Sunday, 11 August 2013

What's Happened to the Movies?

I'm waiting. I've been waiting patiently for few months now and it seems the wait may soon be over with the imminent release of Elysium.

It's not that I've been anticipating this film release specifically but I have been pining for something of its type, a big budget high concept QUALITY blockbuster for a loooong time.

At the start of the year I found myself with a renewed passion for the pictures and got into the habit of making a weekly trip to my local cinema. I really enjoyed it... at first but as I quickly exhausted the films I wanted to see and started on the much longer list of films I should see (you know, the Argo’s, Place Beyond The Pinses, that type of stuff) the trips got increasingly unsatisfying. I love a thoughtful, well structured block buster. There’s definitely a theme when it comes to my favourites, Alien movies (nothing beyond Alien 3 – under any circumstances), The Terminators (nothing beyond 2 exists for me), The Matrices, you get the point.

And so it was I eagerly awaited Oblivion, World War Z and After Earth which all seemed to have their hearts set on the world ending in a pretty shitty way. Great! I thought.

I went along to see Oblivion expecting good things but it was so chronically uneventful I wondered if it was some kind of 5D experience, the 5th dimension being to make you feel like you were actually in oblivion.

Director, Joseph Kosinski had spun nothing happening into an un-riveting 2 hours of movie misery. Like Lindsay Lohan wearing Ugg boots, it seemed this was just the start of a very disappointing trend. Superman, Pacific Rim and World War Z have all failed to deliver, creatively anyway, receiving mixed reviews (once the critics where allowed to actually see the films).

Couple this with the almost comical anger I have at Ridley Scott for the diabolical Prometheus (honestly I go off like a UKIP member at the Notting Hill carnival) it made me start to wonder, what is happening to the traditional studio blockbuster? The only big budget offering that seem to have lived up to expectations is J.J Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness.

With reboot and after reboot (aren't we due a reimagining of SpiderMan soon?), listless sequels, remakes and novel adaptation, it seems like the studios have replaced their creative department with  tubs of earthworms (Here are a few projects Will Smith is currently cooking up – After Earth2, Bad Boys 3, Hancock 2, I am Legend 2,  I, Robot 2, Karate Kid 2 and Annie).

Worryingly the new business model for most of the studios summer output seems to be entirely unreliant on creativity and more on expert marketeering.

What we face now is a blockbuster season where half of the hundreds of millions of dollars is spent on coaxing a catalogue of top names and financing visual effect bells and whistles and the other half on marketing.

This would be OK if the films delivered on audience satisfaction but too often they don’t.  What the studios are banking on is us punters stomping to the cinema in a trance-like state seduced by the whizz bang advertising so that they can break even in the first weekend (strategically scheduling the release around major public holidays). After which, sales can fall off by some 80% (because the films are shit) but the studios are happy because they’ve made their money back.

Add to this the new trend of denying critics access to the film prior to release (you know, so they can warn us it’s shit. These people are our canaries down the mine and I now don’t got to a film until I’ve heard from at least two respected journos that the film as at least half way decent) and this is almost the perfect… con.
Speilberg himself, one of our greatest purveyors of classic and much loved movies is concerned for the future of the industry.

In a recent talk he suggested that in the future we may be facing a two tiered ticketing structure at the cinema where patrons are expected to fork out up to four times the ticket price to see big budget movies.
He also reminded us of the seemingly halcyon days when fewer blockbusters were made and they stayed in the cinema for a lot longer. This was certainly my preference and how things were when the likes of the original Star Wars films and E.T. were released, the latter enjoying more than 12 glorious months in the cinema before it was temporarily retired before the long and highly anticipated Christmas television premier. Those were indeed the days.

Cinema has become so business orientated that even Spielberg himself and his cohort George Lucas sometimes struggle to secure theatrical released for their films. Yes you read that right. Lincoln was nearly an HBO special, yes the one that won those Oscars nearly never saw the silver screen.
So evidently, this new business model is flawed and the losers, ultimately are us, the great cinema going public who basically dictate,  by how and where we spend our money what cinema tricks or treats we are served up.

And we are being massively short changed and here’s why.

