Since getting back from abroad, I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands, for a variety of reasons that don’t really bear mentioning here. Unsurprisingly, that’s meant a lot of time spent watching movies (and an equal amount of time when I’ve wanted to watch movies but have instead lain at my bed staring at the ceiling telling myself that I should really do work instead, but no matter). In particular, I’ve been trying to get myself into the theater as much as possible – both because I like going to the movies and because that’s how movies are really meant to be taken in. I’ve stuck to the local multiplexes, because, if you don’t drive, it’s really hard to get out to the indy places, and I guess also because I feel like multiplexes should be screening enough movies that you’ll get a pretty good selection any time you go.
Here are the movies that I’ve seen in theaters this summer: The Tree of Life, Super 8,The Hangover 2, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Horrible Bosses, Midnight in Paris, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2, Bridesmaids. Major pictures that I missed: Captain America, Bad Teacher, No Strings Attached 2 (err, Friends With Benefits, sorry), Cars 2, Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Cowboys & Aliens, Transformers 3.
So much for a pretty good selection.
I don’t mean that in the sense that the movies I saw were terrible – really, most were perfectly adequate. It’s that, when I look at this list, I’m genuinely shocked at the lack of variety in my options. Among the movies that I saw (all, remember, movies available at my local multiplex AMC) were three raunch comedies (including one sequel), three comic book movies (two of which were sequels, and I’m counting Harry Potter in this group because whatever the source material it is, in its soul, a comic book movie – which goes for Pirates as well), and three ‘original’ films (that is, non-tentpole, non-sequel). Go outside of what I watched and you get an additional slew of comic book movies, sequels, and another raunch comedy.
I realize I’m in danger of reiterating my Inception post from earlier this year, which is the last thing I want to do. Let me instead take this in a different direction and ask: with the basic options that I have listed here, would anyone who didn’t really love going to the movies really want to go to the theatre as much as I have this summer? On a given weekend this summer, you’re basically given the option of choosing between a couple of raunch comedies, a couple of 3D comic book extravaganzas, and, if it’s a good weekend, a single non-tentpole, non-sequel film.
I think that what this points to is a sort of deterministic myopia on the part of studios, akin to what’s going on with the production of 3D movies: we keep getting more superhero movies and raunch comedies because studios believe that that’s what people will pay to go see, just like we keep getting more 3D movies because that, apparently, is what people want when they go to the theater.
Yet there is an obvious flaw in this logic: if I’ve already seen X-Men: First Class and Thor this summer, why would I pay to go see Green Lantern? There are only two possible motivations: either Green Lantern gets great reviews and word-of-mouth (it got neither), making me believe I’m going to have an elevated experience watching it, or because there’s simply nothing else to see. This, in fact, is exactly why I went to see Bridesmaids despite having already watched the thoroughly-crummy Hangover 2 earlier in the summer: I had heard a lot of good things about it, and it was the only movie that I hadn’t seen. People go to watch superhero movies about lesser-known heroes because those are the movies that are playing, not because superhero movies are predetermined to be popular or good. Hence what I’m arguing about 3D: 3D movies are supposedly a big box-office draw, but the argument is unsound because there’s often not an option to watch the movie in 2-D. I would much rather have watched, say, Thor in 2D and saved myself the five bucks or whatever it was that was basically a sunk cost of wanting to go to the movies. The problem was that that wasn’t an option.
I know that the film industry is a business and that studios are above all concerned with the bottom line. That’s exactly why it’s shocking to me that there isn’t more of an effort to produce at least a greater variety of movies. It seems clear that there’s a market for people who are looking for alternatives to explosions and eye-wrenching 3D – consider, for instance, that so far this summer R-rated comedies have outgrossed superheroes. By the same token, Super 8 hasn’t been a runaway hit, but it has earned three times its budget.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that people like going to the movies, but that perception of what people will watch is warped because there’s such a limited number of options to choose from. Fundamentally, I’m pretty sure that people will pay to go watch pretty much any summer blockbuster that meets the following requirements: looks cool visually, has a bankable male lead (attractive love interest preferred but not always necessary), and can be shoehorned into a compelling marketing narrative. I suspect that brand recognition, outside of a limited number of franchises, is actually less important than people think.
Put another way: the Batmans, Supermans, and Harry Potters of the world have a strong enough brand that they’re going to make money no matter what. Green Lantern, though, doesn’t have that kind of built-in appeal. You know what else doesn’t? Iron Man – but Iron Man looked cool (where Green Lantern looked dorky), had a charismatic lead (a newly-interesting Robert Downey Jr, as compared with the never-really-interesting Ryan Reynolds), and was the subject of an advertising campaign that made the movie look fresh and funny – which it could do because the movie was, in fact, both those things. Similarly, franchises that that are by now established enough that they can rest on their brand – ie, Transformers and Pirates — are based on first films that played to that formula.
A case in point: Inception. I know I keep coming back to it, but it’s the best recent example: bankable male lead (DiCaprio, right now probably the biggest movie star on the planet), great marketing campaign, and fantastic trailer production that highlighted the film’s incredible visual effects.
So why aren’t we getting more variety in the multiplexes? My best answer is that studios are caught in a sort of prisoner’s dilemma. Each studio wants to maximize its profits in the summer, and it arranges its slate of movies accordingly: roughly two tentpole movies, with an assortment of mid- and low-budget complementary options to be released throughout the summer. The majors can’t not build around tentpoles, because tentpoles make the most money and, if they play it safe and don’t put out anything that’s that high-budget, they’re almost guaranteed to see a big chunk of the summer pie divided up among the other majors. In other words, they’re forced to stake huge amounts of money on particular films so that they can stay competitive. Unfortunately, they also desperately need those films to make lots of money, because if a tentpole flops, they’re in a big hole — which means that they’re in the paradoxical position of having to be extremely conservative at the same time that they are, essentially, taking a huge risk. Hence their grabbing at whatever straws they can find to ensure a success – which, usually, is some kind of brand to build off of, be it a title (Harry Potter), a character (Captain America, Thor), a beloved ‘80s toy (Transformers, or, now, the sure-to-be-awful Battleship), or a theme park ride (Pirates). Unfortunately, there are only so many objects of recourse in this game, so we end up with a bunch of titles that look more or less the same. Innovation is stifled because it raises the stakes of what is already a high-risk, high-reward situation.
Of course, we won’t be subject to comic book movies and vampires forever – at some point, we’ll go beyond our saturation point and people will go from saying, “I guess I’ll go see Captain America, it’s the only thing that’s out,” to saying, “Jesus, another superhero movie? Let’s watch the baseball game instead.” Of course, then we’ll move on to the next set of preoccupations.
So settle in, cinephiles: it’s going to be a long couple of decades at the movies.
Gentleman of the Day: