Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How Hollywood learned to love the bomb

with 2 comments

Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds in R.I.P.D.

Why are we so fascinated by flops? Each year, there’s a race in the media to declare one movie or another the biggest disaster of the summer, and these days, the speculation seems to start weeks or months before a film’s release. In some cases, as with World War Z, the result blows past expectations to turn into a “surprise” success; for others, like The Lone Ranger, the early forebodings turn out to have been more than justified. At times, the media’s salivation over an impending bomb verges on the unseemly: the knives were out for R.I.P.D. long before it underwhelmed over this past weekend, to a point where a lot of potential audience members may have been discouraged from attending by the negative press. Nobody likes to back a loser. (It’s also worth noting that the definition of a bomb is more subjective than you might think: Pacific Rim has already made a number of lists of big-budget disasters, but fans on Reddit and elsewhere are equally eager to declare it a success, and the real truth is likely to land somewhere in the middle, especially once international grosses are taken into account.)

I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else: God knows I’ve spent enough time on this blog writing about John Carter. And the media has been obsessed with high-profile flops for as long as we’ve been going to the movies. Still, there’s no denying that the cycle has accelerated in recent years, to an extent that goes hand in hand with our fixation with getting the weekend numbers as quickly as possible. I’ve always been a box office junkie: I’ve visited the sites Box Office Mojo and Box Office Guru twice a week for most of the last fifteen years, and I’ll frequently check the latter’s Twitter feed for the latest updates. For big releases, estimated numbers for opening day are often available online early Saturday morning, which leads to an extraordinarily rapid verdict on the movie’s ultimate prospects: Friday numbers can be used to project the weekend as whole, which can give you a decent sense of the final gross, meaning that a picture that took a studio two or three years to conceive, produce, and market can have its success or failure decided in less than twenty-four hours.

Taylor Kitsch and friend in John Carter

In theory, that’s great drama—greater, in many cases, than what’s visible on the screen. And you’d think it would only get more intense as the major studios continue to place all of their bets on a handful of big tentpole pictures, rather than the traditional slate of small- to medium-sized releases. It’s an article of faith in contemporary Hollywood that it’s better to invest everything in a single movie that costs half a billion dollars to make and distribute rather than to spread the cost over half a dozen smaller films. The risks are enormous, but the returns can be equally great. Until, of course, they aren’t. And the stakes involved mean that even otherwise forgettable factory products can seem like insane acts of hubris. A few decades ago, an epochal flop worthy of a book like Final Cut or The Devil’s Candy—which respectively chronicle the stories behind Heaven’s Gate and The Bonfire of the Vanities—seemed to only appear every five years or so, and now, you could write a book like this every summer.

After a while, though, they all start to blur together. A movie like Heaven’s Gate may be a disaster—and make no mistake, it is, despite the recent attempts to reevaluate it as a neglected masterpiece—but at least it was the product of a particular crazed vision, however misguided it might have been. These days, flops are just part of the cost of doing business, and if there’s a story to be told here, it’s less about any one director’s megalomania than about the bumps in what has turned out to be a surprisingly viable corporate model. The blockbuster mentality can be hard to defend from an artistic perspective, and it leads to a glut of sequels and comic book franchises, but from a financial point of view, it works. Universal may have taken a hit from R.I.P.D., but that’s more than offset by the gains from Fast and Furious 6 and Despicable Me 2. It’s a model designed to absorb big disasters, which are a necessary side effect of an industry that rounds everything to the nearest hundred million. Flops, in short, are no longer interesting even as flops. And that’s the saddest part of all.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2013 at 9:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. I think the acceleration you’re noting is part of a larger (and much more disquieting) phenomenon that’s been developing for at least a decade or so now.

    In The Terminator, the apocalypse began when Skynet famously “became self-aware”, which is oddly analogous to what’s happening with pop culture itself. There’s such an overwrought sense of self-awareness built into almost all aspects of modern media that schadenfreude, irony and a kind of “show-within-a-show” mentality have become a standard part of the formula. As you pointed out, the drama behind the production of anything—a film, a TV show, an album, whatever—is quickly becoming an expected part of the process, in much the same way you can’t sell a DVD anymore without extras and commentary tracks to go along with it.

    It says a lot, for example, that the once fringe mockumentary format—itself a strikingly literal example of this phenomenon—has almost replaced the traditional multi-camera sitcom. Fans claim that the approach of shows like All in the Family is artificial and contrived, while shows like The Office bring are refreshingly authentic by contrast, but what could be more contrived than fictional “confessional booth” shots of characters speaking directly to the audience? I can already feel the fatigue in my irony receptors.

    Throw in social media and mobile devices that keep us connected to the zeitgeist around the clock, and it’s not surprising that the circuit formed between media and its consumers has been shorted so dramatically that we’ve entered this state of hyper-evolution in which everything converges on the most rewarding extremes, sorta like how fast food boils down our entire palette to a handful of culinary caricatures or how pop music reduces the entire universe of musical possibilities to the most immediately gratifying pentatonic hook. What concerns me is that way the media landscape is so readily reduced to a handful of easily-recognized archetypes: the self-aggrandizing reality show star, the sophomore slump, the celebrity sex tape, the reference-laden alt-comedy sitcom, or, in this case, the big-budget flop.

    It’s almost the reverse of Orwell’s view of oppressively engineered language; we’ve voluntarily given ourselves this cartoonishly restricted vocabulary with which to interpret each new day of pop culture news, to the point that anything falling outside the range of these narrowly-defined archetypes isn’t just ignored, it’s almost like it’s not even recognized at all.

    Phew! Sorry to clog up your blog with what is apparently an undergrad term paper for “Intro to Media Studies”, but I’m glad I’m not the only one noticing this kind thing.

    Alex Varanese

    July 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm

  2. As someone who is married to a journalist, the acceleration and fragmentation of media is something I think about a lot, and I definitely think you’re on to something: we want our news fast, in easily digested pieces, and anything else is likely to be overlooked entirely. I’d be worried about it as a novelist, too, except that the novel was already an anachronistic art form long before I got here—at least if you believe what people say.


    July 22, 2013 at 6:01 pm

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