Film is one of the most important mediums because of the impact it has on the human spirit. It has the ability to illicit a vast range of human emotions, to speak to the very core of who and what we are as a species, to tell allegorical tales through sweeping adventures, to take us to times past and yet to come, to unite us in our commonalities, highlight our differences, make up laugh until tears flow, terrify us for weeks after, to warm us to our souls and so much more. With all our technological advances, cinema going should be redundant, but it isn’t. The immersive nature of this format makes it even more powerful. Nothing can compare. Cinema is powerful and audiences know it.

They may not critique a film with the skill of  Kermode or Norman but we know when something is good and when it isn’t. We also know, more importantly when something is satisfying and when it isn’t.

A film that really satisfies, stays with us well beyond the cinema trip, it passes through into the public consciousness, phrases become part of the popular lexicon (“It’s been emotional” “You can’t handle the truth!”) and more importantly we see something of humanity reflected back in us in the behaviours of the characters before us, themes explored resonate as we watch characters grow and change.

No matter what genre you enjoy, the most satisfying films offer three critical elements - a journey, challenge and transformation. Every film from 4 Weddings and a Funeral to Aliens all deliver this and if a movie short changes on these aspects or thinks that replacing characterisation with explosions and car chases will placate us, the result is at best mediocre or worse entirely forgettable.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with a film that is made purely for entertainment. There are many films like this (the names of which I cannot remember because they’re all so forgettable) and actually these films probably help us appreciate the greats even more but it feels like we’re getting a little too much chaff these days and not nearly enough wheat.

Studio executives need to go back to the drawing board. Back to basics. Compelling original stories (I demand a ban on reboots, remakes and adaptations for 5 years!), three dimensional characters, a return to thematic resonances and that doesn’t mean preaching, just speaking of that which is important: love, honour, loyalty, faith, light and darkness, etc. Basically good story telling.

One of my favourite films and a classic that stands up against any current big budgeter is E.T. which, when broken down, is ultimate a love story and thematically as human a story as you could hope for. It didn’t need 18 minute sequences of interstellar gun fights or multimillion dollar FX to create the alien. Speilberg put a little man in a suit and kids on BMXs in front of a blue screen. Movie gold.

Or Ghostbusters, one of the finest comedies ever made. Clear characterisation, identifiable journey, from losers to winners to losers again… to even bigger winners. Their special effects? Some fancy make up on Sigourney Weaver and a stop frame animation troll type thing – result – Cinema history (“Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”)

Luckily, Jo Public seems to be fighting back (at least a little). With box office flops Lone Ranger, After Earth and Jack and The Giant Slayer the studios have sustained huge losses this year. Let’s hope this encourages them to take a back-to-basics approach and give us cinema goers something we long for, decent movies otherwise the whole industry is going to oblivion.


  1. I know what you mean; but their action comedies are better.
    After Earth was the worst film I've seen in years; but I've never liked E.T. either.
    Matt Damon is pretty reliable, as it's Jodie Foster, so I'm looking forward to Elysium too.
    I won't be tearing up my Cineworld card just yet; but I suspect that they'll lose out to home cinemas eventually.

    1. Fair point. I think we'll always go to the cinema because you can't create that immersive experience at hom i.e. the darkness, the sound quality, the popcorn mess but it's going to be a close call.

    2. Elysium, my verdict:
      Worth seeing, but hardly an improvement on District 9.

  2. First, E.T. was one of the greatest movies ever. I catch it every once in awhile, and I never get tired of it. I hope you saw Super 8, which I thought recaptured many of the elements that I feel are brilliant about E.T.

    Second, I am also worried about the film industry. I'm not worried about the technology changes. Switching to digital makes movie-making less expensive, and it still creates a wonderful image once it's transferred to film. The beautiful thing about film in a cinema is that darkness is dark. It's not an artificial black that your digital tv is trying to reproduce. Even if it's "filmed" digitally, once it's transferred to film and projected, dark is dark, and it's still beautiful.

