Summer 2009 can be remembered as the year when bad taste and trite filmmaking – embodied in Michael Bay’s $830 million-grossing “Transformers sequel – captivated the attention of world audiences.
With an extra $100 million expected to be added this week, the US summer domestic box-office has broken records to become the industry’s biggest ever, with a tally of $4.17 billion, beating 2007’s record of $4.16 billion by a whisker.
Yet for all hype surrounding the multitude of sequels, franchise reboots and gross-out comedies, the 2009 summer season was nothing short of disappointing. In fact, the summer’s mainstream slate ranks among the weakest, most uninspired and dullest in many years. Astonishingly, global filmgoers didn’t seem to mind, transforming even domestic underperformers such as “Terminator: Salvation and “Angels & Demons into hits abroad.
The first few months of the year witnessed a surge in both attendance and grosses that reached 23 percent by late spring, thanks to a series of hits such as “Gran Torino, “Taken, “Slumdog Millionaire and “He’s Just Not That Into You.
The summer kicked off strongly with Gavin Hood’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine, taking $179 million domestically and $183 abroad. J.J Abrams’ critically loved “Star Trek continued Hollywood’s hot streak, grossing $256 million domestically and $126 million internationally.
Three consecutive big-budgeted studio releases broke what initially seemed like a magic spell cast over Hollywood. A number of sequels – “Angels & Demons, “Terminator: Salvation and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian – failed to outperform their predecessors.
The box-office plummeted further with bigger flops; most prominently the Will Ferrell adventure comedy “Land Of The Lost, Tony Scott’s action thriller “The Taking Of Pelham 123 starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta, the Jack Black comedy “Year One, Sacha Baron Cohen’s widely discussed “Brüno and Judd Apatow’s semi-existential comedy “Funny People starring Adam Sandler.
A string of major blockbusters kept Hollywood hope afloat to score a record season alive. Pixar’s “Up raked $290 million to become Pixar’s second highest-grossing film to date behind 2003’s “Finding Nemo. “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs snatched $193 million domestically, the highest mark in the series, and $613 million abroad, the biggest international tally in history for an animated film.
“Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is officially the third biggest film of J.K. Rowling multi-grossing series with a $294 million take in the US and $610 million overseas.
The mammoth success of Todd Phillips’s “The Hangover ($270 million) and the Sandra Bullock starer “The Proposal ($160 million) gave Hollywood a record-breaking summer for comedies.
Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was undoubtedly the grimmest success story of the year. The year’s domestic box-office champion is also the worst reviewed $400-million-grossing film to date.
A slew of late overachievers are to thank for the box-office rebound: Stephen Sommer’s actioner “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra ($133 million), Neill Blomkamp’s South Africa-set sci-fi thriller “District 9 ($92 million in three weeks) and Quentin Tarantino’s wartime drama “Inglourious Basterds ($78 million in two weeks).
Global film market
The picture wasn’t drastically different in the rest of the world. Hollywood movies continued to dominate the global box-office, taking more than a 60 percent share of the international film market.
Like America, local hits in every foreign market were mostly genre pieces. Comedy reigned supreme in Europe and South America: Brazil, “Invisible Woman ($10 million); Italy, “Un’estate ai Caraibi ($5 million); Spain, “Brain Drain ($35 million); France, “LOL (Laughing Out Loud) ($21.4 million).
The breakout European hit of the summer is Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s hugely successful novel “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Garnering more than $45 million from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Spain, “Girl currently stands as the most successful Scandinavian film in history.
Other noteworthy European successes includes Anne Fontaine’s “Coco before Chanel (26 million) starring Audrey Tautou.
In Asia, genre films also ruled in the shape of disaster films and TV adaptation. Je-gyun Yun produced the $60 million grosser “Tsunami, South Korea’s biggest hit in three years. In Japan, home to one of the world’s most versatile film markets, the top domestic earner of the summer is baseball drama “Rookies the Movie: Graduation ($88 million), based on a highly successful TV series, while “Arceus’ Conquering of Space-Time, the latest installment of the long-running Pokémon series, came in second with $40 million so far.
