Blockbuster Mentality

Rian Johnson

When news broke that Rian Johnson would helm Star Wars: Episode VIII and write a treatment for Episode IX – adding to the numerous Star Wars properties scheduled for screens shortly behind J.J. Abrams’s mystery box – it was almost universally regarded as a solid, promising move to those cautiously optimistic about the rebooting of a galaxy far away. And no doubt, Johnson’s hiring is a very good move for Star Wars, lending the franchise not only the director’s subcultural clout, but also his precise sense of style, passionate knowledge of genre and careful approach to cinematic world-building. His skill should benefit greatly a franchise whose previous incarnation suffered from scant evidence of inspiration or vision. But before seeing a final product, we can only take this news as a gesture of goodwill, or even a reason to be happy for a talented director worthy of admiration and success. Unfortunately, a facet largely missing from conversations about this news is whether a Rian Johnson-led Star Wars will be good for Rian Johnson, especially in a Hollywood that loves courting indie directors but shows questionable regard for their autonomy upon arrival. Marc Webb. Gareth Edwards. Doug Liman. Bryan Singer. At various points during the ‘90s and ‘00s, this list of names would denote the creators behind film festival highlights and limited release word-of-mouth gems. But in 2014, these are the names of the men in the director’s chair for some of the summer’s biggest tentpole titles, the kinds of movies that make or break a fiscal year […]

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Scarlett Johansson Movies

Last year, Steven Spielberg postulated that sometime within the next few years, a series of subsequent major flops will, in effect, dismantle the blockbuster mentality that has dominated Hollywood since Spielberg himself became a well-known director. While this doesn’t look like it will occur anytime soon – certainly not in 2015 – it’s not hard to imagine that the culture industry of remakes, sequels, adaptations, umpteenth reboots and general unoriginality will one day go the way of the September 2008 stock market. It’s happened before. When Hollywood attempted to compete with the rise of television, studios produced an onslaught of lengthy widescreen Technicolor historical pictures, all with massive star power and even bigger budgets. But this model of putting so much money into fewer individual films proved unsustainable, and now even massive hits like Cleopatra are remembered as flops in part because the stakes were so high and their productions were so troubled. It’s hard to believe, but the series of epics that Hollywood produced during the 1950s and 1960s are a blip on the radar of Hollywood’s history compared to the exponential bloating of budgets and expanding of franchises now. We’ve been swimming in the Blockbuster Mentality since 1980 and it’s only intensified since. Hollywood has dug its heels in, only to continue reproducing the same existing properties – thus limiting both the imaginations of audiences and filmmakers – in a way that’s unstoppable unless a West coast economic catastrophe happens. Well, at least, that’s the conventional wisdom.

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the Empire Strikes Back

The story typically goes something like this. In the 1960s, Hollywood had weathered an economic crisis but was losing an ongoing battle with television, so it turned to youth-oriented, smaller projects and gave unprecedented freedom to envelope-pushing directors who worshipped in the churches of Bergman, Kurosawa, Hawkes. Then Jaws (huge) and Star Wars (way huge) came along in the mid-late 70s, imbuing Hollywood with a renewed focus on entertainment spectacle that has, for the most part, dominated its practice since. George Lucas’s original Star Wars without doubt had a significant role in shifting the industrial history of Hollywood toward what we recognize today. It illustrated the lucrative possibilities of mass merchandising, helped elevate B-movie genre fare to A-movie status, and contributed to the now-entrenched thinking that informs our annual movie calendars: the notion that big, expensive fun belongs on our summer movie screens. Yet despite its arguably peerless impact on popular culture in 1977, Star Wars alone resides far more comfortably alongside the film school generation of New Hollywood than the blockbuster mentality it allegedly produced. Rather, it was the film’s 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back that made good the changes that have since come to dominate the logic of today’s Hollywood.

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matrixrevolutions460

Ten years ago today, The Matrix: Revolutions was released in theaters. This is, of course, no monumental cinematic anniversary. It’s quite likely that nobody will ask you today, or any day for that matter, where you were the first time you saw the third Matrix film. At most, this revelation will be a reminder that you, like me, are getting older, and the space between decades ain’t what it used to be. But much has changed in studio tentpole filmmaking in the past ten years – in practice, if not, well, “quality.” On this rather unceremonious anniversary, the third Matrix film has a surprising lot to tell us about how studio franchises have developed since the early Bush era, and where they likely will and won’t go moving forward. The Matrix, a film series initiated by a late-90s cyberpunk sleeper hit that arguably overshadowed the return of f*cking Star Wars, by its final chapter came to be treated by Hollywood as a failed prototype never to be repeated again.

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Mitt Romney currently leads the Republican Presidential nominee field in two distinct ways. The first is in spending, where he’s made it rain $100m so far in order to not clinch the nomination. The second is in delegates, which is it where it counts. Still, he’s facing the possibility of not getting enough delegates before the National Convention in late August which means there’s a chance (albeit a slim one) he won’t be the eventual nominee. He’s also facing difficult internal numbers and that general feeling of, you know, meh-ness from potential supporters. So, he’s John Carter. The correlations are clear: both are inevitable successes by a traditional standpoint, both are flawed in ways that injure their ability to connect with an audience, they’re both in danger of failing, and they both spent a ton of money to get to where they are. There’s a lesson in all of this and hopefully the major studios are paying close attention.

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Culture Warrior

A week and a half ago, Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails was released. On the surface, the film breathes Hollywood oxygen through-and-through. It’s a WWII era action film that uses its setting for broad family-friendly cheese-banter and CGI-heavy eye candy rather than an opportunity for a sober interrogation of history. Red Tails looks and feels like any Hollywood film geared toward as mass an audience as possible. But the studio that’s distributing it – 20th Century Fox – didn’t pay a dime to produce it. The reported $58 million cost to make Red Tails came solely out of the pocket of producer George Lucas, who had been attempting to get a film about the Tuskegee Airmen made since the early 1990s. He was continually met with resistance from a studio system that saw anything less than the biggest guaranteed appeal to the largest possible audience as a “risk,” including a heroic true story about African-American airmen. The ideology that closed the doors on George Lucas of all people reflects the same business mentality that inspired Jeffrey Katzenberg’s lengthy warning to other studios in a memo written during the same years that Lucas was first trying to get Red Tails financed.  In the memo, Katzenberg warned studios regarding their practice of exponentially centralizing all their resources in a few very expensive projects, resulting in high risk, little room for experimentation, and an increasing reliance on that coveted monolith known as the “mass audience” (which, to make things even more complicated, now includes […]

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On January 11, 1991, the then-head of Disney studios, Jeffrey Katzenberg, circulated an incredibly important memo about the state of the movie industry and the products they were making. It was called, “The World is Changing: Some Thoughts on Our Business,” and it had a simple purpose: to locate the root of a growing problem and to take steps to avoid falling victim to it. Katzenberg began the memo by stating: “As we begin the new year, I strongly believe we are entering a period of great danger and even greater uncertainty. Events are unfolding within and without the movie industry that are extremely threatening to our studio.” As we begin a new year two decades after this memo was written, it’s critical to look back at the points Katzenberg made to see that his period of great danger is now our period of great danger, to note that the same events unfolding within and without the industry still threaten the entire studio system in 2012, and to predict our future based on the past.

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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