Revenge of the Nerds

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Radoslav Dragov's picture

Recently in a panel discussion Steven Spielberg and George Lucas lamented the changing times in the contemporary cinema industry. They complained that the current Hollywood system supports mainly big-budget ($200+ mil) blockbusters at the expense of smaller film projects like Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. This discussion was the epitome of tragic irony in the tradition of the Greek myths of old. Spielberg and Lucas are the movie Titans who spawned the summer blockbuster genre in all its special effects glory – with “Jaws” (1975) and “Star Wars” (1977). Now their creation has metastasized into something beyond their control and is actually hurting their movie aspirations. Ah, those poor multi-billionaires…

The laconic among you may prefer to call it a simple case of hypocrisy but let’s not ruin the narrative. There can be some sympathy for those old devils. The evolution of mega-budget movies (which currently clog cinemas around the world) is shaped by specific changes in the external environment. The sub-species of film that thrives best in the current climate is the comic book genre. Last year the top 3 highest grossing movies in the world were about superheroes (I count James Bond as one). So by examining the rise of comic book heroes in cinema we can understand the blockbuster-dominated status quo.

                                            

A Recipe for Success

Blockbusters are often compared to junk food and not without merit. Both are easy to digest and enjoyable - even though you don’t get much out of them. Food companies have figured out the holy trinity of addictive foods: salt, sugar and fat. Similarly blockbuster movies contain the ingredients needed to attract the biggest audience: simple story between good and evil, romantic subplot and comic relief. But by far the most important ingredient here is “special effects”. Special effects are an extremely expensive and exotic spice. Developing nations can’t get enough of the stuff because their home-grown alternatives cannot match the spectacle. 

The global popularity of the original “Star Wars” can be largely blamed on the state-of-the art special effects. It captivated audience who had never seen anything so fantastical and yet real. By their very nature comic book super heroes take full advantage of the special effects wizardry du jour. The impossible have to be made possible if filmmakers hope to bring comic book pages to life. Special effects are kind of like the trio salt, sugar and fat: the more you eat, the more you can eat. For example, the tagline of the 1978 “Superman: The Movie” was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. In the new “Man of Steel” Superman can not only fly but punch a guy through a skyscraper. And that’s not even mentioned in the tagline.

We turn again to the original “Star Wars” for some blockbuster wisdom. In its essence the story is a simple struggle between good and evil. The bad guys dress like Nazis and blow up a whole inhabited planet. Not exactly a paragon of subtlety. It is this simple dichotomy between good and evil that effortlessly resonates across cultures and classes. Clear-cut good or evil characters are what comic books are made of. Plus they wear elaborate suits that makes it easy to distinguish between heroes and villains.

The Tyranny of Choice

Now that we established how comic book superheroes fit the blockbuster matrix it is time to look at the current cinema landscape. Perhaps the single biggest factor affecting the movie industry is the increased competition. Now we have YouTube, Netflix, HBO, Amazon Instant Video (etc) and many different ways to consume media – smartphones, tablets, notebooks and large screen TVs. We live in the attention economy and movies have very little time to make back their money. Spielberg recalled how his 1982 movie “E.T.” stayed in cinemas for one year and four months. Now even the highest grossing movies stay in theatres for 6 to 12 weeks and make the bulk of their money in the first 2 weeks. At the same time taking the family out for a movie (+overpriced popcorn and drinks) costs a small fortune.

These strapped for cash, attention-deprived cinema-goers will want to see something familiar. Movie studios want to play it safe because (with escalating costs of production) the danger of a box-office bomb is greater. Coming up with a new concept and new characters is too risky. In today’s entertainment saturated landscape it’s hard to make a sizeable dent in pop-culture. It’s hard to hook people with a new concept when there are so many distractions.

That is why there has been a strong resurgence in remakes, sequels, prequels, spin-offs and reboots. Movie studios are desperately searching for any piece of old intellectual property that might still resonate in the collective subconscious. Last year we were served a movie based on a popular board game: “Battleship” (which bombed and restored my faith in humanity). Oftentimes a script is being rewritten to accommodate a universally known franchise. Four out five Die Hard scripts began their lives as original concepts or adaptations – until John McClane was shoehorned in.

Neverending Stories

Comic book characters are an indispensable part of pop-culture partly because they have been around for so long. It has been 75 years since Superman first appeared in Action Comic #1 and 50 years since Spiderman was thrust into the public’s attention. Not that many kids read comic books but almost all of them watch cartoons. Comic books are basically soap-operas with fighting and make for excellent cartoons aimed at teenagers.

There’s also a great number of video-games based on comic books and even more superhero toy lines. Here lies the crux of the argument: impressionable young people are acquainted with these superheroes through cartoons, games, action figures and in extremely rare cases – through comic books. To paraphrase the missionary Francis Xavier: “give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the adult fanboy”. There is a whole web of entertainment which ensures these superheroes stay on people’s mind.

Comic books present even more benefits for filmmakers and producers. The 50+ years of material for each major superhero provides a treasure-trove of stories that can easily be adapted for the big screen. Comic book superheroes are more recognizable by their costume and hence viewers are more tolerant to different actors playing the character. There is enough core audience of fans to ensure at least a decent box office. Comic books provide by design never-ending stories; they offer a rich universe that is perfect for sequels. If adapted properly a superhero can be the goose that keeps on laying golden eggs. The Head of Marvel Studios recently said: “I believe there will be a fourth ‘Iron Man’ and a fifth, sixth and a 10th and a 20th. I see no reason why Tony Stark can’t be as evergreen as James Bond”. Can’t blame the guy - Bond himself stated in “Skyfall” that his favourite hobby is resurrection.

