Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The cold summer

Hey! No major film figures died this week (at least as of the moment that I uploaded this). I guess I need to find something new to write about.

I know it is only the last week of September, but I always say that it’s never too soon to reflect on how the big summer movie season went. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)

The big news for the summer was how many big-budget, high-profile, anticipated blockbusters turned out to be duds. The carnage in studio profits and careers was worthy of, say, the typical Hollywood action movie. From week to week, it seemed that the previous week’s loudly touted extravaganza was in history’s dustbin. Flicks like Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life were major commercial disappointments. In that case, however, the problem was probably that the title was too long for people to recite at the ticket counter and so people opted for a movie with a shorter title. (Lara had a further problem with anal-retentive English major types, who stalled while trying to figure out how many colons the title was supposed to have and where it/they should go.) But, if the too-long-title theory is right, how do we explain the fate of the extremely succinctly titled Hulk?

Other summertime casualties included Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and something called Gigli, which before I had finished reading a review of it had been yanked from American movie screens, after earning the princely sum of $6. American moviegoers are definitely getting brutal when it comes to shelling out money to support expensive movies. What in the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger is going on?

A newspaper article published last month by the Independent News Service provides a possible explanation. It’s the result of improved communication technology. Movie marketers have known for years that “word of mouth” could make or break a film. If people like a movie, they tell their friends, and then their friends go see it. If people don’t like a movie, they tell their friends, and their friends give the movie a miss. Traditionally, this process took days or weeks to work its way through the population. That’s why some studios, when they thought they might have sleeper hit on their hands, in past years got into the practice of showing advance screenings to get the word of mouth started. But technology has caused the process to accelerate dramatically.

The INS reported that Hollywood executives were blaming the summer’s flops not on their own lack of creativity or originality but on cell phones. The problem, say the execs, is that the main moviegoers, i.e. teenagers, all have cell phones and are into constantly texting their friends. That means, if a teenager sees a flick and doesn’t like it, he can let a large group of people know instantaneously, sometimes even before the movie has finished its first screening. Now, the execs complain about this as if this were somehow unfair. In reality, it simply means that the execs can’t get away with their old game of spending huge amounts of money on promotion on a movie and be guaranteed that they would earn a lot of their money back in the first weekend before word of mouth had had time to spread. It’s good enough for them, as they say here in Ireland.

Still, I find this whole thing troubling. The bit about the cell phones and the texting doesn’t bother me. It’s the fact that it’s teenagers who are making the judgments and spreading the word. Now, I have nothing against teenagers. I used to be one myself, and sometimes when I get forgetful I think I’m still one. But the fact that most paying moviegoers are teenagers and young adults has long had a definite effect on the movie business. It only makes business sense that the studios would target the people who buy the most movie tickets, which explains why we get movies like Charlie’s Angels and American Pie. Cell phones and texting seem to have magnified the influence of this demographic, which may not be a good thing. On the other hand, the fact that the texters have shown a low tolerance for lame films this summer may be a good thing. But not everything they have cast on the waste heap of movie history has deserved to be dumped. For instance, I thought Hulk was actually a very good movie (I’m biased, of course, being an old Marvel Comics fan), and I expect and hope that its reputation will be resurrected with the passage of time.

For the record, the big winner of the summer was Disney, which was involved with both Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Predictably enough, Disney already has plans another theme-ride-inspired movie, The Haunted Mansion. What’s next? The Matterhorn? Space Mountain? Pay attention, studio executives. The lesson of the summer of 2003 isn’t to copy what’s already been successful. It’s simply to make a good movie. (But not so good that teenagers won’t like it.)

-S.L., 25 September 2003

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