In this congested marketplace and lack of appropriate marketing, the award-winning, heavy-weight productions didn’t succeed in attracting an audience. Spanish maverick Pedro Almodóvar saw his highly touted latest film “Broken Embraces become his worst underperforming film in more than a decade with $15 million.
Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier fared worse with his shock-horror “Antichrist, grossing only $4 million in spite of a massive publicity campaign. The verdict on Ken Loach’s crowd-pleasing “Looking for Eric is not in yet, although its $2 million take in the UK was far below expectations.
The situation was direr in the US. Apart from a handful of American titles, most notably Marc Webb’s splendid romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer ($26 million), most indies and foreign films were ignored by American filmgoers.
The biggest causality of America’s apathy was Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s magnificent new film “Ponyo. Despite being broadly promoted by Pixar’s John Lasseter and released in about 880 theaters, “Ponyo, which grossed more than $160 million in Japan, took a modest $11.5 million in three weeks.
And for all the exaggerated claims regarding the popularity of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker, the best reviewed American film of the year, the Iraqi-set combat thriller has actually grossed $11 million, a respectable number for a limited release but hardly a substantial commercial success.
Fanboys shall inherit the earth
The mainstream film industry proved to be recession-proof. Global audiences did take chances with some films such as “District 9 and “Inglourious Basterds, but they were calculated rather than arbitrary.
The story was significantly different with the indie sector. Hollywood films aside, this summer has produced several outstanding pictures, including “Summer Hours, “In the Loop, “Lorna’s Silence, “Moon, “The Cove, the aforementioned “Hurt Locker and “Antichrist, “Still Walking and “Passing Strange to name a few.
Despite glowing reviews, most filmgoers, especially in the US, refused to listen.
On the other hand, digital media made a great impact this summer. Bad word of mouth surrounding “Brüno spread rapidly on Twitter that by the second weekend, the film suffered a steep drop of more than 60 percent. Twitter had an opposite effect on “District 9 and “Inglourious Basterds.
When it came to artier, less-visible fares, new media hardly made a difference though, not even with commercial flicks like Chan-wook’s “Oldboy Park’s “Thirst which grossed a measly $300,000 in the US.
The failure of Hollywood stars like Johnny Depp (whose $100 million budgeted “Public Enemies managed to gross only $97 million domestically), Denzel Washington, Adam Sandler and Julia Roberts to pack theaters and the huge success of fantasy-driven productions highlighted the undisputable reality of our time: This is the age of fanboys.
Young males continue to represent the largest demographic for film across the globe. The audience for indie films is increasingly shrinking, crushed by the Hollywood marketing machine. The picture we have in here is of a large flock, blindly marching in a defined course constructed both by the Hollywood gods and their peers.< P>The failure of art flicks to garner considerable profits is bound to limit both production of small films and their release. American indies are already struggling to acquire foreign distribution, even in many parts of Europe, while the soft revenues of auteur films are not only weakening global indie distribution, it’s putting great pressure on small distributors to reject riskier fares.
What does that mean for the future of the so-called art-house films? The one thing that is certain is that the number of films with theatrical releases will dramatically decline over the next few years, both in the US and elsewhere.
Several summer films such as “In the Loop and Robin Williams’ acclaimed comedy “World’s Greatest Dad have been simultaneously offered on Pay-per-view cable upon release, a trend that could possibly increase in the near future.
The fall season gives a better illustration of the current crisis. Due in part to escalating marketing costs; American film companies are releasing 40 percent fewer movies within the next four month than they did last year. According to the New York Times, acquisition of new films in Toronto Film Festival, whose market is ranked as one of the largest in the world, is expected to drop between 17 to 30 percent despite a 9 percent increase in screening features.
The glitzy picture of the Venice Film Festival contrasts the current reality of the global film market. With one of the strongest, most diverse lineups in years, 2009 should end up being a truly exceptional year for cinema. And unless you, my fellow film lovers everywhere, get off your seats and start watching these films, nothing will be left in theaters to watch but the next line of “Transformers sequels.