To be continued…

What does the future of blockbusters hold? Spielberg believes there could be a “black swan” type meltdown where up to a half dozen mega-budget movies bomb at the box office and change the system. The current over-reliance on franchises might just lead to such consequences. When big studios are hammering a new franchise they invest into additional entertainment products which support the main movie. We will not be celebrating “May the 4th“(Star Wars day) if it wasn’t for the tens of video games and hundreds of books and comic books which indoctrinated young generations.

However, this further balloons the cost required to take a franchise off the ground. For example, “After Earth” was supposed to be the core of a new franchise and they were books, games, comics and a sequel already in the works. The movie bombed spectacularly and everything went down the drain. So it’s not implausible that if enough big-budget movies bomb in the same year the system will change.

This is just speculation. As an armchair expert on the subject I can tell you what will really happen. But you have to wait for the sequel to find out…

Update: the blog post didn’t receive enough views so the sequel was cancelled. 

Comments

That’s an interesting article. Maybe, they’re relying on franchises because they’ve hit a peak in movie ideas, like peak oil? It’s a plausible idea given the narrow field of plotlines and characters (often oversimplified) Hollywood is allowed for an international audience . Given the emphasis on special effects, its interesting that some of the best grossing low budget films in Hollywood history are in fact horror movies! And it’s a little sad that new ventures (small films) face such high barriers – they often carry with them fresh ideas and realistic perspectives. Often, some of the best films in India (mostly regional cinema) are innovative, low-budget, and make good profits.

Hi Kalyani! Thank you for your comment.

The peak oil comparison is a very interesting thought although I think the case is slightly different here. Franchises are not a new Hollywood obsession. Moreover, the practice of milking franchises pre-date the motion picture industry (just ask Arthur Conan Doyle). Who does not want a guaranteed steady stream (or a waterfall) of revenue for the foreseeable future?

I can even play the "benign capitalist" card and say that thanks these franchises big movie studios have the opportunity to green light smaller, riskier projects. The phenomenal success of Batman (1989) gave Tim Burton the creative freedom and financial backing for offbeat projects like Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Ed Wood. But I digress.

I believe the narrow structure of international blockbusters is in part due to an innate preference for certain stories and characters. I am sure you are aware of the book "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" which showed that many myths of vastly different and regionally separated cultures follow a predictable pattern. George Lucas was heavily influenced by this book when writing Star Wars.

As for horror movies - there's still a ton of them made every year. Most of them are truly horrible but not in the way intended. Historically, horror movies rarely lose money because they are almost always made on a micro-budget and can rely on a limited but loyal group of devotees (the sort of people who just like to slow down, unwind and watch a car crash). That's why many aspiring directors (Peter "LOTR" Jackson, Sam "Spiderman" Raimi) cut their teeth in the low-risk horror genre.

What's interesting is that horror are most susceptible to the franchise curse. Every once in a while a particularly good and successful horror movie comes out (like Saw) and then a parade of unnecessary sequels follows. It's the nature of the beast. Like any business opportunity seekers Hollywood executives looks try to exploit what's popular. The bubble inflates and then it pops. Let see how long the superhero and YA adaptations cycle lasts.

One thing I learned while trying to be a hipster is that small budget Indie movies can be far worse than your average bloated blockbuster sequel. Still, independent film-makers who bring fresh ideas have to be supported. At least until they inevitably sell out...

PS: After a flurry of words I still don't know if I have adequately addressed your main points. Like Hollywood I only guarantee quantity, not quality :)

Hi, again. Sorry for the late reply, but I just remembered this :)
I agree with most of your points. Sequels and franchises are a classic tool to capitalize on ideas that are popular and financially successful, and they do allow more innovative projects by the same producers. However whether advantageous to the industry or not, there are huge barriers to small-scale, innovative cinema (art-house) because of the large scale of the industry and one could say, preferences of the market. This is not unique to Hollywood, and also true for Indian cinema. However, the anomalies are greater in India due to the rise of different regional cinemas across the country that allow huge room for innovations. Due to a rise in market-oriented movie products, there has been a fall in innovation, and I think you might agree.
And perhaps, low budget horror movies are not the best example of good cinema (while, that's subjective - for example Paranormal Activity).
I would further object to your statement: "Developing countries can't get enough of the stuff", probably because I have more experience in this regard (while I have less knowledge of Hollywood). I'm not sure about the situation in China, but this would be a generalisation in the case of India. Here, the audience for superhero movies is mostly and almost entirely kids and their families. Upper class youth have taken to the sector after the introduction of The Dark Knight series and other movies. A vast majority of the population considers Hollywood elite (special effects or no special effects) and cannot relate to the cinema.
Interestingly, superhero movies are increasingly moving away from the dichotomy of good and evil. Take for example Spiderman 4 or Dark Knight. The 'good' guys have become more rounded characters and they are portrayed as susceptible to human characteristics and choices. Many superheroes are beginning to even possess a tinge of what would be judged formerly as evil and are no longer hunky dory 'let me save the world for the benefit of the populace and be happy' types. This addresses the demographic of a greater adult population, as the population in developed countries age, and people in general judge story lines more critically.