2014 blockbusters

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and the Age of the Great American Flop

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The dust has settled after the typical weekend clash; tentpole after tentpole, soaring budget after soaring budget coming for each other’s throats and the number-one slot at the box-office. Prestige is in the numbers, and it’s clear that the box-office titans of years past have little sustainable clout with the contemporary audience.

Tom Cruise is one of those hardened box-office warriors whose armor is beginning to crack. His Edge of Tomorrow, which reportedly cost around $178 million to produce, earned an estimated $29 million this past weekend, well below what a film of this caliber should be hauling in. Cruise isn’t the only megastar to fall short of expectations as of late; Johnny Depp hasn’t carried a film to more than $80 million in the U.S. since he last rode the waves of the Pirates of the Caribbean series back in 2011, and Will Smith’s After Earth earned only $60 million from American audiences just last year. It’s becoming ever-apparent that:

1)       The age of the “movie star” and box-office success going hand-in-hand is dead

and

2)      The American industry is driving itself into the ground with a stacked slate of tentpoles that never have a chance for survival

There’s nothing  wrong with shifting away from individuals toward broader appeal and familiarity (with a young adult novel, a comic book, a long-standing superhero franchise, etc.)  to secure box-office success, but it’s hard to let it go nonetheless. While Depp, Smith, and Cruise—whose last film to ride past $100 million domestic without the help of pre-established series popularity (the Mission Impossible series) was 2005’s War of the Worlds—find their films doing well in overseas markets (Depp’s The Lone Ranger earned $170 million in foreign receipts, while Smith’s After Earth raked in $183 million), their domestic fall from grace isn’t due to an indifferent general public. The worldwide appeal is there.

Quality is something audiences still value; Edge of Tomorrow received near universal acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike. Warner Bros. pushed a major pre-release campaign that hinged the film’s success on good word of mouth; the studio held at least three preview screenings in many major markets over the last few weeks, and the reaction was largely positive. If you build it, they will come in droves—if it’s free, as most word of mouth screenings are.

The problem with today’s film industry is not that that the tentpoles (for the most part) are inferior works (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are just a few examples of 2014 blockbusters with stellar critical reviews), it’s just that the industry is overcrowding its own shell and pushing itself out of every orifice.

Edge of Tomorrow never had a shot; riding between Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent last weekend and the YA adaptation The Fault in Our Stars this week, Cruise was sandwiched in between two event pictures with a much higher profile than his—which rode on his star appeal alone. Maleficent is Angelina Jolie’s first live-action turn in four years and appeals to the grossly-underrepresented female audience, and The Fault in Our Stars comes pre-packaged with an audience comprised of fans of the novel it’s based on. The market for Edge was satiated only two weeks prior with X-Men and Godzilla. In short, Cruise didn’t have a home in the crowd.

If we look back to the beginning of the blockbuster—let’s just use Jaws, for example—the films themselves were an event that rode through to success simply on being an event. From its opening on June 20, 1975 through the next 30 days of release, Jaws never made more than $7 million per weekend. Let’s jump to 1997, when Titanic—which went on to hold the record for top-grossing domestic release until Avatar in 2009–opened to $28 million in December, followed by a steady stream of weekend grosses ranging from $35 million to $1 million when it fell out of the Top 10 exactly six months later.

Sure, the blockbuster was a new concept in 1975, and the 1990s were heavy on action-oriented films, but the success of films with astronomical budgets was not entirely dependent on how top-heavy a studio could make a film. Blockbusters are becoming so frequent that they’re the norm, not the event.

So far in 2014, we’ve seen approximately 13 major blockbuster releases; that’s an average of nearly two per month thus far, though the majority of them have fallen in the summer release window. Seven films with budgets of over $100 million (some coming in at nearly $200 million) have been released since April; 5 more uber-expensive tentpoles will release from now until August. That number would have been 6, but Warner Bros. pulled Jupiter Ascending from its original July release date and re-slated it for February of next year (they cite issues with post-production and visual effects, but it seems like the studio was feeling burned from the heat of competition).

