We’ll artfully sidestep the inevitable, uncomfortable conversation about the importance of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation , which was a watershed moment for film craft, used in the service of a story that remains horrifying for its racism and hateful rhetoric. Suffice it to say that the film, which ran an epic 190 minutes, was a monster box office hit (grossing something like $10 million in its original release, which began in 1915). Director Griffith went to work on his follow-up, the more ambitious (and noticeably less incendiary) Intolerance , but Thomas Dixon Jr., who co-wrote The Birth of a Nation (from a pair of his books) wanted to cash in on his association with the smash, so the following year, he wrote and directed The Fall of a Nation — which is, most film historians agree, the first movie sequel.
Dixon’s follow-up was a flop (and has subsequently disappeared, as something like 80% of silent films did), but in the decades to come, Hollywood would learn to love the sequel and its built-in (and inevitably disappointed) audience. That love affair has reached a fever pitch in 2011, with an astonishing 27 sequels slated for release — or, as Harris writes, “four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.” That’s quite a tally. Now, let’s take a look at the genuinely original movie ideas slated for this year. Um…
January 8, 1941: Hearst blackballs Citizen Kane
It’s tough to find a self-respecting cinephile these days who isn’t overflowing with love for Citizen Kane , Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece, the single film most frequently pinpointed as “the best ever made.” But it didn’t have quite so many fans at the time of its original release, and leading the charge of its enemies was William Randolph Hearst, the filthy rich newspaper magnate who the film’s protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, was clearly modeled on. Co-writer Herman Mankiewicz had integrated himself into Hearst’s inner circle, and several elements of the picture were pulled from his inside information (though, as legend has it, the real explanation of the phrase “rosebud” was much bluer than what made it into the film).
When Welles had a preview screening on January 3, several of Hearst’s sycophants — including rival gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons — breathlessly reported the film’s thinly veiled tales to the powerful publisher, who wasted little time in declaring war on the picture by informing all of his papers that they were to run no advertising or promotional pieces on Citizen Kane. He also took Welles’s insolence as an opportunity to threaten open warfare on Hollywood and the “immigrants” and “refugees” running it (classy guy). The powers-that-be in Hollywood, already resentful of “boy wonder” Welles and his unprecedented contract with RKO, quickly rallied around Hearst — MGM head Louis B. Mayer even offered to pay RKO’s George Schaefer $840,000 (well over the production budget) to burn the negative and all prints of Citizen Kane. Problem solved! Fortunately for film history, Schaefer refused, but the damage was done. Without the ad space in the Heart papers, the picture barely broke even, and it took decades for it to finally receive the recognition it received. In the meantime, the dustup set the stage for the kind of corporate and media collusion that too often controls what makes it to the big screen these days.
March 28, 1941: First chapter of The Adventures of Captain Marvel released
Republic Pictures made a pretty good dollar turning out “serials” in the 1930s and 1940s — multi-part adventure stories that ran before feature films, usually ending with a “cliffhanger” that would seem to leave the hero in unavoidable peril, prompting viewers to return the following week to see how the hero escaped (or, more often than not, what sneaky editing trick allowed them to escape). Republic cranked out a total of 66 series of serials, but their most notable is the 1941 series The Adventures of Captain Marvel, for only one reason: it marked the first film adaptation of a comic book character.
We don’t want to sound anti-comic-book-movie—yes, of course, there have been plenty of great comic book flicks (Superman, Spiderman 2, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, X-Men). But those films are vastly outnumbered by the sheer volume of comic book swill — both their own sequels and clunkers like The Spirit, The Fantastic Four, The Punisher (keep trying on that one, we guess), Ghost Rider, Barb Wire, Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Elektra, Tank Girl, Steel, Judge Dredd, Howard the Duck, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Jonah Hex… the list goes on and on. But Hollywood keeps pinning their hopes on comic book movies: this year will see four more big ones (Thor, X-Men: First Class, The Green Lantern, and Captain America), and there’s plenty more to come.
But why? Because they’re brands. “Such an unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods may be why so many of the dispiritingly awful movies that studios throw at us look as if they were planned from the poster backward rather than from the good idea forward,” Harris writes. “Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they’re now trying to sell. The Magic 8 Ball (tragically, yes, there is going to be a Magic 8 Ball movie) is a brand because it was a toy. Pirates of the Caribbean is a brand because it was a ride. Harry Potter is a brand because it was a series of books. Jonah Hex is a brand because it was a comic book. (Here lies one fallacy of putting marketers in charge of everything: Sometimes they forget to ask if it’s a good brand.)”
