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Thoughts on Hollywood’s lousy summer

It is the end of August, and the Labor Day holiday weekend is here. This is considered by the film industry to be the end of the summer movie season. Since Steven Spielberg invented the modern blockbuster when he made Jaws in 1975 (and due to the near-coincidental arrival of air-conditioning in most movie theatres), this has been the most important season for the Hollywood film studios. I am going to be mildly self-indulgent and give the readers of Samizdata a lengthy overview of what I think happened to Hollywood this summer, largely from a business point of view, but also from a creative point of view. This is going to be much longer than a normal Samizdata article, but I am assuming that my editors will indulge me just this once. Or maybe I shall receive what is known in Samizdata speak as an “editorial spanking”. We shall see. However, I think most of the following is quite interesting.

One sad fact is that I am in Britain, and films are usually released in this country anything from the same day as in the US to a couple of months after they are released in the US. Sometimes though it can be longer. What this means is that there are one or two big summer releases I haven’t seen. The most important of these is Finding Nemo, which is being held over until the holiday season here in the UK, despite being the highest grossing film of the summer in the US.

However, in order to explain why certain films are hits and some are not, an overview of recent year Hollywood economics is necessary. So, a little digression first.
The rules as to how you could tell a film was a hit or not remained relatively constant from about 1983, when most Americans had obtained video recorders, to the late 1990s, when most Americans obtained DVD players, when the rules changed somewhat. The rules were roughly this. A film cost a certain amount to make, known as the negative cost, which is the cost of producing the film up to the point where you have one negative of the finished product. (When people talk about the budget of a film, this is what is normally meant). There were also additional costs of duplicating, promoting, and distributing the film (Known as the “Prints and Advertising” or “P&A” budget). Of the total revenues of a film, around one quarter would come from box office in the US and Canada (known as “domestic”), another quarter from box office in the rest of the world (known as “international”) and the other half from VHS tapes, cable television, broadcast television, merchandising of film related items. (Collectively, this is all known as “ancilliary revenues”). Not all of these revenues would come back to the studio – typically half would remain in the hands of local distributors, theatre owners, television stations and the like.

This all sounds complicated, but the basic rule was this. If the domestic box office gross of a film was greater than the negative cost of the film, then the film would likely make a profit for the studio. This rule was not hard and fast – action films typically did (and do) gross significantly more internationally than they do domestically and so could make a profit even if the domestic gross was somewhat less than the negative costs. Children’s films tended to receive a larger portion of their total gross from video tape, because children like to watch the same film over and over again, and VHS thus became a sell through medium for children, whereas it was largely a rental medium for adults. Comedies grossed significantly more in the US than overseas, and typically required a domestic gross somewhat more than the negative cost to make a profit. (This is why Hollywood has focused in recent years on action movies rather than comedies). Humor is often language related, and so can lose a lot in translation. The image of the Terminator terminating does not require much translation into foreign languages. (I once was in a bar in northern Tanzania watching a video of Terminator 2 with a group of local Africans. Heaven knows what they made of it. Perhaps they thought that America was really a place where homicidal robots came back from the future. Or perhaps they didn’t).

Anyway, that was the situation until about 1997. The key point, again. To make a profit, a movie needed a domestic gross greater than its negative cost.

Around 1997, two things happened. The first was the invention of the DVD. The big change in economics that came from this is that for some reason DVDs became largely a sell-through medium rather than a rental medium. People who had not been willing to accumulate huge collections of VHS tapes suddenly were willing to accumulate huge collections of DVDs of their favourite movies. (This correspendent pleads guilty). Even though DVDs have been heavily discounted, consumers tend to spend significantly more buying a DVD than they would renting a VHS tape, and revenues of the Hollywood studios have actually been buoyant in recent years as a consequence. What this has meant is that films can now make a profit if their domestic gross is significantly less than the negative cost. An industry that was managed with discipline would have taken this fact on board, kept its costs under control, and reaped higher profits. In Hollywood, however, what has happened is that costs instead have got completely out of control. That is, the negative costs have gone up in response to this. As we shall see.

The second change was a change in attitude to the sequel. Traditionally, it has been received wisdom in the movie industry that sequels would gross around two thirds as much money as the film that preceded them. (There have of course been exceptions to this, but this is the general rule). Except in the case of sequels to extremely big hits, this has typically led to sequels being made with lower budgets than the original films, and often without the orgininal stars, director, or writer. (Think Jaws 4: the Revenge).

However, in 1997, New Line Cinema released Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery, Mike Myers’ spoof of sixties James Bond. The film grossed only $53 million at the US box office. However, the film was made on a low budget: only costing $17 million to make. (This sometimes shows if you watch the film. There is one scene in which Dr Evil gets angry with his henchmen for being unable to provide him with sharks with laser beams in their eyes with which to kill Austin Powers. The henchmen explains that since the 1960s the Endangered Species Act has made getting sharks much too hard, and that he will have to make to with ill-tempered mutant sea-bass instead. This is quite a good joke, but the original script did call for sharks with laser beams coming out of their eyes. They simply couldn’t afford them in the budget). This made the film a solid little profit maker, but not a blockbuster.

