And so another summer-movie season comes to an end, not with a bang but a whimper — what else to call four new releases (Babylon A.D., Bangkok Dangerous, College and Disaster Movie) in the past 10 days that weren’t prescreened for critics by their respective distributors? These are, literally and figuratively, the annual dog days, when the mercury rises and studios satisfy contractual obligations to their unloved stepchildren — movies they made (or bought), then thought twice about and decided to dispose of as quietly as possible during those two weeks of the year when most of the industry (like their shrinks) are on vacation. Besides, by the time Labor Day rolled around, Hollywood had already had plenty of bang for its summer box-office buck, with cumulative ticket sales on track to meet or exceed last summer’s $4.16 billion record. Never mind the usual fine print noting that ticket prices were higher than ever, actual attendance numbers down and the value of a greenback so diminished that Variety might as well start reporting weekly grosses in pesos. How do you say The Dark Knight en español?
It was, of course, Gotham City’s resident man in black (but not blackface) who almost single-wingedly accounted for those reasonably impressive third-quarter earnings. As the number crunchers have already pointed out, The Dark Knight never really posed that much of a threat to Titanic’s long-standing box-office crown, neither domestically (where The Dark Knight is still nearly $100 million behind the sinking ship’s $600 million purse) nor internationally (where it’s about $1 billion short of the high-water mark). But did any industry analyst in his or her right mind seriously think that an explicitly violent superhero movie could unseat James Cameron’s new-millennium Gone With the Wind?
What is significant about The Dark Knight is that it easily leapfrogged over every other comic book adaptation past, present or likely to come anytime soon, and did so, I would argue, in part because it was a much better movie than most of its type — cast with real actors; handsomely, atmospherically directed by Christopher Nolan; and generally more interested in matters of human psychology than the nuances of product placement. We all know that you can make a shitty franchise movie and still make out like a bandit (or a Caribbean pirate). But with any luck, The Dark Knight has served to remind the Hollywood suits that, sometimes, there are extra rewards in store if a popular audience movie also happens to take the audience seriously.
Not that the past three months have been happy ones for everyone in Tinseltown. While the executives at Warner Bros. (The Dark Knight) and Paramount (Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) were feeling secure about their Christmas bonuses, those same studios were scaling back or altogether dismantling their pseudo-independent “specialty” divisions — those must-have accessories every studio in town went out to get after Disney bought Miramax but which have since come to be seen as costly luxury items, like those gas-guzzling SUVs drivers have been unloading since the price of oil began to look like the budget of the latest Michael Bay movie. It was in May that Warner president Alan Horn announced the studio would be shutting down not only its 4-year-old Warner Independent Pictures (whose releases include the Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck and In the Valley of Elah) but also Picturehouse, another mini-major (this one home to Pan’s Labyrinth and La Vie en Rose) inherited by Warner during its acquisition of New Line. Barely a month later, Paramount announced that it was consolidating the production, marketing and distribution arms of its own Paramount Vantage (which just last fall released There Will Be Blood and handled the international distribution of No Country for Old Men) with those responsible for handling its regular Paramount-branded product. And by summer’s end, the blogosphere was abuzz with the collapse of indie stalwart THINKFilm and rumors that financial problems at the Weinstein Company were partly responsible for prompting Quentin Tarantino to seek major-studio backing for his forthcoming Inglorious Bastards (albeit with Harvey still attached as a producer).
In all of these cases, a tough economy was blamed, but grousings could also be heard that the American independent sector wasn’t what it once was, as evidenced by the failure to launch of several costly Sundance pickups, including Vantage’s Son of Rambow and American Teen and WIP’s Clubland. (As of press time, the jury remained out on Universal-owned Focus Features’ Hamlet 2, which has just gone into nationwide release.) Indeed, the biggest surprise of the 2008 summer-movie season may have been that, while the big studios seemed to be taking some genuine artistic risks — not just The Dark Knight, but Iron Man and especially Wall-E too — the so-called indies seemed by and large to be following an outmoded playbook. Or, put another way, when a company with “vantage” in its name follows up There Will Be Blood with the saccharine Rambow and a sub-MTV cliché fest like Teen, there’s significant cause for alarm. No wonder filmmakers like Nolan and Iron Man’s Jon Favreau, who cut their teeth on ambitious, low-budget indies, are now queuing up for the biggest of the big-studio movies and — lo and behold — doing a much better job at them than the dime-a-dozen music-video wunderkinder who proliferated in those jobs throughout the 1990s.
Last but certainly not least, there was the curious case of the proverbial chick flick, which roared back with a vengeance this summer in the form of Sex and the City and Mamma Mia! — but not exactly to everyone’s liking. It’s here that I must devote a few column inches to my colleague Ella Taylor, who weighed in negatively on both of those estrogen-heavy hits, and who took a mighty tongue-lashing from our readers for it. As Ella herself noted in a blog post following the Sex and the City intifada, those who took umbrage with that particular review saw fit to assail Ella’s physical appearance, fashion sense and anger-management skills — before someone finally stopped beating around the bush and flat out called her “a real bitch.” But by far my favorite reader mail of the season came from the Mamma Mia! partisans, whose many messages included the following: “Ella, we always knew you had no soul — that you can’t possibly enjoy a movie without having your snobbish shrugs and condescending attitude spew out of your mouth like that girl in The Exorcist”; “Thanks for making your corner of the world just a little bit darker with this review, miserable one”; and (this one sent by an online reader identifying herself as “smurfette”), “Hey, Ms. Taylor, Ebenezer Scrooge and Darth Vader called. They want their personalities back.” Ouch!
This is ordinarily where I would feel compelled to step in and referee by offering my own opinion of these contentious films, but the truth of the matter is that I haven’t seen them, and as one who has never seen so much as a frame of the SATC television series or heard a single ABBA song that didn’t make me run for my noise-canceling headphones — well, I’m not exactly the target audience for either. What is indisputable is that Ella was hardly alone, even among female reviewers, in her criticisms of the two movies (both of which received just over a 50 percent “fresh” rating at that venerable review Web site Rotten Tomatoes), but the vitriol of the reader feedback was nearly on par with the personal attacks New York critic David Edelstein reported receiving in response to his negative assessment of The Dark Knight. The difference is that, as a critic, you know you’re wading into hazardous waters whenever you pan some sacrosanct totem of the socially maladroit fanboy crowd. But chick flicks? Who knew?
Actually, it’s not so surprising when you pause to consider that women — like blacks, Latinos and many other minorities — are so chronically underserved and underrepresented by Hollywood (even in an era that has seen many studios and production companies run by women) that when a movie finally comes along unapologetically targeted at them, it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s any good or not. The mere fact that it’s there is enough. Call it the Tyler Perry syndrome — certainly, a subject deserving further exploration.
Now, as the mercury drops, the leaves brown and many in the industry head north for that unofficial fall-movie-season kickoff party known as the Toronto International Film Festival (September 4-13), Hollywood will put away its action figures for a little while and indulge in another seasonal pastime — the Oscar derby. Already, the Internet is alive with rumors and prognostications, most of them based on movies that even their own makers haven’t seen yet. So the hype begins, and we critics must once more don our battle armor.