hadn’t had a hit movie yet.  His movie was over-budget and he was worried he would never work again.  It was not an unfounded concern.  The Hollywood press was filled with stories about the shark not working and how the young director was in over his head.  Before the movie was released, Richard Dreyfus gave interviews distancing himself from the movie and blaming the studio for its failure.

Against all odds, Spielberg made a tight entertainment machine.  The crowd-pleasing shark movie exceeded any reasonable expectations.  It was the first movie ever to gross over $100 million dollars.  Hollywood took notice.  The message was this: There is big money to be made in the summer.  The summer blockbuster was born.

Next: Star Wars

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Posted on March 3, 2014, in Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. It appears to me that the movie industry is a reflection of the personality of our country. The morales, the socio-economic conditions, and the well being of the middle class is restated, highlighted and enhanced by the stories we tell about ourselves. The capitalistic pressures that drive the economy also drive the movie industry. The result is a similarity in the highs and lows of the middle class and the movies they watch. Just as people love to talk about theirselves, so does the middle class loves to watch stories about itself. As the economy becomes more and more frenzied so do the movies. As critical thinking and common sense is overlooked in the pursuit of short term profits, so it shows up in the content and quality of the scripts. “Suspension of Disbelief” as stated in Hitchcock’s time has transmuted to “Leave Your Brain at the Door.” Content is replaced with fluff, and reasoning is replaced with mindless drivel. It sure looks good on the surface but it is a reflection of the expectations and educational level of the viewing audience. It is same with our economy. It looks good on the surface, but the underlying fundamentals are all screwed up.

    In the end it becomes a process of selection. A careful well scripted movie will attract similarly minded people; a mindless action movie will attract a mindless audience. Where is the most money?

    The problem is that I love to go to the movies, for the event, not necessarily for the movie. The result is that I see most of the movies that come to town; the good and the bad. So I represent the best of the capitalist system. The mindless robot that pays money for both good and bad movies based mostly on the times they start, not their content…

    And can I have that box of candy and the super sized coke too?

    Brad Deal

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  2. Much to think about in this article. Love the Star Wars poster btw. We sure didn’t know in the 70s that Star Wars was a groundbreaking event in the history of movie development – we just knew it was awesome. Boys named their bikes after the Millenium Falcon and we girls wanted to marry either Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford. (Either one would have been just fine).
    Even when Jedi came out, and our high school age group were now college students, we couldn’t run to the box office fast enough. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia factor, where it doesn’t feel the same any more…that, leap-to-your-feet-and-run-down-the-street level of euphoria at seeing a really good movie on the big screen.
    unrelated: I understand if time doesn’t permit, but if it does, I’d love to read the LeBloggers’ Oscar Night debrief. What do you agree with… or disagree? what was a surprise, or not? Favorite moments? (I loved Bill Murry’s non-teleprompter adlib honoring Harold Ramis)
    Blog on!!

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    • RB, we really should be friends on Facebook. Daffy and I traded notes on social media last night.

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      • OK, let me think on it. I’m always one step away from cancelling my FB account. Actually let me sleep on it. I stayed up too late on Oscars night and could barely stay awake through morning meetings 🙂

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        • Tell me about it!

          Daffy had way more to say on the subject of the Oscars. I continue not taking them seriously. Having not seen any of the nominees, I couldn’t provide much by way of useful insight.

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  3. We’re also hitting up against the limits of what the theaters can do to provide an experience beyond what our TV and home theaters can offer. The next big jump will be immersive virtual reality, at first with goggles or helmets, then laser- driven holographic images that fill the theater. Technology has always been the edge that brings people to the theater: first just the sight of moving images, then big screens, then air-conditioning, then color movies, and so on. We’re becoming bored with all the special effects, especially the millenials and Generation Z movie goers who grew up with as good or better on their Playstations and Xboxes.

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    • You raise a good point. I touched on this a little, but there’s no doubt the movie biz is hurting as home theaters improve. Most people go to the movies for spectacle and watch the good stuff at home. I want to see my ‘splosions in Imax. I can watch Woody Allen in my living room. Well, not literally. I mean, I don’t actually want Woody Allen in my house. I’m talking about his movies, obviously.