September 14, 1981: Entertainment Tonight premieres
When it premiered, the syndicated entertainment news magazine show Entertainment Tonight seemed harmless enough — mindless, sure, but a fine source for gossip, tidbits, interviews, and behind-the-scenes footage. But sometime in the early 1980s, the show made a Monday feature out of reporting the weekend box office receipts, and something big — and bad — changed.
“One of the strangest developments in show-biz journalism right now is the emphasis on the box office,” Roger Ebert wrote, back in 1985. “Led by USA Today and Entertainment Tonight, movie reporters are covering the weekend box-office grosses of new movies as if they were a spectator sport… Frankly, I don’t care. I started out in the newspaper business as a sports reporter, and I spent several years keeping score and tallying statistics and caring about who won. When I found my way onto the movie beat, I developed the quaint notion that a movie was a winner if I liked it, and a loser if I didn’t. Now the movie beat is beginning to look like a combination of the sports section and the business page.” What was perceptive in 1985 is gospel in 2011; weekend grosses are predicted, tabulated, estimated, and trumpeted, dominating entertainment coverage from Friday to Monday. A film’s box office performance, how it does according to arbitrarily created expectations, has become the entire narrative. The question, week after week, is not, “What’s any good?” but simply, “What’s everyone seeing?”
October 19, 1985: The first Blockbuster Video opens
The home video landscape of the early 1980s was a charmingly low-rent operation — mom-and-pop video shops dotted the land, housing an admittedly limited supply of well-worn VHS tapes hawked by enterprising small business owners and opinionated movie nerds. But all that changed towards the end of the decade, as the Dallas-based video rental mega-chain Blockbuster Video began its expansion into nationwide domination. They led their meager competition with 400 locations by 1988, which ballooned to 1,000 by the early 1990s. With corporate muscle and money behind them, the chain trumpeted their extensive selection and ease of use. The trouble was, they seldom actually had a “selection” — they just had a lot of copies of that week’s biggest new releases. Smaller titles — foreign films and indies —were neglected or ignored; Blockbuster was pushing “product.”
Their fall from power (they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the fall and have initiated an auction process for the company) can be attributed to any number of factors: the ease of Netflix, the rise of streaming video, the dominance of DVD and its low sell-through prices. But we’d like to think it was a matter of options — with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and more offering access to exactly the kind of film viewing choices Blockbuster eschewed, maybe the store with little more to offer than 200+ copies of Transformers 2 wasn’t as attractive anymore.
February 10, 1995: Billy Madison released
“Fine, Adam Sandler, you can go make a movie. How’s that? Sure, write it with your friend. And make it with a bunch of your buddies, yes, that’s fine. The script? No, of course we don’t understand it — look, just keep the budget under $20 million, okay?” And with that, the seed that blossomed into Happy Madison Productions began. Look, we even liked some of the early Sandler movies, when he and his friends were still hungry and putting some effort into making funny films. But around the time that Sandler started his production company in 1999, he and his cohort just plain got lazy, and it seemed that anybody who worked with, hung out with, or wandered into Sandler’s field of vision was deemed perfectly qualified to write, direct, produce, or star in a major motion picture — which has resulted in not only subpar Sandler vehicles like Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and Grown-Ups, but dreck like Grandma’s Boy, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, Joe Dirt, The Master of Disguise, The Benchwarmers, Strange Wilderness, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. That’s a roll call that will make any comedy fan’s heart die a quick death.
(tie) January 31, 1997: Star Wars Special Edition released/ May 19, 1999: Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace released
The mega-hits Jaws and Star Wars are frequently pinpointed as the turning points of ’70s cinema — the transition from character-driven filmmaking within the studio system to big-gross-driven “event” movies. And that’s probably true, but we love those movies so much, it’s hard to get too mad at them.