Except, when the film got to video and the very early stages of the DVD market, it was a blockbuster. People who had missed it in the cinema discovered it at home. New Line Cinema, the studio which made the film, decided to make a sequel. However, they decided to make the sequel as a much bigger film than the original. They gave it a much bigger (but still not huge) budget of $33 million and a bigger marketing campaign, and this time the film was a blockbuster, grossing $205 million in the US alone.

This particular film was followed a couple of years later by Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible II, which had a bigger budget and managed to be a considerably bigger hit than the original film, but Hollywood really noticed something different about sequels in the summer of 2001. Two sequels in particular were enough to confirm a trend in Hollywood’s eyes. Firstly, Rush Hour 2 starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, and American Pie 2, starring lots of people. The originals grossed $141 million and $101 million and the sequels $226 million and $141 million respectively. The message seemed to be clear. Something had changed. If a sequel was well marketed and made with high production values, it could gross maybe 50% more than the original. In such cases, sequels cost a lot more than the original to make, due mainly to the fact that everyone involved in the first movie would insist on being paid a lot more for the second, but if they genuinely could gross this much more, it didn’t matter much.

Before I get on to this year’s movies, one more issue needs to be mentioned. Hollywood studios are now almost all owned by large conglomerates with interests in all sorts of media businesses. In recent years, they have been attempting to produce as many movies as possible based on other “properties” owned by the same company: video games, old television series, comic books, you name it. In most of the 1990s, these efforts weren’t generally successful. Movies of video games were generally a disaster, movies based on television series were hightly variable, and although Warners had a hit with “Batman”, they managed to comprehensively screw things up through a couple of really dreadful sequels (by which I mean the two Joel Schumacher directed films: Batman Forever and Batman and Robin).

However, in the last few years, comic book films have come back to prominence. X-Men was a big hit for 20th Century Fox, and Spiderman an even bigger one for Sony. And as far as material from other media were concerned, two other films had an impact on what Hollywood thought. The first of these was the feature film of Charlie’s Angels, which came out in late 2000. This was a big budget adaptation of the bad but in some ways fondly remembered 1970s television series, containing three glamorous and scantily clothed actresses. Apart from that, though, the movie was pretty dreadful. And yet, somehow it was a hit. The second of these was the film adaptation of the Lara Croft, Tomb Raider video games. Again this film contained an attractive lead actress (although wearing a few more clothes), and in this case the film itself was even worse. But once again, the film was a hit. In a way, Hollywood was quite heartened by the fact that these films were bad films but hits anyway. Making good films is an unpredictable and complicated thing to do, and it requires control be given to creative people. Hollywood likes to think that marketing is a more exact science, and it appeared Hollywood had found a formula. If the film was a sequel, or an adaptation from some other pop-cultural property that audiences were familiar with, and it was made with high production values and a large budget and heavily marketed, then audiences would be curious enough to want to go and see it really regardless of the quality of the movie and regardless of whether it was faithful to the source material.

As I said, all this was figured in the years 2000-1. Hollywood movies typically have lead periods of around 18 months to two years. It is possible to get a movie into theatres 12 months after you have decided to make it, but this is hard. Therefore, when Hollywood learns a “lesson”, it normally shows up in the films that come out two years later. And two years after the summer of 2001 is the summer of 2003. Therefore, a record 16 sequels were released over the summer. Most of these had much higher budgets than the movies they were sequels to. Many of the films that were not sequels were adaptations from other media, or both. The total amount of money Hollywood spent on making these films was a lot greater than in any previous summer. (It’s an open secret that many studios are lying about the cost of their films, and that many budgets were higher than they are saying. A number of films are believed to have cost over $200 million to make).

So, how did the summer go? I think my tone makes it obvious that the answer is “badly”, but here goes, movie by movie. These are approximately in the order the films were released.

The summer movie season used to start on the Memorial Day weekend, but ever since Twister was an enormous hit despite being released two weeks before that holiday weekend in 1996, the summer season has effectively started two weeks before memorial day, although AC Nielsen EDI, which compiles box office numbers for the studios, still counts from the Friday before Memorial Day. Studios try to open their big movies on different weekends to each other, and who manages to end up with the prime weekends can be a complex exercise in game theory. The number one weekend of the year is still Memorial Day itself, and this year it was obvious that The Matrix Reloaded was the most anticipated movie, so Warner Bros plonked that movie on the weekend.

