News Column

The Summer of the Big Dud

August 25, 2013

Timothy Egan

You could hope, after some of the loudest, costliest and most joyless products of the entertainment-industrial complex bombed this summer, that Hollywood would be having its Detroit gas-guzzler moment.

That is, the point when a cobwebbed institution realizes that its main product is yesterday.

As the industry rolled out a series of dramatically inert films, the public response was not unlike what happened after Microsoft trumpeted its own versions of a smartphone and ... a tablet.

With one dud after the other - the pathetic Superman flick, "Man of Steel," the aptly named "R.I.P.D." and a series of tired formula vehicles for tired action heroes - some of Hollywood's shiniest products went straight from the assembly line to oblivion.

What did you expect? We have a Congress that will not legislate, a president who is hesitant to lead and even our favorite comedian, Jon Stewart, took the summer off.

Baseball, the onetime national pastime, is obsessed with an aging narcissist, the serial cheater Alex Rodriguez.

A few of the old hands saw it coming. Steven Spielberg, who nearly invented the summer blockbuster with "Jaws," was ruminating about the future at a University of Southern California forum in June, with his old friend George Lucas.

"There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground," he said at the time, "and that's going to change the paradigm again."

Well, it happened. At least a half-dozen of the biggest blimps, some costing $200 million or more, fell out of the sky this summer. But will a dose of capitalistic creative destruction stop Hollywood from making so many bad movies? Probably not. The bloated smash-em- ups - by one estimate, 129,000 people died in the final battle scene of the insipid Superman movie - still make money overseas, an incentive to keep manufacturing generic garbage. With "Fast and Furious 6" and "Iron Man 3" doing big numbers, this summer is boffo.

Still, popular films, the great American cultural export and the rare unifier in a toxically divided nation, are going the way of open congressional districts and serendipitous love - to echo- chambered niches, where like-minded people can safely control expectations.

You may wish for the Nora Ephron touch, something witty, insightful, funny about Our Times. You may long for anything with the brilliant, manic edge of Mel Brooks, insensitivity at its most creative. You may remember when a sports movie was worth watching over and over, as "Bull Durham" is. And then you see "Lone Ranger" or "White House Down" or come within smelling distance of "The Big Wedding," some of the bigger busts of 2013, and wonder how so much money and talent could produce the unwatchable, time and again.

As Spielberg implied, Big Hollywood doesn't care any more about quality storytelling than Big Finance cares about giving out small business loans. The studios make cineroids - global vehicles for theme parks and toys sold at fast-food chains. They are looking for franchises, not original stories.

The term tossed around Hollywood is the "tent-pole" movie - a product that is so big, and sells so many tickets worldwide in its inaugural days, that it holds up an entire studio.

"You're at a point now where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal - maybe even historical - projects," said Spielberg.

Of course, with "Jurassic Park" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to his credit, Spielberg cannot escape some of the blame for Hollywood's flock to movies that become Disney rides. But he said studio appetite for intelligent films is so weak now that "Lincoln," his 2012 masterpiece about the 13th Amendment, was almost an HBO movie.

More than ever, with the collapse of a number of tent poles, decent flicks are produced by premium cable television, or Netflix. Yes, Woody Allen still cranks out well-acted, original stories, but nobody watches them - by the standards of mega-viewing. And come the holidays, the studios will unveil an ornament or two of real durability, just to give executives something to brag about during awards season.

The best hope for forcing Big Hollywood to give up its gas guzzlers is the trend toward smaller-budgeted gems. A good film can almost be made on a cellphone camera - with HD. The massive implosion predicted by Spielberg should not be a bad thing.

"It's a mess, it's total chaos," said George Lucas, at the film forum. But he noted the opportunity for fresh talent to rise when "all the gatekeepers have been killed."

Or Hollywood could listen to the likes of Elmore Leonard, who died last week, taking with him more knowledge of popular storytelling than the exists in all the suites of all the suits. He stopped writing screenplays in 1993.

"There were too many people you had to please," he said in an interview. "This was a time when I needed the money, so I would adapt the scene according to what they wanted, and the result would be a bad picture."

But what did he know?

(Timothy Egan, based in the Pacific Northwest, writes a column for the New York Times.)

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