When blockbusters are released in rapid fire succession like this, there’s bound to be ones that slip through the cracks. It’s simply unwise to create an industry where bloated-budget films fail not on quality, but because they’re no longer capable of being “event” pictures because the event is now the standard.

The fact remains that we’re seeing consistently-underperforming films with budgets of over $100 million. Foreign audiences (namely Asian markets) have shaped American productions for quite some time now, but something needs to be said for the American audience becoming an afterthought.

There’s nothing that separates a film like Edge of Tomorrow or Pacific Rim—two quality productions deemed “flops” because their budgets far outweighed their American grosses—from each other or from other action-oriented an event that makes them worthier of the general audience’s dollar. Audiences would rather save their money for a brand they’re familiar with (Marvel, DC, etc.) instead of risking it on a title they have no prior relationship with.

But, as the top-heavy numbers get bigger, the studios get more ambitious and the competition gets stiffer; this would explain why May box-office hit its lowest levels since 2010; the drop-off for huge openers is part of the equation when you go bigger, harder, and faster on tiny little legs trekking up a mountain of buzzy pre-release anticipation. If we take a look at the Top 100 opening weekends of all time, 80 of them were released between 2004 and 2014, 18 of them within the last year alone. Of the Top 20, only one was released before 2006 (and it was still a superhero film, 2002’s Spider-Man). Nearly all of the contemporary top-grossing opening weekends are sequels, animated family films, superhero films or, yes, sequels to super hero films.

Again, the movie star used to be that point of familiarity. A movie star could really make something out of an adult-oriented narrative that would have found little success otherwise; now we rely on broader concepts of appeal to drive our box-office, but it’s all front-loaded. Even the front-loaded are front loaded, as The Fault in Our Stars earned nearly $25 million on its opening Friday, but dipped to $12 million and $9 million on Saturday and Sunday. In fact, since the last weekend of March when Noah premiered, every film that opened to more than $40 million (aside from Neighbors and Maleficent) dropped over 57% of their audience in their second weekend. Why? Because they don’t have room to breathe. Noah faced Captain America the week after; Spider-Man faced Godzilla 14 days after opening; Godzilla faced X-Men, X-Men faced Maleficent, and Edge of Tomorrow faltered in the wake of Angelina’s box-office reign–all within seven days of each other, respectively.

It’s no surprise, then, that films like Edge of Tomorrow aren’t reaching their audience the way blockbusters used to. It’s a film that, 15 years ago, would have waltzed past the $150 million domestic mark in three or four weekends. Cruise will be lucky if Edge limps to $80 million in North America. When the “movie star” was a business, an industry unto him or herself, films like Edge of Tomorrow were given room to spread their wings and soar. When audiences have a film like this to choose from at least once or twice a month, it’s harder for them to justify spending money on a something they’re unfamiliar with when they know they have 10 superhero flicks to catch just around the corner.

Perhaps Warner Bros. is on to something, here; the studio dumping months have turned into an ideal, wide-open space to drop big-budget films at a time when they’re all crowding toward the summer slate like never before. Just this year, their The Lego Movie soared to nearly $250 million domestic with a February release date, while the studio’s Gravity rocketed to $270 million from American markets in October of last year.

Everyone loves a good event picture here and there, but the battle for weekend supremacy and who can go bigger is a tired one, and the tentpoles aren’t going to stop. It’s hard to find a slot in the picture for gargantuan puzzle pieces, and we’ve created a crack in the armor of the titans. The implosion is imminent unless the air supply increases for those who can’t breathe.

Follow the author on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Review: ‘Godzilla’ Tips the Balance; Can Blockbusters Still Be Art?

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There’s so much ugliness in Hollywood.

