10 big problems with modern day blockbuster cinema
Inaudible dialogue and revealing trailers are two problems Hollywood faces, Simon writes, in his list of things wrong with modern cinema...
Last week, we ran a piece that cited the escalating stakes in blockbuster cinema, and how that's impacting on the impact of the movies we're watching. You can read that piece here.
However, it got us thinking about the changing nature of blockbuster cinema, and the problems that that seems to have brought with it. So much so that we've put together a list of problems, that we'd dearly love posh Hollywood people to address. Feel free to add your own suggestions at the bottom...
1. Inaudible dialogue
Let’s start with something that puts an immediate firewall between the audience and what’s happening on the screen: the fact that the plague of inaudible dialogue is refusing to go away. Too often, thanks to the loudness of explosions all around, bad sound mixing, or a refusal to re-record dialogue in the case of certain directors, it’s impossible to hear what characters are saying on the screen.
Sometimes, this doesn’t matter. A line thrown away in the middle of an action sequence is rarely pivotal. However, at times, a lost line really, really does make a difference. In some cases, an entire character’s performance, though, can be heard to decipher. We talked about this last year, where we cited the likes of Ken Watanabe’s lines in Inception, which we were tempted to try and enhance by the use of a good ear trumpet. And you can find other examples within our feature on inaudible dialogue, right here.
It’s inexcusable, though. Given the technical tools at the hands of film makers, and the fact that most cinemas have the kind of projection and audio system that would have made the picture houses of the mid-70s weep (for an assortment of reasons), it’s surely not an over-the-top demand to suggest that a modern day film should be easily detectable by the human ear.
2. The multiplex
Mark Kermode managed a whole book on the problem with modern movies, in which he devotes a hefty page count to multiplex cinemas, and the deterioration of the art of projection.
He’s bang on the money with some of his points about the multiplex, too. The multiplex is reflective of the state of modern day television, in that there are hundreds of channels that still offer surprisingly little to watch. The whole idea, in an ideal world, of one building having 10, 20 or even 30 screens devoted to film is that it can host a broad selection of programming. But that isn’t the case. Instead, cinema chains use this to ride on the back of Hollywood’s desire to get films making their money in a couple of weeks. Thus, it’s easy to find five screenings of Harry Potter at staggered times to get as many people in as quickly as possible. Try and find a nice bit of counter-programming, though, and you’re out of luck.
The multiplex is a production line. It’s designed to get you in, sell stuff, get you to watch the film, and get you out again. It seems odd that a picture house could come across quite as coldly as many multiplexes do, but there’s very little feeling of love for movies that comes out of the places. In fact, going further, we might be at a point where – for an abundance of reasons – the multiplex has become the worst place on Earth to watch a new movie.
3. The slow decline of mid-budget movies
As we talked about here, Paramount Pictures made quite a living for itself in the 1990s by actively targeting the mid-priced thriller. While other studios were kickstarting the rush to make $100m+ blockbusters - a movement that Paramount is inevitably now a paid up member to - the studio was content to find thrillers costing $30-40m, knowing that it wouldn't get a gigantic box office take out of them, but would bring home a good profit.
Those days are all but gone. It was while on the press tour for The Lone Ranger (budget: $200m+) that director Gore Verbinski lamented the fact that the current Hollywood system supports small movies (courtesy of studios' marquee labels, such as Sony Classics) and massive blockbusters. To warrant a wide release of anything in between - a film that isn't a comedy - is increasingly tricky. After all, to pay for distribution and sufficient marketing to a get a film noticed is a heavy burden for a studio. Marketing strategies thus tend to be big, broad and wide, or slow builders. And where are you supposed to position a mid-budget feature in the midst of that?
Look at Dredd last year. Costing $40m to make, it got a good push in the UK, but when it landed in the US, just finding a non-competitive release spot was impossible. And then its US distributor just wasn't willing to spend the necessaries to push the film more into the public conscious. Thus, a $40m that struggled to recoup its money at the box office. Studios went back to the big and small strategy as a result (not that they'd ever left it behind).
As Jerry Bruckheimer told us earlier in the year - and he's hardly a man you'd describe as frugal - "it's hard. It's hard to make a $40m movie. Because usually those movies don't travel overseas well". Sadly, the more evidence you look at, the more his point seems to be proven.
So what's the problem with this? Simple: a $40m movie allows you to take far more creative risks than a $200m movie, just by nature of the amounts involved. Conversely, whilst a gem like Moon or Monsters comes along every now and then, just to spend $20-30m on a sci-fi movie opens up much bigger canvasses. Whilst the mid-budget market is so badly catered for, it's hard to see too many opportunities for slightly more expensive genre movies to be made.
4. Intolerance of the different
A real problem, this. The common complaint that generally follows any list of upcoming big movies is that they're all the same, or they're all sequels, or they're all franchises. Where are the original films, or the standalone big movies? The answer: they're there, but without massive marketing budgets behind them, how many people are actively seeking them out?
