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Film – Summer blockbusters

By Preston Wilder

The Cannes Film Festival ended last Sunday. The Palme D’Or – i.e. top prize – went to the rapturously received Blue is the Warmest Colour, a three-hour French coming-of-ager with strong lesbian overtones.

Cannes is the world’s most prestigious film festival, and other much-discussed films included The Immigrant (Marion Cotillard in the title role, as a new arrival from Poland in 1920s Manhattan), The Past (Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to A Separation) and Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the Coen Brothers, a funny-sad comedy set in New York’s folk-music scene in the early 60s.

It’s an undeniable fact, however, that a huge demographic – maybe the majority of film fans, certainly the vast majority of the 15-24 crowd – have never heard of those titles.

Why? Because they’ve been too busy drooling over the list of upcoming summer blockbusters.

We shouldn’t separate Cannes and the blockbusters too rigidly. After all, the president of this year’s jury, responsible for handing out the aforementioned Palme, was Mr. Blockbuster himself, Steven Spielberg. Still, there’s no doubt that Hollywood takes its summer movies seriously – especially now, in a globalised age, when blockbusters typically open all over the world simultaneously (a task made easier by the fact that 35mm film has largely been replaced by digital DCP, meaning studios don’t have to ship thousands of bulky prints anymore).

The hype is heavy, all-consuming and inescapable. The blockbusters are coming, and this year they’re more abundant than ever.

Not counting Iron Man 3 (which of course has already opened), Fast & Furious 6 and The Hangover Part III (which should be opening in Cyprus as you read this), the following are all slated to open between now and August:

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. What do you do after successfully rebooting a moribund franchise? Make a sequel.

AFTER EARTH. Will and Jaden Smith as a dad and son coming back to Earth centuries after mankind was forced to abandon the planet.

MAN OF STEEL. Really? Yet another Superman reboot? Yes, really.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. A prequel to Monsters Inc., which is now 12 years old – i.e. considerably older than the target audience.

WORLD WAR Z. Brad Pitt vs. zombies, trying to wow all you jaded Walking Dead fans.

WHITE HOUSE DOWN. Olympus Has Fallen with Channing Tatum instead of Gerard Butler. I like it already.

THE LONE RANGER. Johnny Depp as Tonto (can we call him an Indian?), directed by Gore Verbinski of Pirates of the Caribbean fame. Sidekick no more!

DESPICABLE ME 2. The original was among the funnier recent kids’ cartoons (see also: Hotel Transylvania), but not exactly crying out for a sequel. Then again, has that ever stopped them? (Note: other movies getting sequels this summer include Grown Ups, Red, Kick-Ass and – yikes! – The Smurfs.)

PACIFIC RIM. Mankind vs. monsters – but directed by Guillermo del Toro, who made Pan’s Labyrinth. “Could be Transformers with a high IQ,” reckons TIME magazine hopefully.

THE WOLVERINE. Didn’t he used to be just ‘Wolverine’?

THE WORLD’S END. More apocalyptic comedy hi-jinks from the team behind Shaun of the Dead, hopefully coming to Cyprus in late August.

There’s more (Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington as mismatched cops in 2 Guns; Sandra Bullock and plus-sized It Girl Melissa McCarthy as mismatched cops in The Heat) but I’m feeling a bit exhausted just typing out that list of titles – and of course that’s the problem, that Hollywood is making too many of these things.

A recent article in the New York Times put its finger on the ticking time-bomb behind the current business model. Briefly put, blockbusters have been too successful for their own good. For the first time ever, Hollywood now makes most of its money outside America, due to the multiplex boom in places like China – and audiences in China don’t want witty dialogue (for one thing, they don’t speak English), they want spectacular excess. US studios are good at providing excess, so a strategy has emerged: fewer films at bigger budgets, hyped to the hilt then opened in a worldwide blitzkrieg. A single blockbuster outperforms five ordinary movies. A single $100 million marketing budget is more effective than five $20 million marketing budgets. It works well – at least till it doesn’t work, and then you lose hundreds of millions of dollars.

This year, analysts reckon there are just too many blockbusters. “All the studios have decided that big-event movies are a better business,” says Doug Creutz, an entertainment analyst quoted in the New York Times. “When everyone decides that, it’s a problem”. In three months’ time, some of the titles mentioned above are likely to be remembered (if at all) as mega-flops on a par with last year’s John Carter, lost amid the glut of summer blockbusters.

Yet there may be hope in a film like Iron Man 3, the latest member of the coveted Billion Dollar Club. It made 68 per cent of its (current) $1.082 billion gross outside the US – yet it teems with witty dialogue, sophisticated jokes and verbal humour. Cartoons have already proved you can target different demographics at the same time – a fart joke for the kids, then a pop-culture reference for the adults – so maybe blockbusters will now start following the same strategy and become more multi-faceted. It’s not the Palme d’Or, but it’s something.

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