Hollywood’s very own disaster movies

Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribean. Picture: WALT DISNEY PICTURES

Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribean. Picture: WALT DISNEY PICTURES - Credit: WALT DISNEY PICTURES

This summer Hollywood has come face to face with its own disaster movies. Costs are up, profits are down and people are finding something else to do. Arts editor Andrew Clarke suggests that cinemas should start catering for a wider audience

Spiderman Homecoming. Picture: SONY PICTURES

Spiderman Homecoming. Picture: SONY PICTURES

In the mid 1990s Bruce Springsteen had a hit with a song 57 Channels and Nothing’s On. As you may expect from the title it was a critique of the vacuousness of television. It seems that after this summer the song may need to undergo a title change to 57 Screens and Nothing’s On because Hollywood has just experienced its worst blockbuster season in 25 years.

Attendances are down, box office takings are down 35% despite price rises, super-hero franchises which were deemed to be sure-fire hits didn’t fly and now studio executives are starting to wonder when does a disaster become a crisis?

The problem is that the big Hollywood have painted themselves into a corner. They have opted for the high risk, big return blockbuster option which means spending vast fortunes to produce special effect-filled cinematic firework displays, to be screened in technologically complex cinemas in 3-D, in overwhelming IMAX or in 4-DX which is cinema’s version of a rollercoaster ride, complete with moving seats and mist being sprayed in your face.

All this is incredibly expensive and if the film doesn’t become an instant success then both cinema and Hollywood studio can lose a lot of money very quickly.

Kenneth Branagh in a scene from "Dunkirk." (Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Kenneth Branagh in a scene from "Dunkirk." (Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) - Credit: AP

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This summer has developed from an unseasonal cold spell in May/June time into a perfect storm by the time August arrived. The worst news of all is that even the films that done well, Wonder Woman, or reasonably well, Pirates of the Caribbean, have struggled to break even because they were so expensive to produce or, in the case of one of the few run-away successes of the summer Despicable Me 3, had an audience that only paid children’s admission prices.

The real problem that this summer season has exposed is that Hollywood is only really playing to a small proportion of the population. Through its choice of movies, its overly loud soundtracks, or its carnival side-show presentation, Hollywood has signalled that, outside Oscar season, its not particularly interested in catering for more mature audiences – that’s anyone over the age of 30 in movie-speak.

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Film-makers and audiences who are interested in creating or losing themselves in compelling, complex, intriguing stories are now used to finding such stories on television where series such as The Night Manager or Westworld or The Hand Maid’s Tale can really stretch their legs and explore their narratives in a long-form format.

In the old days of Hollywood any of television’s recent big hits, from The Soprano’s onwards, would have found a home on the big screen as a prestige movie. Today movies about domestic/relationship dramas or political intrigues, if fact any film that doesn’t involve action sequences or special effects, really only appears in the run-up to the awards season.

Baby Driver. Pictures: SONY PICTURES

Baby Driver. Pictures: SONY PICTURES

Hollywood believes that they can make more money from teenage audiences who love the cross-over worlds inhabited by super-heroes or the large financial rewards offered by dialogue-light action films designed to wow non-English speaking audiences in the Far East.

This is fine until the novelty-hungry audience decide they would rather play a virtual-reality computer game or stream their favourite You Tube star.

It’s interesting to note that the most profitable film of the summer have been from the independent sector – films like Baby Driver, the comedy Girls Trip, the Korean arthouse movie The Handmaiden or the non-franchise horror movie Get Out knocked tired retreads like The Mummy into a cocked hat.

One of the biggest surprises was Dunkirk which proved that if you give a director of vision like Christopher Nolan room to manoeuvre and not constrain him with data from focus groups he can breathe new life into seemingly dead genres like the World War II movie.

Not only did he revive the David Lean trademark of placing an intimate drama against a vast, spectacular backdrop, he also shot the film on film, but not any film but the seemingly obsolete 70mm film stock reserved for epics like Lawrence of Arabia, El Cid and Around the World in 80 Days.

It seems to me that Hollywood should ignore its heritage at its peril. It should embrace audiences of all ages and backgrounds if it wants to survive.

Cinema has faced many challenges over the years and it’s survive the arrival of TV, video and DVD but a spread of films covering both blockbusters, comedies and dialogue-driven dramas may provide a more sustainable future than simply banking on empty spectacle.

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