Last time, Michael discussed the place summer movies hold for Torontonians. The second reason also has to do with comic book movies, though of a different, DC variety. Everyone, I am sure, has seen The Dark Knight — at least, the studio executives did. One thing in particular that attracted them more so than anything else to Nolan’s mega-hit was the grim-dark, hyper-realistic approach of his directing and writing. If Spiderman consoled a nation in 2002 and prepared its people for the battles to come, then the same audiences that liked it then were now exhausted by 2008, and demanded that their movies reflect the zeitgeist. The moral grey zones which were absent in earlier years came to the fore as embodied in the Joker. Superhero movies in general have had to shift their focus in response, and this has been demonstrated most notably in the proposed reboot of Spiderman , due out in 2012. In case you have not heard, executives want to return the character to his adolescent roots and have him engage in more domestic problems than he did before. Generally, I disagree with this inclination to ground comic book characters in reality; it is first of all a bit silly, and secondly very ignorant. The Dark Knight was based on a franchise that was dark from the beginning; the origins of Batman are inseparable from certain film noir and hardboiled detective elements of the 1930s. Bringing these influences into the film adaptation of a comic book series that began during a period of optimistic liberal futurism in the 1960’s misses the point entirely: it is in fact a contradiction. That said, I will leave this topic alone temporarily, as I may return to it more fully in the future. For now, though, let us move on to other things.
The third reason why this summer has been so weak is one I call the Avatar effect, because to say that it is simply the product of the success of movies filmed in 3-D does not sufficiently explain the box office failure of movies like Clash of the Titans , even though it can be argued that the latter was only ever made 3-D in post-production. Having films adapted to 3-D standards allows for higher ticket prices, meaning that a company can simultaneously distribute the movie to fewer screens and expect higher returns. The must-see quality of films such as Avatar almost guarantee that the movie theatres will fill up, that people who missed the movie on Friday will have to return on Saturday, and that in the long run this strategy will keep a film on the market longer, thereby earning more than would a film without the benefit of 3-D imagery. For those who think the success of Avatar is an isolated occurrence, consider the success of this year’s version of Alice in Wonderland . Premiering in what is typically a dead month, March, the Tim Burton movie has thus far earned over a billion dollars, a profit that has been served by the fact that the movie was filmed in 3-D. The math is simple, really. Your average movie ticket is about $10, and your average ticket for a 3-D screening is about $15. Therefore, the money gained by selling three of the former is equal to two of the latter. This is plainly a matter of economics, which brings me to my final point.
It is perhaps the case that the summer movie season as we know it is going extinct. The emphasis on this season, and this season alone, to drive up profits for each studio may be waning in light of recent evidence to suggest that there are other ways of achieving the same level of success without necessarily the same level of competition. Last year New Moon opened with one of the largest debuts in film history — and this was in November. Before that, Casino Royale in 2006 and Quantum of Solace in 2008 each continued the ancient tradition amongst Bond movies of opening in November, and the two rank among the highest grossing of that series. Neither of these franchises, however, quite compare to the fervour James Cameron has been able to stir up. When Titanic premiered in 1997, it was considered very odd that a movie of its sort should come out in December, typically the month for Oscar bait and lower budget dramas. People forget that the movie was originally planned for a summer release, but was pushed back into a season when it would have no identifiable competition; a season in which movies of its sort were six months away. Yet Titanic established a precedent that was continued throughout the 2000s — most noticeably by The Lord of the Rings , the first two Harry Potter films, and The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe , and to a lesser extent those stand-alone films such as I Am Legend — of releasing big-budget summer-style blockbusters towards the end of November and all across December. I stated earlier on that one reason why the summer became a battlefield for film franchises is because of the heat outside a theatre and the air-conditioning within; likewise, December may have in itself become a smaller battlefield of its own because the desolate weather provides the incentive for watching movies. However, it is not always the case that people want sit down and watch another quirky indie family drama, such as Little Miss Sunshine or Juno , or ruminate on the moral ambiguity of our times as displayed in No Country for Old Men , especially during the holiday season. Nor do people necessarily want to see another Christmas family comedy. Instead, they want something both light and exciting, that is, a lively summer movie in the dead of winter.
This final reason can be considered an appendix to the third, in that it appears that James Cameron created the basis for the December blockbuster with Titanic, and refined it via the 3-D phenomenon with Avatar. The fruits of his labour are already becoming evident, in as much as that he is helping to alter the focus of studio schedules away from the exclusivity of the summertime. One of this year’s most hotly anticipated movies is Tron: Legacy, which promises to be a tour de force of cinematic technological prowess. Whether or not this movie is successful will neither prove or disprove the belief that the summer has lost its total grasp on blockbusters; what will be the most important piece of evidence is whether studios continue to bank on November and December to bring in those profits May, June, July, and August did not. Being that part one of the final Harry Potter story will be released November 19th, and that Avatar made as much as $2 billion, if not more, when all was said and done, I am inclined to think that this trend is here to stay. We will have, for all intents and purposes, two summer movie seasons each year without ever once moving to Australia.
Check back next Wednesday for more in Michael Hyer’s journey through summer movies. Click here to see all posts in this fascinating series.