With the long Labor Day weekend now visible in everyone’s rearview mirrors, the postmortem has already been performed on Hollywood ‘s latest warm-weather season, and the examination yielded some sobering revelations. First and foremost, box office is up at the same time that attendance is down, an ugly demonstration of Hollywood’s tricky 3-D economics. Even though the cumulative take for the season was $4.35 billion, up 2 percent from last year, the actual number of tickets sold was the lowest in a decade, with the discrepancy attributable to jacked-up 3-D admissions. If ever a clear demonstration was needed of how short-term gains can obscure the need to consider the long-term health of the industry, summer 2010 provided that demonstration.
Enough ink has already been spilled guessing whether the 3-D phenomenon will last-even though it seems as if we’ve been in the stereoscopic era forever, let’s not forget that it hasn’t even been a year since Avatar‘s theatrical premiere-so for the moment, let’s set aside what could be a temporary ticket-price aberration and focus on the more concrete data that empirically demonstrates a diminished public desire to see films in theaters. Theatrical movie-going as a pastime is clearly going out of favor, but at such a slow pace that one can still perform useful analysis on which films connect with audiences and which ones don’t. Clearly, based on the blockbuster success of a handful of pictures this summer, audiences can still be lured into the multiplex with the right bait. So which bait didn’t work?
First, the successes. The summer was oddly short of comic-book movies, remakes, and sequels, which generally seem to be Hollywood’s stock in trade, because of coincidences in timing-Christopher Nolan took time off Batman duty, the Spider-Man franchise is up on the hydraulic lift for a tune-up, etc. But of these presumed surefire successes, the current math held. Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever Ever After (slow out of the gate, strong in the long haul), Toy Story 3, and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse all demonstrated that a sturdy franchise is the best way to corral predictable income. Clash of the Titans and The Karate Kid also, for better or worse, added new fuel to the let’s-remake-everything fire.
A handful of genuinely original endeavors did well. Nolan’s vacation from Gotham City, Inception, was clearly the film of the summer, and my thoughts on what the success of that picture might mean were explored in depth in a previous article for Associated Content. The art-house breakouts of the season-Cyrus, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, and The Kids Are All Right-did nicely although none broke into the blockbuster realm. One could interpret that as a sign that the drop-off of moviegoers is most severe among grown-ups, the folks who generally drag art-house fare into the mainstream, but I think the real lesson about what grown-ups were watching this summer is a bit murkier.
I say “murkier” because of the sheer level of violence in the pictures whose success seemed to be driven by grown-up viewers. Inception had a whole lot of gunplay amid the brain-teasing plotlines, and Salt had a body count (to say nothing of pretty much everything else) right out of the Bourne movies. The American, the George Clooney thriller that overcame dismal reviews to top the quiet Labor Day weekend, is about an assassin. Does it say something about where we are right now that grown-ups can most successfully be lured to the movies by films promising rivers of flowing crimson? Charitably, one could presume that audiences want pictures based in hard-edged reality because anything else seems Pollyannaish; less charitably, one could worry that the American public has gotten bloodthirsty when it comes to the multiplex.
Certainly the solid performances of The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone’s ode to old-school macho mayhem, and Machete, Robert Rodriguez’ ode to, well, old-school macho mayhem, suggests that gory action is more in vogue right now than the bloodless kind. Less visceral action pictures-including The A-Team, Knight and Day, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time-didn’t generate anywhere near the hype or excitement of their bloodier counterparts. Even Piranha 3-D, the silly horror picture that married off-the-charts gore with acres of nubile female flesh, surpassed expectations well enough to justify Miramax’s greenlighting of a sequel.
Comedy didn’t fare particularly well this summer, which may add another color to the picture of the national mood. It may simply be that Dinner With Schmucks, The Other Guys, and Sex and the City 2 were unfunny, but it’s telling that the summer can’t boast a single breakaway comedy hit.
The season, however, can boast a handful of flops that don’t seem to fit into any larger story; these one-offs were either bad ideas to begin with, or simply good ideas that died on the vine of the development process. How else to generalize about Jonah Hex, The Last Airbender, or Robin Hood, three pictures that, given the complex economics of Hollywood, probably will end up doing well even though they seem synonymous with utter failure?
So where does that leave us as we take a moment before diving into the intellectually edifying stretch of Oscar bait known as the fall movie season? Certainly I think the turn for the dark in audience tastes is irrefutable. The grown-up movies that did well were gloomy and/or violent, from Inception to The American. Blood seemed more popular a topping for popcorn than butter with younger audiences, as with The Expendables and Piranha 3-D. Quite frankly, even the kid movies that did well had somber aspects: The glowing reviews of Toy Story 3 talked about the picture’s ability to make grown men cry; Despicable Me is about a character who is, duh, despicable; and the latest Shrek showed a beloved character seeing his life upended by a curse. Even seemingly innocuous escapist pictures had dramatic shadings: The poster for Clash of the Titans featured an illustration of a beheading, Tony Stark spent most of Iron Man 2 dying from radiation poisoning, and Edward Cullen spent all of Twilight dead. Even poor little Jaden Smith spent a fair amount of The Karate Kid getting his adolescent ass handed to him.
So come to think of it, I’m really not surprised attendance was down. I don’t care how many dimensions this summer’s movies were projected in, the prevailing theme of summer 2010 seems to have been that life’s a bitch, and then you die-either emotionally, via the heartbreak of Toy Story or Twilight, or physically and in graphic detail, via just about everything else. Not exactly the frothy escapist fare of summers past. Much as I hate to say this to an industry already alienated from mature drama, I think the next move for Hollywood is to lighten up. Audiences are already on guard because going to the movies is such a drag-high prices, obnoxious texting movie-goers-so it probably isn’t a great idea for every movie to be some sort of buzzkill. Or, in the case of Machete, a literal buzzkill, thanks to the scene with the Wheedwhacker.