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.