We’re bombarded now, more than ever before, with the cacophonous battle cry of tentpole after tentpole, blockbuster after franchise sequel of the same formula of big-budget, effects-driven, fanboy-pandering dreck.

The American film landscape celebrates ugliness in bulk. The meaningless violence, the metallic clangs and clashes of mecha armor and explosions, the suits sitting behind it all and lapping up our hard-earned dollar; there’s simply nothing that champions beauty for beauty’s sake in mainstream cinema anymore.

Now we’re told how to think. We’re told which films are worthwhile (the ones the money is behind, the ones playing at 4,000 theaters, the ones based on an already-popular book series or graphic novel). We’ve lost the thread on adult films and what an “adult” film should be; gone are the days of anticipating a blockbuster from months in advance; we’re no longer permitted to look ahead. We’re forced to exist in the now, to gobble up Captain America while Spiderman 2 is nudging the main course out of the way on a triggered desert plate. These films are built on capitalizing on fanboy investment and returning the monstrous monetary budgets of the studios; it’s nothing more than throwing money around and watching the resulting fireworks of buzz-obsessed culture both onscreen and off. Everyone gets their kicks, but where is the art of it all going?

Godzilla should, by all means, fit in with the other effects-driven tentpoles of the year. It’s a revival of the classic series that defined spectacle for an earlier generation. It’s got a price tag hovering around $200 million. It’s got an aggressive marketing campaign even though its pre-established fanboy and casual audience appeal essentially secures ticket sales on name alone. Godzilla wouldn’t exist through the decades without the support of the same crowd that pushes the comic book films to $100 million weekend grosses.

And still, Godzilla feels refreshingly uncomplicated.

It’s a rarity for an American blockbuster to have a crescendoed artistic pulse throughout, but Godzilla’s is unwavering even in the midst of the film’s heaviest effects-driven scenes. For the most part, Godzilla is not a cacophony of Hollywood bullshit, but rather a delicately beautiful symphony of suspense that taps into a desire we’ve long been conditioned to ignore; to simply gaze upon and marvel at beauty that mystifies us instead of building up and sensationalizing our perception of spectacle.

Godzilla is a film that’s simply about what it’s about, and nothing else; in its world, the human race is careless. They struggle with each other and wage war, carelessly experiment with radiation, inadvertently create monolithic creatures who feed on it, and the earth is left with the burden of restoring order. From what the humans are able to gather, Godzilla is a product of the earth sent to eradicate the parasitic intruders (the “Muto,” which look like a cross between gargoyles, moths, and skinned-and-cooked bird of prey).

The bulk of the film is spent observing the would-be spectacle of the clashing monsters from afar. At its core, the film is merely about juxtapositions and finding a medium between the two. Godzilla and the Muto battle endlessly, though their conflicts are orchestrated with the stroke of a filmmaker who never loses sight of his film’s artistic heartbeat.

The film is peppered with characters that generally mean nothing in the grand scheme of things; there are scientists, soldiers and their wives, nurses, army generals and tourists, but we learn to appreciate the minimal presence of “character” and appreciate the scale of wonderment director Gareth Edwards taps into. He makes humans the least important element of the equation. He reduces us as an audience (as well as the characters in his film) as helpless spectators. All we can do is sit back and watch as powers larger than us have at it with our world, and it’s here that Edwards’ film hones its focus on the mystery of looking on; we’re ever transfixed by an infantile desire to see and engage with what we know so little about, and Godzilla is largely about indulging in that sense of mystery, balancing humble simplicity as we sit in awe of the grandiose scene–never outright spectacle–all around us.

