Is it over for the blockbuster movie in Hollywood?

Back in June, director Steven Spielberg — who helped launch the mega blockbuster in Hollywood –surprised insiders by predicting that the era of the franchise/merchandizing movie was drawing to a close. 

As recounted by the acerbic Timothy Egan, in the NY Times:

Steven Spielberg, who nearly invented the summer blockbuster with “Jaws,” was ruminating about the future at a University of Southern California forum in June, with his old friend George Lucas.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground,” he said at the time, “and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”

Well, it happened. At least a half-dozen of the biggest blimps, some costing $200 million or more, fell out of the sky this summer. But will a dose of capitalistic creative destruction stop Hollywood from making so many bad movies? Probably not. The bloated smash-em-ups — by one estimate, 129,000 people died in the final battle scene of the insipid Superman movie — still make money overseas, an incentive to keep manufacturing generic garbage. With “Fast and Furious 6” and “Iron Man 3” doing big numbers, this summer is boffo!

One of the survivors of the "summer of the big dud" that Egan describes is World War Z, which was extensively rewritten with a surprising third act that actually lowers the stakes. Script doctor Daniel Lindelof explained to New York's Vulture blog, admitting that he went for this only after a previous effort, expensively shot, fell flat: 

Hollywood’s gigantism, Lindelof points out, is practically algorithmic—and the effect tendrils all the way down to the storytelling level. When ever-larger sums are spent to make and market ever-fewer, ever-bigger movies, and those movies are aimed at Imax screens, then world-­shattering comic-book I.P. and gigantic special effects are expected, with larger-than-life characters wielding those effects. No one necessarily asks for it; it just kind of happens. It’s what Lindelof calls Story Gravity, and dealing with it—whether that means resisting it or simply surfing it skillfully—is the great challenge of writing this new breed of tentpole blockbuster. The question used to be: How do we top ourselves? The new one seems to be: How do we stop ourselves?

“Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world,” explains Lindelof. “And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there. In the old days, it was just as satisfying that all Superman has to do was basically save Lois from this earthquake in California. The stakes in that movie are that the San Andreas Fault line opens up and half of California is going to fall in the ocean. That felt big enough, but there is a sense of bigger, better, faster, seen it before, done that.”

“It sounds sort of hacky and defensive to say, [but it’s] almost inescapable,” he continues. “It’s almost impossible to, for example, not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake."

Or, as Ryan Britt pointed out for a famous SF franchise, Tor:

The trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness is the new poster child for what can only be called the Big Franchise Film Epidemic. It presents a “story” which doesn’t seem remotely different from The Dark Knight Rises, or for that matter, Skyfall. Earth is under attack from a major asshole who is going to destroy everything the good guys hold dear and nothing will be the same anymore now that major asshole has blown everything up. (Remember how this also happened in the last Star Trek movie?) The bad guy is almost always going to be an English guy who is an awesome actor. If you can’t get Tom Hardy, get Tom Hiddleston. Or, if you’ve got the big J.J. Abrams guns, get Benedict Cumberbatch. If your main good guy is already English, find someone with a different accent. Is Javier Bardem around?

Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Avengers are all eerily similar in structure.

It's not over for the franchises, as long as studios can make hundreds of millions of dollars pedaling forgettable battles to millions of non-English speakers (see Pacific Rim). But it's killing the business back here at home among the people who used to love movies for the insight they offered into heroism. 


Most interesting aspect of Pacific Rim was a backstory depicting a little girl in an industrial space standing up to an enormous monster terrorizing the city…very much like the jeopardized little girl character in The Host, an infinitely more imaginative (and funny!) monster movie from South Korea. 

The host

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post piles on:

The summer of 2013 might be remembered best as the Season of the
Collapsing Tentpoles. As mega-budget spectacles such as “White House
Down,” “The Lone Ranger” and “After Earth” fell apart at the box office,
little engines that could — one with a name that was literally “Mud” —
proved they could not only survive the competition, but thrive.

True that: Mud has been the most successful of indy pics so far this year, bringing in $21.4 million. One critic described it as "Tennessee Williams lite," and it's been a delight for those of us who like old-fashioned movies, even if it has more gunplay than Williams would ever want to see.

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  1. Jane Boursaw

    I see a ton of movies, and the ones that really stick with me are the smaller, indie films where you know that everyone involved is doing it because they actually want to be there. With the bigger blockbusters, so often it seems like the actors are just phoning it in. I guess they’ll keep making them if there’s money to be made, but the indie movie business is definitely gaining on them in terms of revenue and box office appeal.

    August 27, 2013