As Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman of the Los Angeles Times observe, “Summer moviegoing is usually about the stars, the spectacle and the sizzle. But in a trend that’s mystifying Hollywood, this summer’s box office is being driven by films with modest ambitions, including relatively inexpensive comedies, lower budget animation and horror pictures. Call it the summer of the B-movie. Like the quickie flicks the studios used to crank out for the back end of double features, these new hits —The Purge, The Heat, Grown Ups 2, Despicable Me 2 and, as of this weekend, The Conjuring among them — are drumming up business while bigger-budgeted offerings such as The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim struggle to sell tickets.
It’s these smaller films that have helped summer box-office receipts climb by 14% over last year, defying the conventional wisdom that summer is the time when audiences mainly want to see movies that are big, loud and laden with costly special effects. Several factors may be behind the turnabout, according to Hollywood analysts, including studios doing a better job of serving niche audiences and consumers experiencing blockbuster fatigue. ‘Everything looked watered down and the studios were left trying to distinguish their movies,’ said Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theatres.
This weekend the trend seems to be hitting its apex. R.I.P.D., a supernatural science fiction comedy starring household names Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges that cost at least $130 million to make, is projected to take in less than $15 million at the box office. Meanwhile, The Conjuring, a paranormal-themed film made for the horror faithful at one-seventh the budget, is expected to collect as much as $35 million.”
None of this surprises me; when I look at my own viewing, the unexpected hits are the ones I’ve been seeing, and blogging about, and the other films strike me as boring and unimaginative. When you have too much money, you take fewer creative risks because too much is at stake. Too many people become involved, and you just keep throwing money at the film until it’s finished, as with The Lone Ranger, even if the entire project has gone off the rails.
When you have $4 million, as with The Purge – I heard $3 million, actually – you have to use your creativity and improvise on the spot, because you don’t have the time or the money – you have to get it and move on. All the money in the world, and all the empty spectacle in the world, can’t make up for original ideas, craft, passion, and energy, which usually comes from having less to fall back on.
The studios need to rethink their strategy, which is a throwback to the 1950s, when television threatened theater attendance. 20th Century Fox decreed that all future films would be made in CinemaScope, Warner Bros. rushed House of Wax into theaters in 3-D, and Cinerama was born. It worked for a few years, and then burned out. And after the fall, what was the Academy Award winner for Best Film of 1955? Marty, a small little film that could just as easily have worked on television, but audiences wanted to see it, so they went out to theaters in droves, making the modest little film a hit.
Marty even won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But Hollywood still thinks bigger is always better, and that bombastic CGI effects will always stun audiences into submission, but that strategy is beginning to play to diminishing returns: the “wow” or dazzle factor has worn off. People are getting tired of destruction. The studios always want to cash in on the past, as if by simply remaking a hit film, the same thing will work in the future. Sometimes it will, as with the Bond franchise, but sometimes it doesn’t — and a little bit of creative energy is more than welcomed by both audiences and critics. I hope it’s the start of a trend.