The Case For Building the Better Blockbuster

It's easy to pile on Hollywood for its craven cash grabs, sequelitis and other low-hanging fruit harvested and passed off in the name of popular entertainment. It's also fair, after a glance at the top 20 or so openings of all time, to acknowledge that mass audiences have tended to let studios get away with such output over the last decade in particular. But if we're to take anything from the huge opening-weekend success of The Hunger Games, it might be to look at its place on that list — squarely in third place, below even better-regarded cinematic efforts Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Dark Knight. With this development, could crowds and critics alike have proven what the sheer volume of lesser hits would seem to contradict — that quality matters?

Of course the success of these three films owes plenty to their source material and/or established film franchises preceding them. But virtually every entry in the top 20 enjoys this built-in advantage, from comic-book adaptations (Spider-Man, Iron Man 2 to decades-old institutions (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) to literary sensations past (Alice in Wonderland) and present (The Twilight Saga). And few if any among this derivative lot have made as much of a critical impression as those films at the very top, which average nearly 92 percent favorable at the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Not to declare RT any kind of objective barometer of a film's quality. Still, its documented regard for Deathly Hallows - Part 2, The Dark Knight and Hunger Games harmonizes with public tastes here in a way that implies something a little more than coincidence. First of all, it is extremely hard to gross more than $150 million in three days, even with the benefit of 3-D premiums — which, of the three, only Deathly Hallows - Part 2 enjoyed (all three had IMAX releases of varying sizes). The only other film to do it, Spider-Man 3, was met with decidedly more mixed reviews but still remains ranked "fresh" at RT. Despite all you've heard about their decline, in both the art-house realms and the rarefied upper box-office echelons, the evidence suggests that critics indeed do still matter. Even the most cynical observer (I'm looking at you, Armond White) who regards the critical establishment as a legion of pliant, hype-sensitive "shills" would need to acknowledge the success of their mission — largely as a service informing readers about new releases worth considering (or not) — and be encouraged by signs of influence and relevance.

It also suggests that creative ambitions require as much a role in the development process as one's marketing innovations. Just ask Christopher Nolan, or Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins or director Gary Ross. A brand (and sure, 3-D/IMAX) can only take a film so far. Vision seems to carry it much of the rest of the way — something viewers haven't seen before, even if they know they characters and stakes by heart.

Clearly, The Hunger Games' windfall may not help Hollywood reconcile — on paper, anyway — its long-standing love-hate relationship with original ideas and stories. But it doesn't have to. The Junos and the Hangovers and Bridesmaids and Safe Houses and whatever other original scripts that develop into huge-grossing films aren't even the same breed of blockbuster. Their conceptual integrity, to the extent they have it at all, yields its own word-of-mouth — its own long tail that may or may not necessitate sequels of its own. So even if the original idea is down, it's hardly out — not with the potential to follow up a modestly priced, well-liked hit with a true blockbuster in the same vein.

At which point we're back to the development basics: Smarts, vision, ambition and respecting one's audience. It pays off, Hollywood. The numbers don't lie.

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  • Bill Bailey says:

    "At which point we're back to the development basics: Smarts, vision, ambition and respecting one's audience. It pays off, Hollywood. The numbers don't lie."

    All very true. But if indeed we have all these ingredients, then nearly by default (by your own admittance) the final product will by one of quality, which in turn will be embraced by audiences.

    So then: Please explain to me how critics matter? What necessary function does the critic contribute to that already perfect equation?

    And please remind everyone else as well.

    • Capote99 says:

      I agree that these should be the basics of any movie, but I don't agree that by default the final product will be one of quality. There are too many factors involved in the making of a movie, and I sincerely believe that the vast, vast majority of people do not intentionally set out to make a crappy movie.

      • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

        That's fair about the final product, but I disagree about the crappy movies. The overriding imperative since the dawn of Hollywood has been "good enough," which can only beget crap after a while. It's like that line from Barton Fink where the producer Geisler tells the blocked-up writer: "Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! Whaddya need, a road map?"

        Caricature, sure, but if there is any other explanation for how the screenplays for Transformers 2 or Norbit or Jack and Jill came about, then I'd love to hear it.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      It's all stated above. For starters: "[A]s a service informing readers about new releases worth considering (or not)." They recognize the smarts in the first place, communicate the quality to readers who may otherwise write the films off as youth-oriented blockbuster crap, and thus influence a segment of the opening-weekend viewership. I'm certainly not saying they drive the whole thing or anything near a majority, but they are definitely part of it.

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    I get a gigantic thrill from smart, emotionally alive critics, even though I'd prefer to turn to them after we've all braced the same experience together, rather than immediately after their returning home from advance scouting -- not so much out of togetherness (I'm for this too, of course, just not in the Depressions' sense of it), but to credence my own organic right to let ripen and fully formulate my own take. The public has been hit with now about 4 decades of you-abnegating corporate advancement, and I think not mostly owing to broadly-shared susceptibility to manipulation, but out of a collectively-possessed fear of the abandoment they'd experience if they continued getting too much of successive good things -- ultimately, they brought it on themselves. Though I too think they can still orient on quality, so might too a neanderthal adroit to a completely new idea and spark a fire -- though it's easier to imagine "them" most of the time taking the safer route and squatting most of their time away in the dank but familiar muddle, and even snuffing the fire out if it started suggesting something more than provisional fulfillment of required solace: what if the all-seeing moon spots them out? In any case, I think we're near a time where successful plays to establishing oneself as a societal necessity, could just mean producing product that feels functional -- vital still, but for the wrong reasons -- and am hoping we find ways to reward innovators, keep them going, outside just our normal ways of doing so. I'm a Dewey Democrat -- for an intelligent, participatory public -- but admit I'm kinda myself disengaging from the public. They'll come around, and in full, but it's going to take 20 years of playing out of their current lead impulses ... and God I just don't want to know! For now -- the still shining lights, who I notice the public is orienting on (even, if you read the current dastardly Atlantic Monthly' attack, Paul Krugman!) as spoiled deuches; let them slip by the attempts to pin them down as public enemies, and see keep at (and up) the new.

  • KevyB says:

    This list is easily more populated by simply awful movies (I count 9 of the 20, with 5 being tolerable and only six being actually good), which means maybe critics aren't paid attention to as much as they should be. But anyone that races to a movie on opening weekend obviously isn't that interested in quality anyhow; they're more interested in the event. Or they just haven't been burned enough like us old farts.

    I'd like to think there's a reason the Top 3 are actually good, but it's probably more of a fluke than anything. Before Hunger Games, only the Top 2 were good, followed by FIVE wretched movies. If you look at the 13 movies that have had $50M+ opening days, four were good, one was okay, and the other 8 are dreadful. And Hunger Games and Dark Knight were both beat by all three frigging Twilight movies. We just got lucky that these event movies were actually good.