Sense of Wonder: Superheroes of Summer

THE HULK: The jolly green giant returns for another shot and cinematic superstardom. 

In the Wall Street Journal article “Can These Heroes Save Summer,” Lauren A. E. Schuker and Peter Sanders take a look at the upcoming summer movie season and note that it is filled with superheroes, who Hollywood hopes will save them from low attendance and sagging receipts. On the list of big-budget releases is IRON MAN, HELLBOY 2, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, and THE DARK KNIGHT. Moving away from comic books, we also have larger than life heroes in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, HANCOCK (starring Will Smith), SPEED RACER, and CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. And let’s not forget the X-FILES sequel.
With everyone rolling out their big guns, the obvious question is whether there is room in the marketplace for everyone. No doubt some of these films will fail to live up to expectations, but in general it is a mistake to think of the box office as a zero-sum game, with only so many dollars to go around. When films are hits, they get people back into the habit of seeing movies, and overall box office goes up.
The real question is whether theatres can staunch the bleed of audience dollars seeping into rival media. More and more, theatrical distribution seems like a mere platform to launch the home video release (with the gap between the two becoming ever shorter). The reason for this is obvious: profit margins are larger for home video, where the cost of making and shipping a DVD is a mere fraction of striking and shipping a 35mm print. With downloads, the cost of distribution drops even lower.
That’s the business bottom line, but from a cultural standpoint, things look much different. Direct-to-Video movies do not become cultural landmarks. If the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW were made today, it would not becomea midnight movie hit; it would be shuffled off to video and forgotten, even if it turned a profit. Likewise, films like DIARY OF THE DEAD have little chance to make a nationwide impression, except to fans who seek them out.
What we need are film distributors who take the long view and have some sense of old-fashioned Hollywood bally-ho. I think the real reason for the drop in ticket sales has less to do with changing audience habits than with the fact that most Hollywood does not particularly make people want to get out of their homes and go to the movies – either because the films are not very good or because they are not very well promoted. I mean, there’s really no particular reason to expect people to see ONE MISSED CALL, THE EYE, or SHUTTER. Meanwhile, films worthy of finding an audience – like THE SIGNAL or STORM WARNING – are lucky if they get released at all.

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