The two weeks before Memorial Day opening was still there, and 20th Century Fox took advantage of it for its X-Men sequel, X-2: X-Men United. This seemed to be the opening of a good summer. The original film had been something of an unexpected hit for 20th century fox. Although the X-Men comics had (and have) sold more than any other set of comics ever, they don’t have the sort of mainstream recognition that some other comic characters, such as Batman, Superman, or Spiderman have. Therefore, the material was less familiar to the MBA types who these days run film studios. (As a and they didn’t attempt to micromanage it in the way that micromanagement of new Superman and Batman movies at Warner Bros have managed to prevent those movies from being made. (Typically film-makers have gotten so annoyed at all the dumb suggestions and instructions from management that they have given up in disgust). The first film was given to director Brian Singer (famous for The Usual Suspects) who made quite an interesting film: relatively slow, relatively lacking in action, but which was faithful to the comics and did a good job of introducing the characters and the relations between them. (The cast he chose was marvellous, too, and contained good and even great actors without containing huge movie stars). In short, he made a prelude to a series of films, rather than a one off. This first film was a bigger hit than Fox expected, and Singer was allowed to make the second film too. The second film was faster and told a story that was faithful to the comics without being slavishly so, and everyone from comic book fans to general audiences really liked it. It grossed about 50% more than the original ($214 m rather than $147m). Everybody was happy and the summer was off to a great start. That was what was supposed to happen. It looks like we were going to get lots of X-Men movies in the future. One slight obstacle is that the cast were originally signed up for two movies only, and they will all want a lot more money for more movies, particularly given that Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman (in particular) are much bigger stars than they were a few years back. Future X-Men movies might therefore focus on one or two characters rather than the whole ensemble, or may introduce new characters. (The comic books have plenty of additional characters to introduce, fortunately).

The movie season then moved on to Memorial Day, and that is where things started to go wrong. The Matrix Reloaded was the most anticipated movie of the summer. The original had been a major (but not gigantic) hit when first released, but since then it had become the biggest hit on DVD that anyone had ever seen. The film was the most anticipated in years. The film-makers had spent vast sums of money on the film – nobody is sure quite how much. And, the film was full of ridiculous sequences and plot developments. The underground city of Zion was a disappointment, and the characters spent much of the movie speaking unbelievably pretentious post-modern and pseudoscientific crap to one another. Everyone went to see the film anyway, and it grossed just over $300m in the US. However, there was little repeat business. The film’s international grosses were even better, and will end up close to twice domestic. The film will be very profitable, but we will wait and see how it does on DVD. And we will wait and see how the third Matrix movie does at the end of the year. My guess is that its grosses will be significantly down on the second, although it will still likely make a lot of money. Although the Matrix movies this year will end up highly profitable, they are considered a disappointment. The film-makers had a chance to do a lot better.

So, with that out of the way, Universal released a light and fairly banal Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty the next week. The rule with Jim Carrey movies is that when he makes light comedies they are big hits and when he tries to be more serious he is generally pretty good at it but audiences don’t show up. Bruce Almighty isn’t a great film, but it does feature some good physical comedy and Morgan Freeman is clearly having fun playing God. This was actually the biggest hit of Jim Carrey’s career.

So, two for three. Not bad. Then came the animated fim Finding Nemo from Pixar Animation Studios and distributed by Disney. At the beginning of the year, advance buzz said this film was significantly worse than Pixar’s ealier films, but by release date it seems they managed to fix it, as it got even better reviews than most of the earlier films. (Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc). Audiences loved it, and it ended up being the highest grossing film of the summer. It could even end up being the highest grossing film of the year, although most people (including myself) think that The Return of the King will end up with this honour. This was good for Disney, which gets a fair share of the profits, but it doesn’t prove much about Hollywood, as Pixar is a small Silicon Valley company rather than a Hollywood company. Pixar (and Apple) CEO Steve Jobs is in the process of renegotiating his deal with Disney, and the new deal will only give Disney (or some other studio) a tiny portion of the profits of future films. Disney in theory gets two more films on the current lucrative deal, but may find that it has to give this up and accept a new deal immediately in return for preventing Pixar from going to another studio, most likely 20th Century Fox.

On June 6, Universal released 2 Fast 2 Furious, the sequel to The Fast and the Furious. This film cost the studio more than twice as much to make as the original, even despite the fact that they had refused to pay Vin Diesel, the star of the original, the $30m fee he demanded to reprise his role. The sequel didn’t fail, precisely, but grossed significantly less than the original. Like the original, I found the film to be stupid but fun. However, Universal’s business plan for the film relied on it grossing significantly more than the original. As it happened, it went back to the old sequel pattern of grossing a bit less than the original. This was perceived as a disappointment. It was stupid for Universal to expect this film would gross more than the original given that they couldn’t sign the original star, but they did.

The summer had gone kind of okay so far, but at this point it went into a screaming decline. It did so with the release of Hulk on June 20. Two previous films based on Marvel Comics, X-Men and Spiderman, had been big hits in recent years. The Incredible Hulk was the other most famous Marvel character, and they hired director Ang Lee, who had never made a special effects film but who had recently made unexpected hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in China. Lee is a fine film-maker, and I particularly like his early cross cultural Taiwanese-American stuff such as The Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, but he has at times in the past demonstrated a tendency to take himself a little too seriously. And this really came through badly in the movie of Hulk. An amazing amount of screen time is spent contemplating the emotions and motivations of Bruce Banner, his father, his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s father, the various villains, et hoc genus omne and the military-industrial complex. I thought the amount of pseudo-scientific crap in The Matrix Reloaded was impressive, but this film actually equals or betters it. Most of the movie is a real yawn. Which is a shame, because when it gets going the special effects in the movie are really groundbreaking. The desert sequences are something to behold (and they take place at daytime, which is unusual because it is normally much cheaper to set such sequences at night and show less), and although the main special effects creation is a green monster, it is a green monster which is better drawn than any other CGI human or human-like character I have seen. However, from a business point of view, the film was a disaster. This appears to be the film about which a studio is telling the biggest lies with respect to budget, by the way. Universal is claiming “$137 million”. Rumours suggest it was in fact over $200 million.