    What I'm worried about is how exclusive going to the movies will become. So many people wait for it to come out on dvd or streamable file because it's cheaper. This trend will only continue, and drive up prices, and make going to the movies less feasible to many people. The movie theater used to be the poor man's entertainment. It still kinda is, but staying home and renting is still cheaper. Hell, waiting long enough and buying the digital file off amazon is sometimes cheaper yet!

    Third, I am looking forward to Elysium, and extremely worried about it. When I was 19, I had an idea for a story that was very similar. I wrote parts of it, but I wasn't a good enough writer to make it work. And obviously, Elysium is going to do it better in every way. It might break my heart, but I'll enjoy every minute of it. Kind of like my last relationship. Actually, I didn't enjoy quite a lot of minutes of my last relationship. But Elysium won't involve me having sex. Apples and oranges, I guess.

    I forgot what I was talking about. Anyway, I do love movies. Hopefully I will never have to miss them. It's not just watching the thing. I will always remember taking my step-brother to see E.T., and he got so upset when E.T. died that he ducked his head and couldn't watch the screen. He was probably about 7 years old. And then I had to nudge him and say, "It's okay! He's alive! Look!" And he looked up, and the joy on his face was ecstatic. Going to the cinema is still an event. It can still have magic. It may be the last place you can go with the girl that mesmerizes you, and hold hands for over an hour. And you keep holding hands as you stroll over to the car, floating on the emotions that you both are feeling together without saying anything.

  3. I'm hoping that this whole business model will implodes and we go back to a bit of honest movie making. It has a knock on on the indies too as they now have to get bigger and bigger names to secure the funding. We'll see how this thing pans out! :)

  4. Hi Andi...apologies but my comments are not related to this blog...but to your one a couple of weeks back, concerning the Edinburgh dating saga. Just to say (and I have messaged you before)...that you seem to have been very unlucky over the years...and I would love to take you on a date, no pressure at all...and am sure you would have a great time, if not, then we part on good terms...but you never know, you might just love it!! Oh, and I'm not a maniac but if you want your mum as security then please feel free! Here's hoping.... Andy xx

    1. Thanks for the very flattering offer but I'm not dating for the foreseeable future. I'm too busy with work! x

    2. Hi Andi...ok understand...but if you would like to see a picture then let me know and can email or text you one :-) Andy x

  5. Is there really a growing trend to not let critics see a movie these days? I thought that was always the biggest signal that a film was beyond saving. Or maybe it's just the films I tend to follow these days. Though saying that embargo's for early access do seem to be more popular from what I've read. Though that does seem a bit paradoxical to me, but it seems some are at least willing to leak early word on what they think the movie is like (again, possibly more to do with the types of movies I follow).

    I thought Oblivion was alright personally (fem-Hal giant floating Toblerone and all). It dragged its heals for quite a bit, but I felt that helped it feel more ponderous. Though I was kinda sad that GoT's Jaime Lannister seemed like a glorified extra, he said very little. Though I can't say I'm a great critic. Most of my year has been filled with movies like Iron Man 3, Man of Steel and The Wolverine.

    I'm hoping Elysium is good though. I loved District 9 and when I saw what they made Sharlto Copley look like in this film really makes me curious.

    Speaking of Prometheus, Guillermo Del Toro said it put him off his 'At the mountains of madness' by HP Lovecraft adaptation because it feels too similar. Maybe that's a good thing if it was to be similar to Prometheus, but I think Del Toro excels with weird/creepy movies (Pan's Labyrinth is wonderful).

    Also since you mention Ghostbusters. I'm just wondering what you make of Dan Aykroyd's attempts throughout the years to make a third Ghostbusters film?

  6. Hi Andi

    As you quite obviously focus on the same scarce SciFi movies as I do, what's your top 5 best scifi movies?



  7. To pop my five cents in I feel the whole film industry these days is too money orientated and too "safe" (as a whole I mean there is still some amazing talent out there). Why take a chance on that big summer blockbuster season when you can just release another sequel (take a bow fast and furious) or a re-imagining of a popular franchise that has run it's course (spiderman). Now don't get me wrong I love to park my brain for a couple of hours for some popcorn entertainment, but I also applaud any studio willing to take a chance.

    Thanks for listening


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