With sequels, threequels and movies based on cherished childhood properties ruling the box office, Hollywood is falling back on the trusty apologia that it's merely catering to the public's predetermined tastes.
"The marketplace decides," Tom Ortenberg, president of theatrical films at Lionsgate, told the Associated Press (in advance of his own studio's upcoming franchise releases Saw IV and John Rambo). "If the marketplace is there to support it, you find a way to get it done."
This, quite demonstrably, is utter horse hockey. No more passive and reactive than any other multinational concern, the movie industry is perpetually engaged in an aggressive effort to create a market favorable to its aims. In the book Global Hollywood 2 (the University of California Press), a team of researchers shows how the big, U.S.-based studios exploit post-Clintonian economic structures to exert a stranglehold over international distribution and exhibition, and to secure cheap labor and locations. On the creative front, that same deck-stacking impulse governs every aspect of a studio's operations, from the careful cultivation of franchises with maximum cross-merchandising potential to the carpet-bombing of multiplexes with another preordained and inescapable "hit" every weekend. You and I don't get the movies we want; we bankroll the movies we're led to.
Yeah, so what else is new? Complaints about the homogenizing effect of saturation releases and "gotta-see" marketing date all the way back to the 1975 launch of Jaws. But as The New York Times recently pointed out, a lunatic critical mass has obviously been reached when a film like Transformers is classified as an "original property" merely because its closest cinematic precedent is an animated opus from 1986. Even the traditional idea that smaller pictures can provide effective counterprogramming to the blockbusters has largely fallen by the wayside. "I have a feeling not everybody is going to want to swing with Spidey," director Curtis Hanson foretold, more hopefully than accurately, right before his much-delayed Lucky You was pushed under the bus of Spider-Man 3's record-breaking opening weekend — which just happened to have been bought and paid for with an avalanche of hype.
A few days before that massacre took place, I heard Spider-Man 3 producer Grant Curtis tell a rapt audience that his partners' major motivation in crafting the film had been their disappointment with the box-office returns of its predecessor, which had earned an apparently unforgivable $30 million less than Spider-Man's phenomenal $404 million domestic return. To get their cash cow's mojo back, he said, they had decreed that Episode Three would have to be "new and different."
As the world now knows, in this case, "new and different" meant "more and lousy." But the film did provide a clear lesson in the industry's unprecedented readiness to throw as many different colors of crap as possible at the theater wall and see what sticks. A few years ago, studios were congratulating themselves on their ability to cut multiple trailers that could sell the same movie as a romance, an action epic or even a musical. Now they've realized that it's easier to make the movie itself every one of those things, affording plenty of commercial-ready footage that needs no tricky recontextualization.
Here's the dirty little secret: None of it is actually working. As of this writing, only one of this summer's high-profile franchises — the Die Hard series — had performed decisively better than it did in its last turn at bat. (The Bourne Ultimatum is too new to judge.) Factor in increased ticket prices, and the draw of summer films remains on an essentially downward spiral.
So perhaps it's time for the industry to radically alter its expectations and/or methodology? Yeah, and maybe that cute little monkey will fly out of Captain Jack Sparrow's butt. This is Hollywood we're talking about, where the governing philosophy states that, when one finds oneself stuck in a hole, the wisest thing to do is keep digging and tell the neighbors it's a koi pond. It's easier to change the definition of success than to honestly attain it, which is why we now have an absurdly specific set of records to be shattered ("Best Non-Holiday Wednesday Opening for a Non-Sequel With a Title Starting in Y"), and a spin machine that calls victory whenever a movie's take drops less than 50 percent in its second weekend. It's like the world's least competitive summer camp, where everybody gets a medal just for showing up.
Given that commitment to unreality, it's easy to guess what we can expect in summers to come: more and lousier! More fiercely battling toys. More tap-dancing superheroes. More "trilogies" that magically become open-ended series as soon as the (cooked) first-weekend figures come in. More stunt casting and obtrusive celebrity cameos. More obnoxious, supposedly ironic product placement. More of everything — except quality or variety.
But when the tide of effluvia rises so high you're gasping for air, at least you'll be spared any pangs of guilt. No matter what the suits try to tell you, you'll know you didn't ask for firstname.lastname@example.org