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A summer of discontent / Making movies by the numbers

MOVIES | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

July 31, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Everyone complains about the dull box office -- ticket sales are down about 10% this summer -- but does anyone do anything? We asked our three film critics what they think people who love the movies should make of the slump.

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The other day I was flipping through a copy of Entertainment Weekly, trying to keep my mind off the great box office slump of 2005 -- "Tell me about it, Grandpa." "Oh, it was terrible, son. Empty seats all over the place" -- when I came across this quote from Michael Bay, late of "The Island."

"I always say, [bleep] the critics," he was saying. I mean, it felt like I was right there. "That's what 'Bad Boys II' was, a big [bleep] you to the critics." I guess it worked, because it's pretty hard not to take "Bad Boys II" personally. But then he said something that really got me thinking. "I'm going to make it so big and so loud and so over-the-top that critics will hate it and the audience will come anyway. I knew critics would hate it, and I knew it would make $100 million."

Because, you know, it could never be good and lucrative.

Since the mid-'80s, when news media started reporting box office grosses (and studios caught on to the promotional value of closing out the register in public), the numbers have been treated as a scientific measure of audience approval. As if -- finally! -- here was a way to quantify a film's value without having to rely on all those wordy words.

The numbers speak for themselves, but that doesn't mean they tell the truth. Still, nobody argues with them. That's because, even when they're disappointing, they're still really big and intimidating. They're also fun to say and type. A hundred twenty million! Sixty zillion! A billion trillion! Fun like that.

Of course, as anyone who has ever run a lemonade stand knows, gross receipts aren't the same thing as net profits. It helps to keep this in mind, since a summer blockbuster can cost about half the GDP of East Timor to make and market. U.S. box office revenues only account for a smallish portion of a film's earnings anyway, since a film can tank at the box office here and still cash in on DVD sales, global sales and licensing. Movies make money for years after they are released. And figuring out how much would require the kind of access to not-readily-available information, math skills and time that most people can only dream about before they wake up screaming. It's all so slippery and complicated that some are countering the slump-related stories and saying that box office revenues are actually up.

But all this slump talk -- are we supposed to panic or gloat? I can never tell -- has raised an interesting question. Namely: Who cares? For the average moviegoer, stories on box office grosses are just money porn. Echoing and amplifying the numbers only validates the corporate bottom-line mentality that helps keep the culture poor.

Conventional studio wisdom -- an oxymoron, I know -- now dictates that the less a movie appeals to any one particular taste, the more it will appeal to all tastes. In their quest to engineer the "perfect" blockbuster, studios endeavor to systematically strip their biggest, most expensive, most hyped and most widely distributed movies of all traces of recognizable human behavior, insight, originality, vision and emotional honesty. (Whether they succeed depends on the ability of the director to stand his ground.) As one director told me, "You try to pitch a story about a character that's 'quirky,' and they look at you like you're kind of sad."

Creativity by committee

How did this happen? As film critic Tom Shone tells it in his fascinating and insanely entertaining recent book "Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer," after witnessing the unexpected mega-successes of "Jaws" and "Star Wars," the studios became convinced that a hit movie need not be a happy accident. Where was the law that said a blockbuster had to be some ephemeral confluence of the right people shooting the right script at the right time? Why couldn't a blockbuster (originally, a movie with lines longer than a block) be a rigidly defined genre, engineered by a committee with an enormous amount of money at stake?

This newfangled hit would not depend on word-of-mouth from a platformed release. Instead, with the help of an ad campaign in the double-digit millions and an opening so wide you could see the movie's tonsils, it would be turned into an audience "event" and a studio "tent pole." "Blockbuster" was redefined to mean a big concept, three massive fireballs and an A-list male lead yelling "Run!" and "Over there!" and "Where is she?"

To which the buxom love interest with a PhD would respond "I can't do this" and disappear until the big rescue.

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