June 21, 1997 in Features

Blockbuster Syndrome Marketing Of Mediocre Movies Is Becoming More Important Than The Content Of The Film

Gary Thompson Philadelphia Daily News
 

Hollywood is bemoaning the grosses for “Speed 2,” considered the first box-office casualty of the summer, because it made only $16 million during its opening weekend.

That’s about $85 million less than “The Lost World” made its first week, a discouraging comparison. Hollywood is acting surprised, as if astounded that moviegoers can’t be coerced into seeing a lousy movie.

You can understand why the studio is upset. “Speed 2” cost more than $100 million to make, and will be blessed if it returns half that investment in the States.

Whether moviegoers care is another issue. “Speed 2” has already made $16 million more than it has any right to make, considering how bad the movie is - poorly made, badly acted and based upon what is possibly the worst idea for an action movie since … since … “The Fifth Element.”

That was the Bruce Willis sci-fi yarn scripted by French director Luc Besson, who based the entire movie on an idea he’d had when he was 15 years old. Someone once said that Hollywood is like high school with money, and evidently it’s true - Sony gave Besson $80 million to make the movie, even after he reportedly refused to show them the script.

When we reach adulthood, many of us turn to religion as a way to thank Almighty God for denying us the means to circulate the ideas we had when we were 15. For allowing us the time and the wisdom to destroy the verse, the short stories and the letters we wrote as adolescents.

We should all be doubly grateful that we did not have $80 million in cash to finance grandiose productions of our teen fantasies, which in my case probably would have been an NC-17 movie about my parents hiring Raquel Welch as a housekeeper.

Besson’s $80 million teen reverie stars Willis as a future-world cab driver who must pull a bunch of rocks from the abdomen of an opera singer and place them alongside a woman inside an Egyptian pyramid, thus saving the universe from a black hole that talks.

“The Fifth Element” is every bit as wonderful as it sounds, and after a respectable opening weekend at the box office, has so thoroughly alienated audiences that it has made less than $50 million in the United States. This precipitous dropoff in business means that “The Fifth Element” has something in common with other blockbusters, most of which have withered after big opening weekends.

Sometimes, box-office numbers are depressing, but sometimes they are heartening - most of the big titles this summer have died like the dogs they are - even “The Lost World,” which made $100 million before people realized how mediocre it was, has atrophied noticeably, finishing third last week behind “Con Air,” despite playing at more than 3,000 theaters.

These dwindling receipts are heartening because this may be the first sign that audiences have begun to tire of the blockbuster syndrome, in which pre-opening advertising and marketing campaigns draw larger and larger crowds to movies of increasingly inferior quality.

With marketing occupying the most significant role, filmmaking has become noticeably less important. This is understandable, since studios have had ample evidence in recent years that content really doesn’t matter that much to audiences. When “Batman Forever” and “Twister” can make $200 million, “Congo” $100 million and “Anaconda” $60 million, quality is no longer Job One. It isn’t even Job 100.

Job One is convincing people they need to be the first on their block to see this week’s blockbuster - “Batman and Robin,” for example.

Until now, it’s worked. “Batman and Robin” will be a test. Maybe people have begun to tire of being the first on their block to have their pockets picked by duds like this.

And maybe Hollywood has finally reached a point of diminishing returns with its blockbuster strategy. With so many flabby fX stinkers crowding the summer schedule, maybe too much is finally enough.


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