Edwards’ primary strength is that he knows how to restrain himself and his material, even when that material is composed around two 400-foot monsters waging war on the streets of San Francisco. Where someone like Steven Spielberg or Zack Snyder would pull back the curtain and unveil a $200 million spectacle, Edwards meticulously draws it closed. He shrouds his monsters in smoke, in darkness, and the cover of the jungle or water. We see flits and pieces of them from time to time, their full forms only revealed well after the film’s midway point. We’re constantly learning about these creatures as we’re given doses of visuals here and there. Edwards builds a mystery, and we’re fully along for the ride. He builds tension in his scenes, cleverly deconstructing a traditional “reveal” by going back to the basics of suspense; simplicity, silence, long takes, and precise timing tied together with a thread of wit. We focus far more on the build-up than the payoff whereas typical Hollywood films kick back and relax in the mess of pure spectacle.

There’s a playfulness to the way Edwards structures his action, though. There’s a careful discretion at work, and the hand of the filmmaker functions as a companion instead of a prodding sensationalist. Edwards presents us with subjects of epic proportions and frames them gorgeously and cleverly, but reveals so little about them that all we can do is sit back and bask in the wonderment of what we’re seeing. We’re rewarded for our patience by being allowed to fantasize instead of having everything presented to us in cookie-cutter shape.

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In many ways, Godzilla is a response—almost a critique, if you will—of the state of things in Hollywood. It’s at first peculiar that Edwards’ creatures often find themselves battling amidst tourist attractions around the world. One of the Muto ravages the Las Vegas landscape, tearing through faux versions of the Eiffel Tower and Manhattan, we see them duke it out in Hawaii, destroying an airport and interrupting a beach full of lei-laden vacationers; in both locales, our focus is often placed on two small children; a boy at the airport and a girl on the beach. Edwards spends the majority of both scenes focused on the children’s faces as they watch, unsure of whether to be frightened or mystified at what they’re seeing. The adults—whether they pull levers on the slot machines or sip drinks on the beach—spend most of their time distracted, and that’s exactly how Hollywood operates; adults flock to the tentpoles weekend after weekend, fostering a culture of quick-fix fandom that’s never satiated until the next lever that’s offered is pulled, though it never quite yields a jackpot. The only ones left when the smoke clears, then, are the children who dare to explore and hang on to that sense of wonderment, and Godzilla nurtures that curious child inside us all. It’s a film that gives us beautiful images and sweeping vision at the hands of a clever filmmaker with a creative pulse beating through the veins of a film that would have otherwise been about reaffirming the status quo for the action-oriented blockbuster. Instead, Godzilla is able to find harmony amidst the bluster of pots and pans.

Throughout the film, we’re never given concrete evidence of what created Godzilla, though the film’s scientists are pre-occupied with the idea that the earth bore him as a means to restore the balance humans offset by fostering a world that allowed the Muto to exist. Godzilla is not an overtly political film, though it does do something typical Hollywood films don’t; it implicates its audience and relishes in ambiguity, seeing as Godzilla is not presented as a villain or a hero. The beast merely represents the natural order and aims to restore the balance of earth. Ultimately, he exists solely to clean up a mess that humans made. He’s generous for making things easier than they should be for humans, I can give him that, but he ultimately exists unto himself. He is not evil, he is not a saint, and he remains a mystery, and the film relies heavily on pitting the small against the big and the known against the mysterious. Is Godzilla a monster or a savior? Either way, the film’s characters should learn to regard him with respect instead of trying to understand it all. It’s much more beautiful that way, and isn’t that how we see life in general?

Hollywood tries to teach us that accessibility is earned by showing up and paying for a ticket, but it’s all really so much bigger than us. Mainstream cinema barely tries to scratch the surface of what film can be. It reduces things to simple spectacle, and films that value the art of it all have shrunk in size, confined to art house markets and box-office grosses 1/100th the size of the advertising budget for whatever superhero flick is playing this weekend. With Godzilla, Edwards challenges the idea of what a blockbuster should and can be. It’s flashy, it’s big, it’s effects-driven and expensive, but it never loses sight of the beauty that can be found in the spectacular image or that wondrous, fantastical feeling of pondering the immensity of that which we cannot control.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi