The Summer of Our Discontent

I think it’s hilarious that the media has turned on Hollywood with such exuberance this summer.  All the major newspapers, online publications, and film industry trades have done some variation or another on the Train Wreck That Is the Summer of 2013.  One article after another has posited that this year’s flops will once and for all place Hollywood’s future in jeopardy.  No, really this time.  The chickens have finally come home to roost.  For evidence, pundits will cite After Earth, The Internship, White House Down, The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim, R.I.P.D., Red 2, and The Wolverine.

To all of that, I respond: don’t believe the hype!  Summer 2013 is on track to be the highest grossing summer in Hollywood history (it’s already guaranteed the number two slot).  After Earth, believe it or not, earned 75% of its global revenues overseas, and has just about broken even.  And it was just announced by Steve Burke at Universal that Despicable Me 2 will be that studio’s most profitable film of all time.  All frickin’ time!

The pattern that has repeated itself over and over these past few summers is that some movies will hit the box office jackpot while others will fall by the wayside (only to make up some of their losses overseas).  It’s a winner-take-all environment in today’s blockbuster market, and to talk about this summer’s turkeys without mentioning Iron Man 3, The Great Gatsby, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast & Furious 6, Now You See Me, This is the End, Man of Steel, World War Z, Monsters University, The Heat, Despicable Me 2, and The Conjuring is disingenuous to the extreme.

Hollywood summers have played out this way for a very long time, and especially so over the past decade.  As far as I can tell, the only discernible difference between the summer of 2013 and the ten preceding summers is that budgets have reached dangerous new heights.  When a $200 million movie bombs in the U.S., its reverberations carry a long way.  But, even allowing for this change, 2013 has still been notable for the number of inexpensive movies that earned huge profits, including the aforementioned Now You See Me, Despicable Me 2, The Heat, The Conjuring, and This is the End — none with a budget over $80 million.

But, let’s face it, summer movies are — and have been for quite some time — kind of lousy.  That’s what defines them as summer movies.  It’s really hard to stomach that so many media pundits are suddenly waking up to this fact.  Kids are out of school, movies can earn money during the week and not just on weekends, air-conditioned theaters offer a comfortable afternoon getaway, and audiences are in the mood to shut off their brains and devour a bit of escapist fun.  It has been this way going all the back to the summer of 1975 (and please don’t think that I’m calling Jaws lousy — I adore it).  I’m not condoning the studio’s excessive reliance on sequels, superheroes, and special effects; I’m merely stating the facts (as Kathryn Bigelow might say, “depiction is not endorsement”).

Don’t believe me about the past ten summer movie seasons?  Let’s step into a time machine and go back the full ten years, to the summer of 2003.  Allow me a little latitude here.  I’m not going to list independent releases, foreign titles, or most of the low budget genre stuff, like slasher movies and the like.  I’ll try to focus as best I can on the big budget pictures from the six major studios, though I’m sure I’ve left some movies out or included others that don’t necessarily belong.  Also, when I refer to some of these films as stinkers, I’m not necessarily talking about how much money they lost.  Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is one of the dumbest movies to come around in a very long time, but I’m sure it turned a tidy profit.

Anyway, these were the well-regarded big budget Hollywood releases from the summer of 2003 (May-August): X2: X-Men United, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Bruce Almighty, The Matrix: Reloaded.

And here were the rest of that summer’s heavily marketed big studio releases:

Daddy Day Care
2 Fast 2 Furious
Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd
Hollywood Homicide
Hulk (the first try)
Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Bad Boys II
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
American Wedding

Wow, that is a terrible list.  Truly horrendous.  Think I’m cherry picking?  Let’s travel ahead to 2004.

Here are the Hollywood releases everyone remembers: Shrek 2, The Day After Tomorrow, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, I Robot, Spider-Man 2, Anchorman, The Bourne Supremacy, Collateral.

And here are the big Hollywood releases from that summer that most of us would prefer to forget:

Van Helsing
The Chronicles Of Riddick
The Stepford Wives
Around the World in 80 Days
White Chicks
The Village
Alien vs. Predator
Exorcist: The Beginning
SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2

Seriously?  You’ve got to be kidding me.  There is simply no way that Catwoman and Stepford Wives could have come out within weeks of each other.