A week later, we got the second major disaster of the summer, which was Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, the sequel to the surprisingly successful TV adaptation of two years ago. This one was seen as another certain hit by Sony, but it wasn’t. It seemed that having seen the first movie, people had no desire to see the second. Rumours are that this film also cost a vast sum of money to make ($120 million is claimed, but it is said to be much higher). Personally I think this is the worst film I have seen all year. It’s just utterly dreadful. Awful.

At the same time, though, I will discuss the second Lara Croft film: Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. (The title seems to defy punctuation). This had the same problem I think. People who had seen the first film had no desire to see another one, so they didn’t. This one wasn’t nearly as bad as the Charlie’s Angels movie, and wasn’t as bad as the first Lara Croft movie either (although it could have done with better editing: it dragged in places). It wasn’t as big a disaster, either, as it cost less and expectations were lower. It was still something of a disaster though.

July 4. Ar-Nuld. Yay. Yes, it was Terminator 3: the Rise of the Machines. This wasn’t strictly a studio film, but was made by an independent production company that raised the budget by preselling the rights to individual distributors in individual countires. Whereas Terminator 2 was a hugely expensive groundbreaking film from James Cameron, this was just an attempt by other people to cash in on people’s fond memories of the first two films. Basically, it told the story of the second film over again, although Alice Bachini has some amusing thoughts on what it has to say about the modern battle of the sexes. And it did this quite well, without doing anything groundbreaking. I rather enjoyed it. Face it. Arnold as the Terminator in black leather and sunglasses, carrying a big gun and walking in that particular way is such an iconic image that it was fun to see it again. (And any movie with Claire Danes in it has one recommendation for me). Financially, the movie did just fine. It didn’t gross as much as Terminator 2 but wasn’t expected to. It made more money from international than domestic audiences, and will make a tidy profit for the producers. Terminator 4 is probably on in two or three years if Arnold does not get elected governor.

As counterprogramming on that weekend, MGM released Legally Blonde 2: Red White and Blonde, in which Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods gets fired from her law firm because the firm has a client guilty of animal testing of cosmetics, and goes to Washington where she persuades Congress to outlaw animal testing merely through her good nature and fashion sense. Or something. This is one film I haven’t seen, because reviews said it was really dire and the plot sounded so puke inducing that I couldn’t stand the thought of it. However, it grossed less than the original in a fairly traditional sequel way. It probably made money because MGM kept the budget under control. (I am sorry to see Reese Witherspoon making bad films, because when she is good she is extraordinarily good).

Now, however we get to Jerry Bruckheimer, Hollywood uber-producer. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas may have been the people who invented the Hollywood summer blockbuster, but Bruckheimer is the man who reduced it to its essential essence. He started in partnership with fellow producer Don Simpson in the early 1980s (although the arrangement seemed to be that Bruckheimer made the movies while Simpson consumed a lot of cocaine), and their first big hits were Flashdance, Beverley Hills Cop, and Top Gun. Bruckheimer’s basic strategy was (and is) to take a good idea, hire an obviously very talented but young and upcoming director who will make a good film but still listen to instructions (almost all of these have been British for some reason), hire eleven writers in succession to polish the script until it is fairly smooth and has good dialogue but no actual style, hire half a dozen very good actors (who may or may not have starred in action movies before), add lots of explosions, and you have a summer movie. This strategy has been very successful over the years, giving us movies from Bad Boys to Crimson Tide, to The Rock, to Armageddon to Pearl Harbour. Even when Bruckheimer’s movies are perceived as failures (eg Pearl Harbour) they tend to make money. Bruckheimer has had a very productive (but not exclusive) relationship with Disney since the mid 1990s, although his films have been too violent to go out under the Disney name and instead normally go out under the Touchstone Pictures or Hollywood Pictures labels that Disney invented in the 1980s for that very purpose. This year it so happened that Bruckheimer had two movies that went out within a couple of weeks, one for Disney, and the other for Sony.

Amongst all the movies derived from other media that we have had this year, Disney decided that it wanted to start making movies from its theme park rides. They decided that a film of Pirates of the Carribean would be just great, and asked Bruckheimer what he could do. Basically he could be flexible, and had to come up with a pirate movie that was somehow related to the Carribean. The film had to go out under the Disney label, which meant it could have at worst a PG rating. Bruckhemier argued that this didn’t give him enough flexibility, and wanted to make a PG-13 film. Eventually Disney gave in, although no Disney film had been released with a PG-13 rating before (and in fact no Disney film had even had a PG rating before The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996). This meant no sex and the violence couldn’t be very explicit, but apart from that Bruckheimer made a movie using his usual formula. Gore Verbinsky (most famous for the remake of the Japanese horror movie The Ring) was hired to direct, and Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley were hired for the key roles. Just for fun, the film was turned into a ghost story as well as a pirate movie.

