The Summer of Failure – How Hollywood Can Eliminate its Blockbuster Mentality

Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg predicted that Hollywood was about to implode due to an increasing dependence on big budgeted event pictures that would be unable to recoup their budget at the box office. Due to a string of failures this past summer, many naysayers are stating that this is exactly what’s happening. That sort of bad press sells well, especially amongst those people who believe that schadenfreude is the ultimate goal in life.

I can’t say that I’m surprised. This may make me the sort of pretentious fool that everyone tries to avoid, but I hate Summer when it comes to films. Most Summer blockbusters are absolute garbage, with the dumbest of characters and the barest of plots. Producers spend $50 million on something that can be accomplished by a ten-year old with a set of fire crackers. When I hear news about how these films are failing, my immediate reaction is to say, “I told you so.” And then I get back on my high horse and bask in the superiority that is my astounding insight and original ideas.

OK, that last part is an absolute lie. Anyway, Hollywood is trying to convince us that these films ARE original and astounding. But to make such a film is a monumental task that very few individuals have accomplished. Even Steven Spielberg, say, has been frequently derivative and safe while making no pretense that his film will revolutionize the world.

But that’s not the case with these modern blockbusters. Being an event film means that every single ad campaign will show that the film is a one of a kind adventure, something that has never been seen before and something that only the most pathetic dregs of society can afford to miss. “You’re not part of that group, are you?” the campaign seems to ask as Will Smith cracks a funny.

Today’s audiences are a lot more knowing than that. They have access to thousands of films and thousands of people writing about them. There are also websites devoted to deconstructing popular fiction and the archetypes that appear in all of them. What this is means is that everyone can see through the tricks of these campaigns. They know when they are being lied to and when they can safely skip a film.

The truth is, all of these heavily promoted films are based on earlier hits in an attempt to woo audiences back in for repeat success. But they cannot say this, or else people would just stay home and re-watch the original film on DVD. So, they have to desperately pretend that whatever is being advertised is new, exciting, and worth the $15 to see it on screen in headache inducing 3D.

That’s why The Lone Ranger, despite being hyped as a great modern western but was really just a retread of Pirates of the Caribbean, has become a cataclysmic failure. After Earth, despite the presence of Will Smith, bombed when people realized how silly the premise was. I didn’t see it, but it sounded like a bad retread of the far future as shown in Cloud Atlas. RIPD was a Men in Black rip off that depended too heavily on special effects. The Internship looked stale and dated and played as a Google advertisement rather than a film. White House Down came on the heels of the successful Olympus Has Fallen and did nothing to distinguish itself. The audience recognized all of these and stayed away. The money was going to the effects rather than to crafting something new. Even Pacific Rim, despite being a genuinely great film, looked too much like a mindless effects heavy bore.

Can Hollywood save itself? That remains to be seen. Quite honestly, I don’t see Hollywood as the great innovator any more that needs to be saved. But I know many people who still depend on it. So, I offer three solutions:

1.) Take Risks. One of the surprise hits of the summer was Now You See Me, which placed more of an emphasis on the plot and characters than on effects or numbers at the end of the title. World War Z was a tough shoot and had the makings of a disaster, but did very well at the box office. Sometimes, in order to be really successful, you’re going to have to take risks. Star Wars was nearly killed by Fox after cost overruns and bizarre dailies. Titanic was predicted to be the next Heaven’s Gate. Even Pirates of the Caribbean was a risk and was based around a genre that was considered dead. If you set aside $100 million for computer effects, you are not going to have the resources necessary to branch out or even fund smaller films that could expose you to a wider audience.

2) Stop insisting that everything needs to be 3D. It is a gimmick that does not enhance the film. I’ve only seen one film, Hugo, that used 3D well. Avatar also was inventive in the way it used 3D, but I don’t count that one because the script was bad. My point is that making a film 3D does nothing to enhance the quality of the film. Audiences are staying away because they do not want to pay extra money for something that does not help the film. The fad is over and continuing to cling onto it makes you look desperate.

3) If you want to turn theater going into an event, treat it as such. Place an emphasis on the “night out” aspect that is frequently used by people when it comes to cinemas. Make the theater as important as the movie. I am a fan of cinema grills, which basically exist as full functioning restaurants with a movie screen at the front. Most theaters I know are installing bars on the premises. One upper class mall near me replaced all the seats with wide recliners. And the tickets cost the same in each case. Now, most of this money would go to the theaters rather than the studios. But if the theaters are more enjoyable, that means audiences would have a reason to go back to them.  Don’t just stop at recliners. Ensure that the experience is as comfortable as possible. You could have showtimes later in the evening for adults only. You could actually enforce cell phone rules. Place you emphasis on live events, as Fathom does. And I would gladly pay extra to not watch commercials at the start of the film.

Spielberg was right in that the current blockbuster mentality cannot continue. But the solution is easy. If you want audience to respect your work, you have to respect them. It’s been a while since any studio has tried to do that. But, if these low grosses are an indication of anything, it’s that studios had better be prepared to change their mentality quickly.

Which means Hollywood may very well be doomed.

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