On the other hand, it’s very easy to get mad at pretty much everything George Lucas has done in the years since. After over a decade of dillydallying and dodging, Lucas finally announced in the mid-1990s that he would make the long-awaited “prequels” to his Star Wars trilogy. But first, hey, just for fun, let’s put the original movies back into theaters, whaddaya say? Trouble was, Lucas wasn’t content to just re-release the movies that countless filmgoers had known and loved for 20 years — he decided to do some “tweaking.” In fact, he spent over $10 million on the “special editions” of the original films, adding in tons of new digital effects (including jarring new CGI additions) and deleted scenes (most noticeably a conversation between Han Solo and a CG Jabba the Hut) and re-cutting certain sequences — including, notoriously, the shoot-out between Solo and the bounty hunter Greedo (birthing the never-dying meme “Han Shot First!”). But audiences flocked to the re-releases — which only encouraged Lucas to continue screwing with the films before their 2004 DVD releases, and presumably, as he prepares for their Blu-ray release later this year. For his part, Lucas insists the original versions were “earlier drafts” that would “disappear.” “I think it’s the director’s prerogative,” Lucas told American Cinematographer in 1997, conveniently ignoring the fact that he didn’t direct the other two films in the original trilogy.
But Lucas’s casual disdain for the wishes of his fans — who wish he’d leave the films they remember alone — was only a warm-up for the prequel films, a trilogy of cumbersome and clunky messes that were barely a shadow of the original movies. After the first of them, The Phantom Menace, was released in 1999 to disappointed audiences and critics, rumors circulated that, as with the first trilogy, Lucas would hand the follow-ups over to other directors (Spielberg’s name was frequently mentioned). But like Col. Kurtz, the object of the journey in Apocalypse Now (which he had once been attached to), Lucas had created a kingdom for himself upriver (at Skywalker Ranch); it didn’t matter what was best for the films, or for the fans. What the mogul said, went.
June 14, 2002: Scooby-Doo released
In the constant search for that elusive “brand” that Harris writes about, studios in the 1990s began eagerly transforming any television program with even a hint of nostalgic affection into feature films. The resulting features were frequently lousy (seriously, when was the last time you gave The Beverly Hillbillies, McHale’s Navy, or Car 54, Where Are You a spin?), but enough of them made money to keep the cycle in motion.
The trend took an insidious turn in June of 2002, when Warner Brothers slapped the film adaptation of Hanna-Barbera’s long-running cartoon hit Scooby-Doo onto screens across the nation, and took in over $80 million for their trouble. The trick was their decision to use computer-generated animation to recreate the show — placing a CG Scooby into the story with real, live actors (we’re using the word loosely) like Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard. Suddenly there was a new way to mine consumers’ nostalgia for the TV show of their youth — use advances in computer technology to bring those cartoons to life. The results? The Transformers movies, the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies (both the original and the, ahem, “squeakuel”), Yogi Bear, and the upcoming The Smurfs in 3-D. And speaking of 3-D….
December 20, 2009: Avatar opening weekend grosses announced
It was like deja-vu: James Cameron was making a new film. The budget was monstrous. The technological requirements were enormous. The effects were mind-blowing. It would have to make a fortune to make a profit. And then it was released… and it did just that. James Cameron took 12 years to make his narrative feature follow-up to Titanic, the highest-grossing movie of all time ($600 million). Or it was, until Avatar, which grossed a mind-blowing $760 million domestic (over two billion worldwide) in spite of its clumsy dialogue and a story that played like a high-tech Ferngully. Nonetheless, it pulled $77 million of that in its opening weekend alone, which was chalked up as a victory for Cameron, for Fox, and, unfortunately for us, for 3-D.
The gimmick technology (which went through brief spells of popularity in the 1950s and 1980s) had been knocking around for a couple of years, thanks to new technology that not only eliminated those awful blue-and-red glasses and replaced them with clear lenses, but used digital rendering to make effects more lifelike. But here’s what Hollywood really liked about 3-D movies: they could charge more for them. Theaters could latch an extra two or three bucks onto the ticket price (five or six if combining it with IMAX projection), so studios quickly reconfigured all of their potential big earners for 3-D, and “converted” (badly) films that hadn’t been shot that way for 3-D projection. Few films have actually done anything interesting with the technology; most, particularly those post-converted ones like Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender, just got uglier and darker. But even those movies made money. Hollywood may not tell stories anymore, but if you’ll pony up a few extra dollars, they’ll sure as hell throw some things at you.
What other dates do you think were key in the decline of mainstream movies?