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      • LOL at that comment Lebeau 🙂 And.. I’ve been thinking a bit on this discussion. Technology, while being an undeniable gamechanger, doesn’t ever really change the game completely, IMHO. We still show up to see movies at the theatre, we still show up to see plays. We still get excited about the arts. I was pretty well thrilled that after some budget cutting at our elementary school wiped out the field trips to local music or arts performances, now that my daughter is in middle school there are several field trips that are funded. Last week they attended a modern dance performance at a local venue. Mind you it didn’t sound like something 6th graders would necessarily be thrilled by. Didn’t matter – it was the experience of going to the venue, not having any electronic devices, and watching the live dance. So my daughter said, “I was supposed to like it… but I didn’t” and I said well there is no “supposed to” in fact that’s the beginning of conversation about the arts… it’s, why didn’t you like it or not like it. As opposed to something electronic telling you how to think, feel and react every second a kid is looking at the screen.

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        • It’s true. The Hollywood studios thought TV would spell certain doom for the movies. Walt Disney was actually one of the few studio heads to see the potential for TV to compliment the movies. It changed the game, but didn’t kill it. The movie industry continues to change – often times for the worst – but I don’t think it’s in any danger of dying out.

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        • TV did kill the B movie – but it took about 20 years- and arguably the rise of cable.

          What is disturbing now is the death of the adult movie- sure- we get Oscar bait like 12 Years a Slave- but after that it gets thin for anyone who has a mortgage or a 401K.

          I like the blockbuster- but if that and the cliched romcom is all we get- it will be a sad era.

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        • No doubt TV and home video have changed the movie biz. In many ways, for the worse. Hollywood’s offerings are getting less varied. Everything has to be PG-13 and cost $100 million. It is a sad era.

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  4. I’ve just discovered this blog. Let me just say this – but not Keanu-style: whoa!

    As for this topic, very sorry to add my $0.2 so late. But I think there’s another factor here which both yours and Jeff’s post haven’t touched upon: the increasing importance of overseas markets in the overall grosses.

    Until the early 2000’s, the studios would have a structured release window for their blockbusters – re: release first in America, then gradually drop the movie overseas, almost on a case-by-case basis. This structured strategy meant that domestic grosses would almost become the be all and end all for American movies, and blockbusters in particular. International releases would be either seen as almost an afterthought (as bottom line would already be achieved) or as a way to offset any bigger damages.

    That all changed from the early 2000’s onward. Up until that point, local distributors in international markets were essentially still locally-owned. Their business model would consist on buying distribution rights from studios for an X amount of time and then hold almost absolute power over what foreign product would be granted local release. But then, big Hollywood studios had the smart (from their vantage point of view) idea of actually buying stakes in those distribution companies, basically becoming strategic partners in them – some would say they even made franchises out of them! This new model made the structured release window essentially moot. Big La La Land flicks would start almost simultaneously at both home and abroad.

    And there is also another factor: the economy. While America (and pretty much the Western World and Japan) started slipping on that respect, the BRICS (re: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) were (and still are) emerging. These were countries which, for a while, were pretty much secondary to Hollywood’s bread and butter. But their economic growth also meant growing demand for movie entertainment. If you consult a website like Box Office Mojo, you’ll certainly see these countries referred to as key markets.

    So what does this have to do with the topic at hand? Simple: forced by the circumstances, Hollywood has had to take international appeal more seriously. And what is more global than movies where concept and visual spectacle pretty much trump everything else: screenplay, plot, character development, even any underlying “message”? That’s why stuff like endless sequels and/or remakes, comic book/video game adaptations or airport literature fare are so successful. They speak to a broad section of the World. They don’t require lots of context and/or a certain kind of expert knowledge on the matter. Or as I once heard: explosions don’t need translation.

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    • Hey! Welcome aboard! I’m glad you found us. You’re clearly a like-minded movie fan. I hope you’ll stick around. And don’t worry about commenting on an article late. We have ongoing conversations in the comments sections that last for years.

      International markets are definitely increasingly important. That’s the way things are going. In the 20th century, international grosses were usually extra income of a safety net for a movie that failed. There were cheapo action movies that counted on worldwide grosses, but most movies were created solely with US audiences in mind. Today, that is no longer the case. Studios are actively thinking about what will play in China before one frame of film is shot. It’s a different world.

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      • Actually, cheapo action movies stopped relying on foreign box office receipts much sooner than blockbusters started relying much more on them. Smaller foreign film distributors (which were those who mainly handled that kind of low budget fare) were already feeling the pinch from the growth of home video by the late 80’s. And you could say that once Cannon went down the tubes by the early 90’s, it was pretty much the death knell for the theatrical B actioneer, given that Cannon either directly controlled or had strong relationships with those smaller overseas distribution companies. So as their last lifeline (Cannon) went, so did those smaller distribution companies. Pretty much the only ones that survived were the ones already involved with the home video market.

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