So come on, 2010 hasn’t been the best movie year. It’s not to say there haven’t been some great films – because there certainly have – it’s to say there haven’t been as many of them, and that some of the films that could have been great ended up being merely good or even sometimes very good. It’s been no 2004 or 2007 is all.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that 2010 may prove to be a very important year for films in terms of trending away from mega-blockbusters toward more moderately-priced films. I wouldn’t have expected this after the first quarter of 2010. Avatar was making money hand-over-fist, Shutter Island performed really well, and even the abysmally awful Alice in Wonderland managed to make a capital-B Billion dollars worldwide, ensuring that Tim Burton’s downward spiral would continue for a few more movies.
Then came summer and if you weren’t a sequel or Inception you under-performed (and some sequels did as well – neither Shrek nor Sex and the City fared nearly as well as their predecessors). Massive expenses like Prince of Persia, Robin Hood, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The A-Team, Knight & Day, and The Last Airbender each cost over $100 million to make. None of them made their money back domestically*. A few others cost around as much and barely broke even. But look at two surprise hits from the summer: The Karate Kid and Despicable Me, which cost $40 million and $69 million respectively. They were well-made, got solid reviews and did spectacular business.
Also keep in mind one of the year’s biggest films was another March release, How to Train Your Dragon, and cost a sizable $165 million. Its gross surprised people, but it shouldn’t, really. When you spend that kind of money (“Inception” money, that is) you expect at least $200 million domestically.
This summer surprised me. Now, none of the movies that bombed here in America was really even a bomb. They all made big profits worldwide. But the profits weren’t the kind their budgets usually make. The summer still led the box-office this year, but it didn’t dominate like usual. Neither did most of the late fall/winter releases. Megamind and Due Date were both profitable, but not abundantly so. Little Fockers is the least successful of its series, but it’s broken even, and Tron: Legacy looks like it will too (again, worldwide, it’s made some money…some). But look at The Tourist, Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gulliver’s Travels, and the unbelievably ill-fated How Do You Know? These movies were expected to bring in the money, but they haven’t. Harry Potter 7.1 is huge and good, as expected. Even the well-received Tangled has another $80 million to make up to break even domestically.
That’s the big studio side of the coin. Throwing money at a movie is yielding less of a return. Will this continue? I hope so. It may be inevitable that some really bad movies make a lot of money, but the scale is starting to tip. People may still be viewing these clunkers, but they’re waiting for DVD. Parents who’ve just taken the whole family to a $75 outing of Toy Story 3 take one look at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and think, “That’s a Redbox rental.” There are so many movies each week with their eye on the lowest common denominator that even with the additional two-week delay to get a movie on Redbox, the cost-effectiveness is unquestionable.
None of this may interest you, though, since you, like me, didn’t have any interest in most of those big-budget summer clunkers anyway. Well, there’s more. We’re all familiar with the Sundance favorite; this year’s Little Miss Sunshine or Juno. But aside from those most indie films don’t make any sort of dent. The awards movies usually don’t see any sort of substantial return until after Oscar nominations are announced. That’s changing. Earlier this year, two female-directed films turned in substantial profits: Winter’s Bone, and The Kids Are All Right. Take a look at BoxOfficeMojo.com. True Grit, which is a remake that departs from the original, just crossed $100 million domestically. It cost $38 million to make. Look at Black Swan, and The Fighter, and The King’s Speech. All four of them are moderately-priced films with Awards buzz, yes, but they made their money before most nominations came out.
Look at the Oscar front-runner, The Social Network, another auteur film that cost $40 million to make and made $94 million here alone. This year’s films are proving that if you give good filmmakers a decent budget, the audience will find them. The profit will be substantial proportional to the budget, instead of negligible. And because of the promise of good performances and unique visions, people are going to see them in the theater.
Consider how many of those summer movies all seem to run together, visually. And what do they offer? Will they have better action than Iron Man 2? Will they more engaging than Toy Story 3? Will they be more mind-bending than Inception? Now look at the indie movies. Each one is distinct. A Western. A dark ballet. A boxing movie about brotherhood. Behind the scenes of the King of England. The origin of Facebook seen through legal depositions. Or how about a movie about a man trapped in Utah canyons? Or a father/daughter story where no one really talks? Or the story of another year in the life of an aging British couple.
Obviously, not all of the smaller, moderate and indie films will be as successful as The Social Network or True Grit, but consider that the pricetag for the combined TOTAL failure of Somewhere, Another Year, and 127 Hours would be $29 million dollars. If not one person saw any of the three of them. Call me crazy, but that’s a much smarter risk than Cats and Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.*
My hope is that this year marks the first definitive year of a changing of the tide. Even as studios try to force-feed 3D to the public, even as they look to every videogame and in every crevice of Disney’s history for existing properties to shovel out into theaters, even as sequels and reboots fill the screens…with all of this going on, with all of this effort expended to sneak money out of people’s wallets, the growing number of viewing options is changing the game. Bigger movies have to try a lot harder than smaller movies, but as we all know budget doesn’t dictate quality. You notice that in advertisements, they have people watching a mega-blockbuster crap-fest on their iPhone or whatever tiny device it is? Partly, yes, it’s because the bigger movies have bigger advertising budgets and can pay to have themselves advertised there. But the only reason they need to do so is because more people aren’t seeing them in theaters and they have to think of every conceivable way to maximize profits. But probably the biggest reason it’s lousy movies is because it wouldn’t occur or appeal to a true film-lover to watch a good film on a screen smaller than a box of Dots.
*It is noted with extreme sadness and a possible onslaught of severe depression that even C&D2:TRoKG made a profit worldwide.