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Jurassic World and the Summer Movie Doldrums

Right now the summer 2015 movie season is nearly over, and mired in something of a slump. The summer’s box office haul, according to Box Office Mojo, is around $3.6 billion, far less than the $5 billion that was widely predicted, and also 2014’s $4.1 billion summer take. The problem? Frankly I’m not sure, and based on what I’ve read nobody else is either.

     According to Variety.com’s Brent Lang, “too many movies have arrived without roman numerals in the title.” Really? I tend to side more with the claim made by Fandango.com’s Dave Karger that “This summer is more packed with big franchise movies than any summer I can recall” (for the record, JURASSIC WORLD may not have had a roman numeral in its title but was still very much a sequel--ditto THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION).

     Lang’s article takes the George Clooney bomb TOMORROWLAND to task, implying that its failure proves that, in the words of another box office prognosticator, “young audiences no longer respond to non-franchise blockbusters.” If that is indeed the case then what are we to make of the failures of the VACATION and FANTASTIC FOUR reboots? Somehow I don’t think they’ll be interpreted by Hollywood as a sign that audiences are fed up with reboots, even though that may in fact be the case (the POLTERGEIST reboot, while not a flop, didn’t exactly light the box office on fire either).

     Another contentious issue is with the differing opinions on what constitutes a hit film. An interesting forbes.com article contrasts the fortunes of the “hit” MAD MAX: FURY ROAD with those of the flop TERMINATOR GENISYS. The point of the article is that one of those films has been designated a success by the news media and the other a failure despite roughly equivalent production costs and box office results. The issue seems to be that critics really *want* the widely praised MAD MAX: FURY ROAD to be a hit, even though the hard data doesn’t support that view.

     I agree that FURY ROAD is a terrific film, indeed probably the best of the summer, but I also recognize that it represents all that’s wrong with modern-day Hollywood. It combines, after all, not one but two hated formats--it’s both a sequel and a reboot--and brings very little to the MAD MAX franchise the first three entries didn’t already cover. The fact that it represents the best the summer of 2015 has to offer doesn’t say much for Hollywood’s movie slate.

     Then there are the diversity-in-film pundits, who’ve been especially vocal of late. They claim that what today’s movies really need is a greater percentage of female talent behind the camera. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to this view--women directors couldn’t possibly do any worse with the summer blockbuster model than Hollywood’s cherished stable of white male hacks, and might indeed breathe some new life into the formula.

     The problem is that such arguments are invariably long on outrage and idealism but short on practical solutions. See Jessica Ritchey’s RogerEbert.com article on the subject, which makes the case for hiring quotas in Hollywood. Of course Ritchey doesn’t bother explaining how those quotas would be enforced, or by whom. Another problem is that the article focuses its ire on JURASSIC WORLD, apparently a “lumpy hybrid of the previous three films” (true) that would have benefited from a woman director’s touch (doubtful). Yet from a financial standpoint, which is what matters most in Hollywood, JURASSIC WORLD was one of the summer’s indisputable bright spots. It is, after all, currently the most successful movie of 2015, and also the third top grosser of all time. JURASSIC WORLD may not be especially well liked (more on this subject below), but to Hollywood’s movers and shakers it’s a “problem” that doesn’t need to be fixed.

     Continuing with the need-for-diversity argument, think back to the 1980s, when similar arguments were made. The solution, many claimed, was for more women to be installed in Hollywood at the executive level. Guess what? A number of women have indeed come to run the show in Hollywood--including Dawn Steel at Columbia Pictures, Sherry Lansing and later Gail Berman at Paramount, Laura Ziskin at Fox 2000, Nina Jacobson at Buena Vista, Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm and Amy Pascal at Sony Pictures--and the situation has only gotten steadily worse with regards to directorial diversity.

     Back in the eighties and nineties it wasn’t uncommon for women directors like Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge, Katherine Bigelow, Penelope Spheeris and Susan Seidelman to go head-to-head with the men in the blockbuster movie arena, but in today’s apparently more enlightened Hollywood it seems the bottom line trumps our “need” for women filmmakers. According to one recent estimate, women comprise just five percent of Hollywood’s stable of directors. Furthermore, given that Hollywood has hitched its wagon to comic book inspired movies, whose target audiences tend to be guys--and nerdy guys at that--I’m not expecting to see women-centric cinema proliferate in the summers to come.

     Of course, the ultimate solution to the summer movie doldrums would appear to be quite simple: make better movies. Once again, however, reality doesn’t entirely support this view.

     Let’s take another look at JURASSIC WORLD. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who will admit to having fully liked that movie--indeed, it seems that among my friends I enjoyed it the most, and I had a lot of problems with it--yet moviegoers can’t seem to get enough of it. It is, once again, the third top-grossing movie of all time, and its theatrical run isn’t even finished. How is it that JURASSIC WORLD has become such a monster success?

     The answer, I believe, is that audiences have been conditioned to accept less, particularly in the case of summer movies. Recently I was regaling a friend about the shortcomings of THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, to which he shrugged and mumbled “it’s a summer movie,” which apparently excused its flaws. The idea that we might have the right to expect more from our summer blockbusters than empty spectacle, and that it is possible for movies like THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON or JURASSIC WORLD to provide quality entertainment in concert with their special effects, appears to be lost on today’s moviegoers. Hence the consistently dodgy quality of 2015’s crop of summer movies--and the fact that whatever you might think about JURASSIC WORLD, we’ll no doubt be seeing plenty more movies just like it in the coming years.

 

--8/11/15 

     

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