A weak season makes ''Bridget Jones'' look noteworthy, says Mark Harris

By Mark Harris
Updated April 27, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Bridget Jones' s Diary: Miramax Films

Why theaters are full of cheap, dumb movies

This is the time of year when I and my faux pundit colleagues can usually get about a column’s worth of material out of next year’s Oscar race. You know, a semi serious look at the first four months of the year in which we call attention to great movies and performances that might get forgotten later. To that end, I keep a running list of anything I think is noteworthy. Here is this year’s list, reprinted in its entirety:

1. screenplay of ”Memento”
2. Renee Zellweger — possible ”Bridget Jones” Best Actress nomination in weak year???

That’s it. Now, periods during which Hollywood does nothing but shovel crap at the American public are nothing now (see the entire late ’80s). The difference is that this time, Hollywood seems to have given up in advance. Release schedules for the studios this winter and spring were a blunt acknowledgment that nothing before May 4, when ”The Mummy Returns” is expected to inaugurate this year’s box office high season, matters to them.

Let’s review some of the highlights. Sony released ”Tomcats,” ”Saving Silverman,” and ”Joe Dirt.” Buena Vista released ”Just Visiting,” ”Double Take,” and ”Recess: School’s Out.” Fox released ”Say It Isn’t So,” ”Someone Like You,” and ”Freddy Got Fingered.” And Warner’s slate of movies, which, to be fair, did include Sean Penn’s perfectly fine ”The Pledge,”, also included — brace yourself — ”3000 Miles to Graceland,” ”See Spot Run,” ”Sweet November,” ”Valentine,” and ”Exit Wounds.”

Interestingly, in an era when combined production and marketing costs for the average studio movie now top $80 million, most of the films listed above were nowhere near as expensive to make or market. They’re largely free of special effects, complicated locations and elaborate post- production, and they star bargain-priced talent like Jerry O’Connell, David Boreanaz, David Arquette, Christina Applegate, and Tom Green.

That’s no accident. In the world of studio moviemaking, the gap between ”event” films that will cost more than $100 million to make and market and movies that can be made and sold for under, say, $40 million is widening fast. Almost every studio has some very big bets riding on summer or Christmas movies — New Line has invested $250 million in the ”Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Disney may spend more than $175 million on ”Pearl Harbor” when marketing is factored in, and Universal has laid down some serious cash for its summer of reconstituted mummies and dinosaurs. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for expensive risks to be released in the comparatively quiet late winter, spring and fall seasons.

So how about some INEXPENSIVE risks? In decades past, some studio executives — the ones who relied on actual taste and enthusiasm for movies rather than MBAs and focus groups — used to fill out their slates with a couple of cheap movies driven by love of a script, enthusiasm for a director, passion for a project. Some of those would turn into fiascos that were quickly forgotten. Others would turn into, oh, let’s see, ”Rocky,” ”The Conversation,” ”Taxi Driver.” They were gambles worth taking. These days, they talk instead about ”niche” filmmaking, assuming that appealing to a single demographic with low risk, low reward filmmaking will save their butts until summer.

The demographic they currently favor is dumb teenage boys, even though the collective efforts of every dumb teenage boy in America have not managed to turn a single one of the movies listed above into a hit. Maybe (please) it’s time to give up on them for a while and start making a couple of movies per studio for the rest of us. We have all been fingered enough.