And Pirates of the Carribean turned out to be one of the few unqualified hits of the summer. Audiences seem to have really enjoyed it. (With this and Finding Nemo, Disney ended up having a really good summer). I found it to be a little too long and to have a little too many plot twists (Johnny Depp seems to get captured, locked up, and then escapes from various other characters about ten times in the movie). Johnny Depp’s spaced out Keith Richards channelling hipster pirate captain was certainly fun. Geoffrey Rush was a good villain. Orlando Bloom was a little flat, I thought – somehow he is more human when he is an elf – and Keira Knightley’s part seriously suffered from the PG-13 rating, which presumably allows her to flounce but not swoon, and when she is captured by the pirates, Geoffrey Rush can do no more than glare at her a little bit. Still, them’s the breaks. The film was a big hit. Look for a sequel in 2005.

Speaking of sequels, Jerry Bruckheimer had a second movie out a week later, which was Bad Boys 2, a sequel to the 1995 movie starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith. This made $135 million or so in the US, and will make much more in the rest of the world, because it’s that kind of film. I haven’t seen it. Opinions seem to vary widely as to whether it is any good. (From the trailer, however, the explosions appear to be excellent). But it will make money.

On the same weekend as Pirates of the Carribean we got the third unmitigated disaster of the season, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Fox took Alan Moore’s wonderfully literate graphic novel in which Captain Nemo, Alan Quatermain, Mycroft Holmes, Mina Harker, the invisible man, and various other characters from Victorian literature wander around in the same story, and completely wrecked it by being a pack of idiots and having contempt for their audience, basically. This is a sad case, as the potential for producing something good here was so marvellous. (I have written about this in more detail here). Still, Hollywood can be stupid.

A couple of lower budget sequels finished out the month of July: American Wedding was the second sequel to American Pie. The producers tried to keep the budget of this one down by only bringing back half the cast from the previous movie, but the film still ended up costing 50% more than the second one and nearly four times the cost of the original. The film was more gross out jokes, and was kind of okay, and scraped together $100m at the box office: enough for a profit but below expectations. (Also, the wonderful Alyson Hannigan, who many of us love from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was underused). Also, Miramax released the children’s film Spy Kids: Game Over at the end of the month. This one managed an amazing achievement for sequels, at least budgetwise. The first film cost $38 million. The second film cost $38 million. The third film cost $38 million. Director/writer/producer/composer/cinematographer etc etc etc Robert Rodriguez has somehow managed to produce three films on identical budgets, which is considered an amazing achievement in the film industry. (He partly did this by seemingly making the films single-handedly, taking something like eleven different credits). As for the film, well the 3-D was a gimmick, and it was just the old 3-D technique with the red and blue glasses. From the trailer the film looked like a kiddie version of Tron (and I thought I saw light cycles in the trailer), which could have been fun. However, I thought the film was a real mess, unfortunately. The first film in this series was quite fun, given it was a Latino kids James Bond fantasy, basically. However, the charm was lost by the third movie. (A golden opportunity to cast William Shatner as the bad guy opposite Riccardo Montalban’s good guy was lost, too, and Sylvester Stallone was dreary in the part). That said, marketing did appear to work here. Apparently the current generation of kids had never seen a 3D movie before and nagged their parents to go, because the film grossed $100 million, considerably more than the second one.

Well, that takes us up to films released by the end of July, and about wraps up the blockbuster season. At the end of July, the total gross for the summer was significantly down on total gross last summer even in nominal terms, and down even further once ticket price inflation was taken into account,. The total budget of all the films released was significantly higher, perhaps by a double figure percentage, and Hollywood is going to have to sell an awful lot of DVDs of these films to make a good level of profit. The things that Hollywood “learned” in 2001 and spent billions of dollars on to give us the movies of 2003 turned out to be wrong. The lesson seems to be that audiences aren’t dumb, they will see through phony marketing, and that audiences will be bigger if the movies are better. This should be obvious, but somehow Hollywood missed it. As it is, they are busy blaming such things as SMS text messaging for the low box office. You see, people can now tell their friends instantly that a movie is no good, and therefore they won’t go and see it. (Of course, they can tell their friends equally instantly if the film is good and they will go and see it. If a film is a bad film, people will find out about it. This is simply the case, one way or another, always has been and always will be).

