Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Wild Hogs, Ghost Rider, Norbit and Other Works of Art.

First published 3/4/07:

Ever since eighth grade or so, I have tracked box office figures online nearly every weekend. This activity has taken up maybe ten minutes of a sunday or monday morning during my internet routine first thing I wake up. I usually keep up merely out of habit with no real vested interest, but the trends of the last several weeks have disturbed me. And I knew, when I checked today's weekend estimates to find that "Wild Hogs" had grossed $38 million dollars (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/weekend/chart/?yr=2007&wknd=09&p=.htm), that something needed to be said.

"Wild Hogs" marks the latest development in a disturbing trend. Every week, since the first weekend of 2007, a horribly juvenile, stilted, uninspired, also-ran type film has opened to a huge amount of money.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Landon, c'mon, there are more important things than movies. There's a war on terror, genocides all over Africa, and Britney's hair still hasn't grown back, yet."

But when I hear that kind of an attitude, I say, "No, Voice in my Head, you don't understand. This isn't just movies. This is part of a much larger societal problem." That larger problem, I think, is that movie studios are gradually and indefinitely making people stupider.

So, first off, 2007 in review:

The first several months of a new year usually releases the worst films: It's the time of the year that is far away from both the Academy Awards season and the summer blockbuster season, so the fact that "Stomp the Yard" dominated the first two weekends of 2007 ($21mil its first weekend, $12mil the second) didn't bother me. After all, along the lines of "Drumline" and "You Got Served," it's a film made for a specific demographic that I'm simply not part of.

However, the month of January ended it's run with "Epic Movie" taking the top spot with $18mil. The movie scored a horrendous 2% on rotten tomatoes. Dumb comedies don't bother me--I'm a huge fan of "Dumb and Dumber" and Will Ferrell. What bothers me is that this movie wasn't really even a comedy, or a parody per se. Good senseless parodies like "Naked Gun," "Airplane," (or even "Mafia!" and the first "Scary Movie") take films that are already very well known to audiences and turn them on their ear. "Epic Movie", however, is simply takes blips from the movies released the previous year (far too soon to make a funny parody) and meshes them into an amalgamation of stupidity, with no real original humor bred into them at all. It's simply an empty overview of films released recently. Many of the movies they "parody" in this film don't even fall under the given category of epic, like "Borat" and "Nacho Libre" (and what the hell is the point of parodying a comedy?) Yet, for some reason, people showed up in droves to see this film.

The next week, "The Messengers," a run-of-the-mill horror film, opened at no.1 with $14mil. I'm starting to wonder when audiences will get tired of seeing the same uninspired, cardboard-plot-driven horror film over and over again. But the trend only continued with "Norbit" hitting no.1 with $34mil, followed by "Ghost Rider" dominating the next two weekends with $45mil and $20mil, followed by "Wild Hog"'s massive debut this weekend.

Of all the movies that have hit no.1 so far this year, "Ghost Rider" (I kid you not) is the best-reviewed, with 27% on rotten tomatoes. ("Stomp the Yard" has 26%, followed by "Wild Hogs" with 16%, and its all downhill from there.)

Now, I know what you're saying, Voice in my Head: "Landon, movies are supposed to be escapist entertainment, not art. And you're a pretentious film student, your opinion doesn't count."

First of all, art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Secondly, I'm a 22-year-old white male with some dispensable income, which makes me part of the target mass market that every major studio is campaigning their films toward. Yet, I have not met a single person that has seen any of these movies. (VimH: "Landon, if you haven't seen them, how do you know they're not good?" Shut up. I don't care if this makes me sound like an ass, but I've seen enough movies to know what's good and what's bad before I watch them.)

Who in their right mind is shelling out $12 dollars at The Grove to see something like "Norbit"? Are all movies now being marketed to 15-year old boys? How is it that I am 22-years old and a frequent moviegoer and I feel like nobody is making movies for me?

The truth is, studios totally underestimate audience intelligence in favor of making films that are already familiar to audiences ("Stomp the Yard," "The Messengers") or have a high concept with big stars ("Wild Hogs"). Movie studios want your money in the door, and pretty much don't care if you're unsatisfied or pissed-off when you come out. Therefore, as studios take less and less risks, the films get dumber and more predictable. And this trend will only continue because audiences are continuing to shell out their hard-earned dollars to see this crap. Simply put, studios are conditioning audiences to accept mediocrity as a standard.

