Analyzing the 2007 summer movie season: What we stand to lose if studios insist on only putting out ''blockbusters''

By Mark Harris
August 21, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Robert Zuckerman

Analyzing the 2007 summer movie season

It may still feel like summer to you, but in Hollywood they’re already throwing their beach umbrellas in the backs of their SUVs and heading home. The arrival of Rush Hour 3 last weekend signaled the unofficial end of the season of great (monetary) expectations. For the next few weeks, if tradition holds, most of the summer stragglers that open will be either Superbad or merely superbad.

So, since all those premature evacuators at the studios are leaving us high and dry, let’s wrap up the summer: What a not-so-long strange trip it’s been. For the first time ever in a year, let alone a single 14-week period, four movies took in more than $300 million domestically. And nobody — except their profit participants — cared. Thanks to Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Transformers, all of which will wind up among the 25 highest grossers in history, 2007 has earned its spot in the record book — but that’s the only place it’ll be remembered. We’re living in the Year of the Buzzless Blockbuster.

For those of you preparing to bombard me with e-mails calling me elitist (or sometimes even ”eleetist”!) and telling me that if I’d just stop sipping my teacup full of poison for five seconds, I might remember that movies are supposed to be fun, don’t hit ”Send” just yet: I liked this summer just fine, thanks. Any season that brings Ratatouille and The Simpsons Movie, a generous, funny grown-up hit like Knocked Up, a Harry Potter installment that marks a smashing Hollywood debut for David Yates, and the moviemaking-on-meth overdrive of The Bourne Ultimatum (bring Dramamine, but enjoy the ride) is okay by me.

Nevertheless, towering above them all, sort of, were Spidey, Shrek, Pirates, and Transformers. How noisily they landed; how quickly they gave ground. Their grosses are easily tallied; their lack of impact is harder to quantify. Were they popular? Indisputably when compared with other movies; not so much if you compare the first three with their earlier incarnations. Were they profitable? Beats me. Since studios aren’t inclined to reveal exactly how much they spent and how much they got back, journalists shouldn’t be parroting publicity boasts about record-shattering successes any more than we should take at face value the studios’ simultaneous pleas of poverty as they posture in advance of possible writers’ and actors’ strikes. But my guess is, sure, those movies made a pile of money.

So why didn’t they seem to matter more? Whatever makes people talk about a film for weeks — one great scene, an amazing twist, a star-making performance, a barrier-breaking laugh — was missing, and without those elements, a movie is a pop cultural nonevent, record books or no record books. They came, they made headlines, and by the time they’d spent a week in theaters, half their audience had already come and gone. That’s not a phenomenon; that’s merely a moment. Studio spinners argue that this is part of a new paradigm in which a movie can open so wide and play so often per day that nobody who wants to see it ever has to wait until the fourth weekend. That’s true, but it ignores the fact that nobody who waited until the fourth weekend was likely to have heard anything about these films that made them want to go. In the not-so-distant past, huge movies could own vast swaths of summer — Jurassic Park, the first Spider-Man, Gladiator, The Sixth Sense. This year’s hits didn’t — perhaps because none of them contained a thing you hadn’t seen before.

Buzzless blockbusters still have one superpower: They can regenerate. Sony has made it pretty clear that Spider-Man 4 will happen no matter who’s wearing the spandex, and Shrek 4 (which was announced along with Shrek 5) has already nailed down the only creative element it can’t do without: a release date. Come May 21, 2010, I’m sure it’ll be the biggest, greenest thing in movies, surpassed only by whatever opens seven days later.

It’s bad news for moviegoers that studios can now make money without having to worry about that pesky variable, word of mouth. Studios would rather have bucks than buzz any day. But when a movie like Knocked Up earns its status as a hit the old-fashioned way, hanging in week after week because people like it and tell their friends, it’s a jolting reminder of what a hit that defines a summer actually feels like, and an embarrassment to anyone trying to claim that that kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore.

So maybe it’s best to cheer summer’s end and move on to what looks like an exceptionally promising fall. (The massive belly flop of A Mighty Heart in June only makes it more certain that serious films will be quarantined in autumn until further notice.) At The Bourne Ultimatum the other night, I saw a trailer for Rendition, one of at least a dozen forthcoming dramas that explore and challenge America’s post-9/11 foreign policy (as does Bourne, for that matter). After the trailer, a woman next to me said with disgust, ”Some things are too serious to make movies about.” If the next four months prove her wrong, 2007 will have been a very good year.