Want to see 2005?

First the respectable Hollywood pictures: Star Wars: Episode III Revenge Of The Sith, Madagascar, Cinderella Man, Batman Begins, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, War of the Worlds, Wedding Crashers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Now, the rest:

Kicking and Screaming
Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist (wait, didn’t they already make an Exorcist prequel?)
The Longest Yard
Herbie Fully Loaded
Fantastic Four
Bad News Bears (a crime against humanity)
The Dukes Of Hazzard
Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo

Could there be a worse collection of expensive crap?  Funny you should ask.

Here are the big budget releases from the summer of 2006 that the studios were proud of: Mission: Impossible III, The Da Vinci Code, Cars, Superman Returns, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

And here are the big budget releases from that summer that they were a little less proud of:

X-Men: The Last Stand
The Omen
The Fast And The Furious: Toyko Drift
The Lake House
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
You, Me And Dupree
Lady In The Water
My Super Ex-Girlfriend
Miami Vice
Snakes On A Plane

Now that was a depressing summer!

But was it more depressing than 2007?  Let’s see:

The good stuff: Shrek the Third, Knocked Up, Ocean’s Thirteen, Ratatouille, Transformers, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Simpsons Movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Superbad.  Hey, that was a pretty good summer for the studios!

Or was it?

The other big budget releases that summer (some of which made a ton of money):

Spider-Man 3
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End
Mr. Brooks
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Nancy Drew
Evan Almighty
Live Free Or Die Hard
License To Wed
I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry
Daddy Day Camp
Rush Hour 3
The Invasion

Summer 2008 will be known forever as the summer of The Dark Knight, but here are some other hits from that season: Iron Man, Sex and the City, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock, Wanted, Mamma Mia!, The Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder.

And here are the clunkers:

Made Of Honor
Speed Racer
What Happens In Vegas…
The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
You Don’t Mess With The Zohan
The Happening
The Incredible Hulk (the second try)
Get Smart
The Love Guru
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Journey To The Center Of The Earth 3D
Meet Dave
The X-Files: I Want To Believe
The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor
Swing Vote
The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants 2

I dare anyone to sit through a couple of those titles on a Saturday night!

Onto summer 2009.  What worked: Star Trek, The Hangover, The Proposal, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Public Enemies, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 500 Days of Summer, Funny People, District 9.

What didn’t:

Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Angels And Demons
Terminator Salvation
Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian
Land Of The Lost
Imagine That
The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3

Year One
Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (still made buckets of cash)
G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra
The Final Destination

Do you still have the strength to go on?

In 2010, the studios scored big time with Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Inception, and Eat Pray Love.  That would be fine, if not for the fact that these same major studios also made this heaping pile of trash:

Robin Hood
Sex And The City 2
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
The A-Team
The Karate Kid
Jonah Hex
Knight And Day
Grown Ups
The Last Airbender
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Cats And Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore
Charlie St. Cloud
Dinner For Schmucks

Seriously, the summer of 2010 may go down as one of the worst Hollywood summers of all time.

By comparison, summer 2011 (“Superhero Summer”) was an improvement.  On the plus side: Bridesmaids, Kung Fu Panda 2, X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Cars 2, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, Crazy Stupid Love, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and The Help.

But on the minus side:

Something Borrowed
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (huge numbers, terrible movie)
The Hangover Part II (again, big hit)
Green Lantern
Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Larry Crowne
Captain America
Friends With Benefits
Cowboys And Aliens
The Smurfs
The Change-Up
Final Destination 5
Conan The Barbarian
Fright Night

Okay, now I’m officially depressed.

By the way, remember last summer?  I know it was a whole twelve months ago, and attention spans aren’t what they used to be, so perhaps a refresher is in order.

The Hollywood movies that connected from last summer include: The Avengers (did it ever!), Men in Black III, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Brave, Ted, The Amazing Spider-Man, Ice Age: Continental Drift, The Dark Knight Rises, and Hope Springs.

And here are the ones that really, really, really didn’t connect:
Dark Shadows
The Dictator
What to Expect When You’re Expecting
Snow White and the Huntsman
That’s My Boy
Rock of Ages
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
The Watch
Total Recall
The Bourne Legacy
The Odd Life of Timothy Green

I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but you get the idea.  So what’s changed?  What’s gotten the media so upset this time around?  (And, more importantly, where the hell were they ten years ago?)

Honestly, what is it about this particular summer that has so many pundits pulling their hair out?  Remember, over the past ten summers, Hollywood studios have released: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, S.W.A.T., The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, Poseidon, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Speed Racer, Get Smart, The Love Guru, Meet Dave, Land Of The Lost, MacGruber, and The Watch!

My suspicion is that long-standing critics of Hollywood’s ongoing summer movie release strategy have finally latched onto a narrative that is gaining traction with the general public: that high-priced, brain-numbing blockbuster entertainments aimed at international audiences are killing us here at home.  But, wait a second, you might argue, hasn’t that always been the knock on Hollywood?  Sure it has.  But, at this particular moment in time, foreign box office returns are setting all sorts of new records, making it virtually impossible for the film industry to change course (even when a movie under-performs domestically, it can still break even).

In years past, if a comedy such as Wedding Crashers became a hit, it made most of its money from domestic audiences.  But now, thanks to overseas box office, many of these films (think Ted or The Hangover) are printing money!  Even the embarrassing titles — Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, and Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides spring to mind — were huge winners internationally.

And, frankly, that’s an altogether different set of circumstances — a paradigm shift, as they used to say in the 1990s.  If a studio like Disney can lose $200 million on The Lone Ranger, while netting at least three times that number on Iron Man 3, then critics of The Lone Ranger, of which there are legion, are left tilting at windmills.  But it bombed, they scream.  It flopped!  It was a disaster!  Can’t you hear what we’re saying?

The studios can hear, all right, but, to them, all this recent grousing about Hollywood is just another way of telling them to STOP MAKING DUMB MOVIES.  But they already know their movies are dumb — have known for quite some time — and they simply don’t care.  Dumb movies make money in the summer, they will argue, and they’d probably be correct.  Dumb movies pay for smart movies.

The studios will never kill the goose that’s laying all those damn eggs.  They simply can’t stop trying to pursue a billion dollar grosser, not if a rival studio is going to keep at it.  The global market for Hollywood blockbusters hasn’t found its ceiling yet (new movie theaters continue to be built around the world at a breakneck pace), and you can’t ask a studio to only make the “good” kind of escapist entertainment, as opposed to the “bad” kind.  The difference between the two is negligible.

Put yourself in their shoes.  A movie like Man of Steel is deemed to be the “good” kind of entertainment, but why?  Because it earned $600 million, or because audiences actually enjoyed it?  Or take a movie like Pacific Rim: it’s been deemed the “bad” kind, but is that because audiences hated it, or because it didn’t earn enough money?  Based on these two examples, if you’re a studio exec, do you hire Zack Snyder for your next blockbuster, or Guillermo del Toro (I’d still go with del Toro in a heartbeat)?  After all, we’re not talking about making a good SMART movie, but a good DUMB movie that will earn several hundreds of millions of dollars around the world.  The difference between success and failure is often so razor-thin that it’s no wonder studios don’t know which way to go.

As I’ve argued in the past, there’s something to be said for just skipping these big budget releases entirely, and only concentrating on quality indie titles, or the upcoming glut of prestige films that will vie for awards later this year.  That is certainly a valid point of view, and I don’t take issue with it.

But, let’s face it, we have either ignored the downright ridiculousness of these summer entertainments or dismissed their overall impact on the culture for far too long.  If media analysts are finally mad as hell this summer season, maybe it’s not a moment too soon.

One response to “The Summer of Our Discontent

  1. Great Blog! Can’t wait for the fall movies. Well, there is Blue Jasmine. And Before Midnight was a great bit of speciality b.o. counter-programming.

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