Take the top ten grossing films of 2006 for example:


Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 are films largely marketing to kids and teens (and it doesn't hurt that they are either sequels or computer-animated, or both). This I can't help but forgive, because these movies have a proven, inherent audience and are not marketed towards me (with the exception of "Happy Feet"--that was just terrible. Kids are cute, but dumb, so you can't blame them for dragging their parents to dumb movies. Ever watched a movie you loved as a kid? Chances are, if it wasn't made by Disney, it's pretty bad.) Anyway, it's simply part of the system.

However, sometimes studios depend on this inherent market without regard to quality or entertainment value: ex. "X-Men: The Last Stand," a hastily made sequel far inferior to its predecessors. Yet, because of the built-in audiences, it made money. regardless of whether or not people were happy with it when they left, it got them in the door. No.5, "The Da Vinci Code" is a film geared more towards people my age and older, yet this film still suffered a similar fate as "X-Men": it was a success because of the built-in audience regardless of it's shortcomings--cardboard characters and plot executed as if no high stakes existed (ie. we saw them running, but never felt they were in a hurry). Disappointing considering the involvement of Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. It seems the only film that delivered on its own merit was "The Pursuit of Happyness" (whose success cannot help but be attributed to its star power and black-and-white moral compass). "Casino Royale" is the only film in the top 10 that actually ATTEMPTED to deliver in its entertainment value without simply relying on its guranteed audience, yet this came at the expense of shameless product placement throughout.

Another thing that has made studio movies worse is, yes, independent film. What indie films have done is marginalize films with artistic merit into limited venues in only the highly populated cities around the country. Only when these films overperform in these areas do they get a chance to be seen by middle America ("Little Miss Sunshine," "The Queen"). When these movies open in limited release in a box office that thrives on opening weekend grosses, they're basically giving up before they have a chance, saying, "I know I won't connect with a mass audience, so I won't even try." The fact that most independent films are distributed by studios under a different name (Fox Searclight, Sony Pictures Classics) only makes it worse. Any film that does not have the studio approval of "mass appeal", whether independently financed or not, is automatically designated an "indie" and kept in secret from mass audiences. Therefore, artistic merit and entertainment value have been deemed as mutually exclusive: artistic merit belonging in the big cities, half-assed entertainment belonging everywhere. This has caused studios to only go further into their routines of repitition and underestimating audience intelligence.

What I'm saying is that movies that are being marketing solely as entertainment aren't even delivering at that, but are mediocre and also-ran at best, relying on the attendance of ignorant audiences.

Audiences aren't necessarily unintelligent. This year's success stories of good old-fashioned smart storytelling like "The Departed" or "Inside Man", and the unexpected successes of "Borat" and "Little Miss Sunshine" prove that audiences cannot be underestimated and will show up to a movie if it is good, legitimately entertaining and original.

So, please, stop wasting your money on these shitty pieces of shit. It doesn't benefit you. It will only benefit movie execs in Culver City or Santa Monica who already have more money than they need. And it will only make movies dumber and worse. Shell out your hard-earned dollar for something original and promising, and don't settle for mediocrity.

Hopefully the trend will subside when "300" opens this weekend, for this is a studio-released film that has no star power, barely any built-in audience, that is looking for success only on the merits of its own uniqueness. (It has some of the best reviews of '07, with 100% right now on rotten tomatoes.)

Maybe then the Voice in my Head will shut up.


Update: 5/4/07: I originally wrote this note in March, and I just wanted to clarify the final detail of my argument: "300" sucked.

Another Update: Let me expand on this. I thought 300's action scenes were entertaining enough, and I give it credit for being extremely successful on much riskier terms than the aforementioned films (and I hope its success will help quiet the studio fear of the R rating). But every scene that wasn't an overedited bombast of action felt like droll, empty filler that I found excruciatingly boring. 300 is like the films I mentioned in that it exists solely for entertainment's sake, but fails to deliver this promise fully, albeit not as horrendously as most of this year's offerings. And I feel my argument is all the more relevant with the release of what is currently 2007's highest-grossing film, Spider-Man 3 (which was great for kids, but disappointing for even the casual fan of the comic). Hollywood needs more Knocked Ups and Ratatouilles, and it's odd to me that the most praised "action" film this year was the Brit parody, Hot Fuzz.


aido said...

ah come on now... 300 wasn't that bad. I thought it done exactly what it set out to do; a big, bright, blaring, balls-to-the-wall popcorner... And that's coming from both a fan of the comic and a fellow pretentious film student (well, graduate).

Like you say, it didn't depend on starpower, and blows the tits of all the other stinkers you mentioned...

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