But of course, there is a flipside of all this negative news. And it is simply this. While blockbuster movies did badly this summer, non-blockbuster movies did rather better. Some of these were what Hollywood calls “specialty business”, that is arthouse and foreign movies. Others were “genre movies”, meaning films aimed at niche audiences: horror, films aimed at 12 year old girls, films aimed at “urban audiences” (ie black people) and the like. In August, Disney had a hit with a low budget remake of Freaky Friday from the 1970s. New Line produced a hit with Freddy versus Jason, the combination of the Friday 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series. A little earlier in the summer, Fox made a fair bit of money (relative to the budget) with the British zombie movie 28 Days Later. (This film was made by British director Danny Boyle, who in the 1990s made two well received British films – Shallow Grave and Trainspotting – and then went to Hollywood and made one complete mess (A Life Less Ordinary) and one really bland adaptation of a popular novel (The Beach) before coming back to England. The success of this film will no doubt get him another shot at Hollywood, and one wonders if he will do better this time). Fox had another moneymaking film with the British comedy Bend it Like Beckham. Thanks to these, by the end of August the total summer box office was up slightly on last year, although still down in inflation adjusted terms.

The lesson seems to be that audiences went looking for something else after the big budget special effects blockbusters. The studios have noticed this. The one thing I can say for sure is that there aren’t going to be many sequels released in two years time. There may be three or four, but there certainly won’t be 16. There will undoubtedly be some special effects films, but there probably won’t be half as many as this season. I would like to hope that Hollywood will go back to another Golden age of witty Billy Wilder style screenplays. If probably won’t happen. The MBA types who run the industry will no doubt find some other new way to insult the intelligence of their audiences. But at least it will be something different.

Erratum: A commenter points out that the first Disney film to receive a PG rating was in fact The Black Hole in 1979. My mistake. The story is that Disney was moving towards more adult films in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and released a few PG films then. However, when Michael Eisner took over the running of Disney in 1984, he decided to keep the Disney name for family films, and to introduce an all new name for more adult films, and the Touchstone Pictures label was introduced in 1984. From this point until the late 1990s, Disney released few PG films under its own name. In the late 1990s Disney became more relaxed about ratings of films released under its own name, and has released a number of PG films (Dinosaur, for instance). (Pirates of the Carribean is indeed the first PG-13, however). I mixed up the relaxing of attitude that occurred in the late 1990s with an earlier relaxing of attitude that had occurred briefly in the late 1970s and then went away again.

And I doubled my error: The Hunchback of Notre Dame actually went out with a G rating, not PG. There is another story behind this, though. The film was intended to be rated PG. When the film was put into production, it was agreed that the material was a little more adult than most Disney animated films, and the film-makers had permission to make a PG film and intended to do so. However, when the ratings board viewed the finished film, they gave it a PG but said that they would give it a G if only a few seconds of cuts were made. Because the requested changes were so minor, the film-makers agreed to make the cuts and the film was released as a G. However, some of the material in the film (particularly the lyrics of the song “Hellfire”) is not very G-like.

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23 comments to Thoughts on Hollywood’s lousy summer

  • ErikZ

    Wow, great article. You should see about getting this published!

    Looking forward to the sequel, two years from now.

  • Patrick

    Great article. I would like to point out something paradoxical (if anecdotal) on Hollywood’s dependence on DVD sales. I have spent thousands of dollars building a DVD library and home theatre, surround stereo, etc. and I rarely see movies at the theatre any more because of this. I watch movies all the time, but usually I’ll just invite a couple of friends over and we’ll have some beers and home mad popcorn and watch the movie at my place (or theirs). I’ve seen only a two movies since Memorial day this summer, and both of them I saw for free (my friend’s dad is an exec with AMC around here). I can’t rationalize going to the theatre, spending 8 bucks on a ticket, 7 more for a coke and popcorn, sitting in a sticky floored, crowded theatre with cell phones going off throughout while we watch 15 minutes of commercials before the movie starts (as I recall from studying in Europe a few years ago, there were many more advertisements before the movies there than there are here in the US, but it seems that every time I go to a theatre now, the commercials become longer and longer), when I can just wait a few months, purchase the DVD and watch it at home with some friends and drink cheap brewskis. This is just me though.

  • Was Finding Nemo a sequel? What was the original?

    Or were you just treating it as the latest in the line of Pixar CG movies?

    My opinion of Matrix Reloaded is still up in the air- the jury will come back shortly after I see :Revolutions. If :Revolutions successfully ties everything up in a package that was as stylish and cool as the original Matrix, then I can forgive Zion and the pretentious bullshit. Likewise, if it does succeed, then I think it’s likely that the 2-sequels-in-one-year trick will be brought out again in the future.

  • The paragraph I am pasting below is completely mangled and needs some serious editing. It appears to be talking about two different films, and missing some words:

    So, two for three. Not bad. Then came the animated fim Finding Nemo from Pixar Animation Studios and distributed by Disney. At the beginning of the year, advance buzz said this film was significantly worse than Pixar’s ealier films, but by release date it seems they managed to fix it, as it got even found the film to be stupid but fun. However, Universal’s business plan for the film relied on it grossing significantly more than the original. As it happened, it went back to the old sequel pattern of grossing a bit less than the original. This was perceived as a disappointment. It was stupid for Universal to expect this film would gross more than the original given that they couldn’t sign the original star, but they did.

  • No. Finding Nemo was not a sequel. I wasn’t intending to imply that it was. I simply discussed why Hollywood was making so many sequels, and then went through every major movie Hollywood released over the summer, sequel and non-sequel. If I didn’t say this already, Pixar does everything right that Hollywood does wrong, in that they are concerned more than anything else with making the best possible movie. Given that they made Toy Story 2 they presumably have nothing against sequels, but again they were incredibly concerned with quality for that movie too.

    Patrick: I am single and I usually go to the movies by myself. I buy a ticket and no drinks or popcorn. That way going to the cinema works out cheaper than buying a DVD. Obviously if there is more than one person watching the DVD then this way becomes cheaper very fast. (I have a large DVD collection too, but mostly of older movies). As for quality, DVD in its present incarnation isn’t quite up to the picture quality of 35mm film. A US DVD contains 480 line pictures. (European DVDs have 576 lines). Film is an analogue medium, but a standard 35mm movie has resolution about equivalent to 2000 lines. Hopefully there will be an HDTV version of the DVD format before too long. This is only 1080 lines maximum, but in the small rooms we have in our homes it should be pretty much indistinguishable.

  • Jay: Thanks for pointing that out. What happened was that I had an inproperly close [a href=”….] tag, which meant that everything between that and the next link got cut out. We lost about a paragraph in total. That’s annoying, but it is now fixed.

  • Now that I am finally done, fantastic post! It should be most interesting to see what comes out in two years.

    I know I’ve been disappointed this summer overall. It seemed like last year there were more movies overall I wanted to see. It’s been three weeks since I saw any, and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

    The big thing I missed in my opinion was seeing Bend It Like Beckham. I finally resigned myself to waiting for video.

  • An excellent piece, Mr. Jennings – I found it educational and highly interesting and I think you provided a very good ‘summary’ of this summer’s film releases.

    Great work – I should be appalled if you received an ‘editorial spanking’ after you clearly spent so much time and effort producing this detailed and informative post with which I can find no fault (other than a few easily forgivable typos).

  • David Crawford

    So Hollywood took it in the shorts this summer. Good.

    They’ve adopted the basic business strategy of telling anyone over 30 years old to get bent.

    You want proof? There were exactly two movies for thinking adults released this summer: “Seabiscuit” and “Open Range”.

  • So, based on 2002, what “lesson” is Hollywood going to apply for next year? Films in Chinese?

  • Julian Morrison

    No way was the second “tomb raider” better. I watched it via bittorrent and was seriously unimpressed. The first one had a certain gung-ho attitude that gave it style; the second was just disjointed and dreary. And the “emotional twist” at the end would only have worked if one (1) believed it in the least (2) could give a rats ass about any of the characters.

    Oh and “pirates” was good enough that I stopped watching my mpeg download partway through so as to go see it properly in the cinema.

  • Angelica Huston just doesn’t have the charm to play Lara Croft.

    Years ago I joked about a film that would be titled Freddy the 13th. I got my wish 🙂

  • no Disney film had even had a PG rating before The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996

    Incorrect. The Black Hole was Disney’s first PG film back in 1979.

    And Andrew Vajna has said there will almost certainly be a fourth Terminator film, with or without Arnold. For his sake it better be with, cos I can’t see it working without.

    Otherwise, sterling work, Mr Jennings.

  • Yes, my mistake on The Black Hole. I have posted a correction at the end of the original article.

    As for Terminator 4, Andrew Vajner and Mario Kasser will have to raise the budget before they can make the actual film. As an independent, they will either have to go into partnership with a studio or sell the rights to the movie to all the foreign distributors before they make the film, as they did with T3. And this task will be a great deal harder without Arnold attached to the movie. Vajner may try to get the movie made without Arnold, but I am not sure he will succeed. With Arnold, I think it will be pretty easy. (Saying things like this may be a way to try to get him to commit to the movie, too).

  • Johnathan

    Michael, great article. I agree about Pirates of the Caribbean – it was great fun and really gelled. I am a fan of historical dramas with a nautical twist, but I don’t like the trailers for the new Russell Crowe film, Master and Commander, based on the great Patrick O’Brian series of novels about Jack Aubrey. I fear Hollywood is going to mangle a great piece of literature – again.

    You should get this article published as a pamphlet, say for the Libertarian Alliance. Stuff like this needs to go into print.

  • J S Allison

    I’m still torqued off that the effin wankers didn’t do “The Hobbit” at the same time since they had the people, locale, story…and just one time before I die I’d like to see one more movie set in space where the spacecraft don’t go whoosh or make other noises as they pass by…

  • Jim

    Michael, fascinating and entertaining, thank you very much. Uh, just one little nit to pick — You said “Since Steven Spielberg invented the modern blockbuster when he made Jaws in 1975 (and due to the near-coincidental arrival of air-conditioning in most movie theatres)…” I agree that Jaws may indeed be the real (reel?) ur-summer-blockbuster — but air conditioning in movies (at least here in the U.S.) has been around for a long time — they were air-conditioned in my 1950’s childhood and may have been in the 1940’s as well – I was too young then to provide any true ’40’s first hand testimony, but I believe that movie theatres were among the first places to introduce air-conditioning — I can remember signs saying “come in, it’s cool inside” etc. I can’t speak about English theatres, having only seen stage plays in England, besides which, the first time I visited England was in 1979, too late to know when AC reached their theatres; nor about Australian theatres of any kind, never having seen a movie when I was there in ’97… but I assure you U.S. movie theatres were air-conditioned long before Jaws.

  • JS: I’m still torqued off that the effin wankers didn’t do “The Hobbit” at the same time since they had the people, locale, story

    It would be nice to see it too, but

    It was amazing and unbelievable that Peter Jackson got a studio to commit to make three movies up front without knowing how they were going to do. From a purely financial point of view, four would have been impossible. I’m sure Peter Jackson could make The Hobbit with the same cast now if he wanted to, but he seems interested in doing other things. Given that he has spent more than five years on Tolkein, I don’t really blame him.

    (And he has said that his real dream project is actually King Kong. He’s doing that next, and I’m looking forward to seeing it).

  • John isbell

    Great piece (I came here from Hotbuttereddeath). I emailed it around. Thanks for the insights.

  • RDB

    I detest, abhor and ignore commentary concerning Hollywood film making.

    I read your first paragragh with the intention of skipping to the next post – but I was hooked to the end. Excellent outsider work (with a number of good insider insights). If your editiors flinch, smack them with a flounder (or whatever is at hand). This piece is a welcome respite from the usual daily harangue (which is enjoyable, but still.. ).

    Good work – good luck

  • PotC and Nemo are a godsend for moviegoers and Disney employees alike. I only wish we wouldn’t have screwed up the merch tie-ins (but then again, I work for a merch division of a Disney company — in this case Disneyland itself — so I benefit directly from having cool stuff to sell). I have been fantastically depressed at the sheer number of bad movies and movies I don’t want to see this summer, though mildly gratified that almost all the movies I did want to see, were Disney films I can see for cheap (or for nothing). As to all the other studios… well, there’s always the Thanksgiving/Christmas season to look forward to. If nothing else, I know the year will end well, with Return of the King.

    I agree, BTW, with everyone who said this was an excellent article. It’s nice to see people (in general, everywhere) writing intelligently on things which don’t involve pure politics.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Michael

    I thought you might like to know that the 2Blowhards gave this piece a brief mention, although for some reason this doesn’t show up in the “Trackback” department here. As a regular culture blogger, I can tell you that I only get this occasionally, and when I do I am very chuffed. You should be too. Great piece.

  • Hello,

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    Ganer: Action, Fantastic
    Titele: Leader.

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    but I you assure that the script very good.

    Synopsis English.

    All occurs on depth of space. Where planets are located close from each
    other up to a planet and there live essence, and always struggle once
    similar to us essence after long slavery, they in a head with the Leader
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    the ambassador they give all freedom with a condition that they will live
    ìèðíà, but the world lasts not long them to betray the the person, also
    it(he) passes in other galaxy and to anothers ñóùíîñòÿì which threatens a
    galaxy of the Leader, and they with helps of the traitor grasps a galaxy,
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    Synopsis Russian.

     ñå ïðîèñõîäèò íà ãëóáèíå êîñìîñà. Áäå ïëàíåòû ðàñïîëîæåíû áëèçêî äðóã îò
    äðóãà äî ïëàíåòû è òàì æèâóò ñóùíîñòü, è âñåãäà áîðþòñÿ îäíàæäû ïîäîáíûé
    íàì ñóùíîñòè ïîñëå äëèííîãî ðàáñòâà,îíè â ãîëîâå ñ  îæàêîì íà÷àëè áèòâó çà
    ñâîáîäó îíè âûèãðàëè áèòâó çàõâàòèâ ãàëàêòèêó è ïîñëå îíè äàþò âñåì ñâîáîäó
    ñ óñëîâèåì ÷òî îíè áóäóò æèòü ìèðíà , íî ìèð äëèòñÿ íå äîëãî èõ ïðåäàòü ñâîå

    ÷åëîâåê, òàêæå îí ïåðåõîäèò â äðóãóþ ãàëàêòèêó è ê äðóãèì ñóùíîñòÿì êîòîðûé
    óãðîæàåò ãàëàêòèêó  îæàêà, è îíè ñ ïîäñêàçêàì ïðåäàòåëÿ çàõâàòûâàåò
    ãàëàêòèêó, íî ñûíà  îæàêà ñïàñàåò åãî äðóã è îí åãî îòïðàâëÿåò íà çåìëþ
    ÷òîáû íèêòî íå çíàë ÷òî ñûí  îæàêà æèâ à ñàì îí ñ îòöîì ñîáèðàåò âîèíîâ
    ÷òîáû îñâîáîäèò ñâîþ ãàëàêòèêó. ýòî âðåìÿ ñûí  îæàêà ðàñòåò íà çåìëå.È â
    áóäóùåì æäåò åãî áèòâà ñ ïðîòèâíèêàìè à ïîêà îí íè÷åãî íå ïîäîçðåâàåò
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