Whither (Or Is it Wither?) the Great American Movie?
Is the great American movie as we know it about to become an endangered species? That's the premise of a recent article by the Los Angeles Times' Patrick Goldstein, who sizes up the recent batches of Christmas releases and the lackluster box office returns we saw throughout 2011 and sees that even Hollywood is not immune to the tremendous force of globalization.
Goldstein goes right to the numbers by breaking down the business done in recent years by Paramount Studios, the top studio in Hollywood on the dollars-and-cents level.
Under Brad Grey's leadership, Paramount is now focused on making two radically different kinds of films — behemoths that appeal to audiences everywhere and low-budget ones that appeal to a specific niche of American moviegoers. Nine of the 10 movies the studio bankrolled in 2011 cost at least $125 million — or $25 million or less. The studio has a hit this week with “The Devil Inside,” a horror film released through Paramount's micro-budget Insurge label. Made for $1 million and marketed without any prime-time TV advertising, it was the weekend's No. 1 release, taking in $33.7 million.
The expensive films, “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “The Adventures of Tintin,” all were aimed at international audiences. In fact, the Steven Spielberg-directed “Tintin,” a co-production with Sony Pictures, was so globally oriented — the film is already on track to make nearly $300 million overseas — that it would've been a hit if it had never been released in the U.S. (The film opened in Europe two months before debuting stateside.) With “Ghost Protocol,” the movie's story line is constructed in such a way that its action unfolds in a string of international locations, notably Russia, India and the United Arab Emirates (where the studio held the film's premiere, in Dubai).
Paramount's other 2011 titles were lower-budget films that had little chance of playing well overseas: “Young Adult” was aimed at urban hipsters, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” was targeted at preteen girls, and “Paranormal Activity 3,” like “Devil Inside,” was for horror fans.
Paramount's one midrange film was the J.J. Abrams-directed “Super 8,” which cost $50 million. In years past, a splashy special-effects movie by one of the studio's leading filmmakers would've carried a far higher price tag. But realizing that the film's distinctly American subject matter (and lack of name talent) would have far less international appeal, the studio persuaded Abrams to make the film in West Virginia, where there were generous tax credits. The studio says Abrams also took no up-front fee for the picture.
From there, he makes a bit of a leap, but one that is not without logic -- that the Great American Movie as we know it is fading away, a victim of an era where big-budget success means selling tickets in Monaco more than it does on Main Street USA.
This is no doubt great news for Paramount's bottom line, as well as for other media conglomerates that are moving in a similar globally oriented direction. But what will happen to the kind of movies we've traditionally viewed as distinctly American — “Mystic River,” “Milk,” “The Descendants” — movies that explore, define or simply poke fun at our American character?
What the U.S. still brings to the table is the spunk and brainpower of American entrepreneurialism. Hollywood has a creative ecosystem that is virtually impossible to duplicate anywhere else. China, for example, has a domestic market easily big enough to make its own films. But according to Sony co-chairman Michael Lynton, the country still lacks key creative resources — starting with a thriving community of screenwriters — that are essential ingredients in making films.
“Our movies may no longer espouse American values, but they carry a ‘Made in America' stamp that guarantees a commercial and technical quality level that's unmatched anywhere else,” Lynton says. “When you're overseas, you often find yourself negotiating deals with someone's sister or brother-in-law who may or may not have any actual film experience. In the U.S., we have an entire system of institutions, from film schools to union guilds to talent agencies, designed to provide quality entertainment.”
So while something is lost, something else is gained. Our commercial movies may have less to say about specific American values, but they are still magnets for great talent, making their mark around the globe through their vibrant style and technical prowess. Filmmakers come from all different cultures: Peter Jackson, Ang Lee, Guillermo del Toro, Chris Nolan, Timur Bekmambetov, Neill Blomkamp. But all have found ways to make very American movies.
Goldstein's entire column is impressive -- a well thought out, persuasive explanation, in part, for those sagging box office numbers. And it's a thesis we're willing to buy, at least mostly. It certainly explains why our beloved Westerns -- the quintessential American movie -- hardly ever get made on a grand scale anymore.
We're just not fully taken in by this potentially emerging trend as an explanation for the box office woes here in the States or as a sign that something is going to be lost. How can you be in a year when The Dark Knight Rises is slated for release and primed to shatter seemingly every box office record under the sun?
Yes, you might point out, director Christopher Nolan is quite British, but his movies celebrate a very American hero in Batman, and based on the little we know about the final film in his trilogy, it looks like The Dark Knight Rises will at least in part be an examination of American excess. The trailer begins with "The Star Spangled Banner," after all and also features Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle/Catwoman telling Bruce Wayne that, "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. You're all going to wonder how you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us."
Who knows -- maybe The Dark Knight Rises stands against a rising global tide. Perhaps it will wind up being a relic and not a harbinger of the future. But we suspect not -- not in full at least. As even Goldstein acknowledges, Hollywood remains the center of the moviemaking universe, and as long as that's the case American fingerprints will be all over every major release.
What's more, when we size up forthcoming releases (as we did recently), we see more of a healthy mix than the table tilting one way or another. Using our top 50 buzzworthy releases of 2012 as a guide, there are undoubtedly more movies than ever with broad global appeal -- The Hunger Games, Prometheus, World War Z, Skyfall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and so on. But there also plenty with a distinctly American appeal -- The Dark Knight Rises, of course, as well as Django Unchained, The Avengers, great American novel adaptation of The Great Gatsby and even more esoteric titles like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that feature a quite American protagonist.
What we see that's new is that it's now possible to produce a movie in America but eschew American markets as part of being a financial success -- Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin being maybe the starkest example of that yet. Possible doesn't mean desirable, though, and, at least for now, American audiences remain the most desirable on Earth. Movies might not be made with solely us in mind anymore, but in most cases we're still at the fore of consideration.