This summer's blockbuster candidates were the well-received Pacific Rim (infamously defeated by the risible Grown Ups 2 at the US box office) and White House Down (hardly original, but at least it was fun). And where in comedy, non-franchise titles will get support - We're The Millers, This Is The End and The Heat all crossed $100m at the US box office - in broader genre films, it's much harder. So while the occasional breakthrough like Now You See Me is heralded, the truth is that the top end of the box office chart will continually be staffed by major franchise titles, or at least films with some pre-existing major source material to fall back on.
The argument runs that the limitation of choice is the problem. But surely we share some of the onus. If ten screens are showing a blockbuster and one has a smaller release, if more of us don't gravitate to the latter, then the status quo continues. At the very least, greater support to independent cinemas and their schedules, bolstering the box office to more leftfield productions, would do modern cinema no harm at all.
The depressing thing about complaining about trailers is that we've all been doing it for years, and the problem gets worse. Once upon a time, we were grumbling about a single trailer for a film, that happened to spoil too much of it (prime offender: comedies). Now? Why spoil a film with one trailer, when you can do it with lots.
The truth is that the trailer has become the prime marketing tool any new film has. The release of a trailer, in some cases, is built up to the same level that a release of a film used to be. Certainly we're guilty of that at times, but even we've drawn a line at trailers for trailers, the current trend, which are firmly banned from this site. At one stage with this year's The Wolverine, it looked like we were going to have a trailer for the trailer for the trailer. You can't make this up.
Furthermore, a major film now has two or three trailers as a bare minimum, often with 'international' (aka non-American) versions that throw in a bit of new footage. Last year, we ran a piece trying to work out just how much material was being given away across a handful of blockbuster movies, and our beermat analysis concluded that over ten minutes of The Dark Knight Rises had been released online prior to the movie's release, and just shy of ten minutes for The Amazing Spider-Man. Ironically, Prometheus - a film that was roundly criticised for giving too much away in promotions - gave away less than five minutes (although, in fairness, it's the specific content of the promos that's the key offender). You can read our piece on which blockbuster trailers show you the most, here.
6. Special effects for the sake of special effects
We found plenty of things to admire in Man Of Steel, but like many critics and cinemagoers, we found ourselves slightly exhausted by its protracted scenes of city-wide destruction. It's a recent example of a film where its technical brilliance outstrips its restraint - a film that never settled for one scene of a collapsing skyscraper when it could easily afford to put in five.
This is a shame, because Man Of Steel had some decent moments of drama, which were ultimately overshadowed by its third act explosion of special effects. Man Of Steel is by no means alone here, either; digital imagery has become so sophisticated now, it sometimes feels as though filmmakers are using it as a first resort rather than as a sparing means of furthering a story.
7. An unwillingness to end a story
Rewatching Oz: The Great And Powerful the other day, I'd forgotten that this was one of the few major blockbusters of recent times to put up a 'The End' card at the end. There's a finality to the story that comes with such a pronouncement, and in sequel-driven times, the reticence to call time on a story is an issue (the irony being that an Oz sequel of sorts is now in the works).
It was Kevin Smith's interview with Bruce Willis on the Die Hard 4.0 DVD (they're not such good pals now, we understand) that cemented this. Because until you get to the final chapter of a franchise, you're continually dealing with mid-story, as Smith quizzed Willis about. That in itself isn't a problem, but it does mean that there's a reluctance to damage characters, or to close off avenues, for fear of restricting future business possibilities. And yet endings are good: just look at the clamour building up to the Breaking Bad ending on television, knowing that a rich and wonderful story is heading to a final moment
Contrast that with pretty much any major franchise you care to pick. Star Trek Into Darkness we talk about a lot, but when characters lose their jobs, or face peril, or hit moral challenges, the fact that you know that no ending is in sight takes just a little of the edge off it. Likewise, for every stunt that James Bond is involved with, there's never any doubt he's going to die. The job of each film is to get him in position for the next one, and to leave things nice and open. The problem? That's the job of pretty much any film in any franchise now. It takes a filmmaker of the clout of Christopher Nolan to even think about drawing the curtains on a narrative for good.
8. Editing isn't ruthless enough
Digital filmmaking has brought in many tangible advantages. It's brought down the barriers for new filmmakers in particular, as you don't need to max out every credit card going or pretend you like film school just to get anywhere near the equipment and people you need to get a film together. Furthermore, directors can check a shot on the spot, thanks to a bank of monitors that adorn any half decent film set. There's no waiting to check the right piece of 35mm footage: it's all instant.
Furthermore, that means that the physical side of film editing has become quicker. There's no developing now, and thus no wait. Footage is available immediately to edit.
And the downside of that? Thinking time seems to have gone out of the window. Previously, the limits of technology placed natural gaps in the filmmaking process. There were points in any given production where you simply had to wait before you could jump to the next part. Not a big wait, but enough to inject a pause for thought. Digital filmmaking means this has, in many cases, been sacrificed. The waiting around has been limited. Short of human beings standing up and saying we need to go away for a few days to work this out (and given the time and money pressures of modern cinema, how often does that happen?), the process is relentless.
And that's surely one big reason why the editing on modern films has become problematic. That the window to sit, think and then edit a film has, in many cases, been downsized. We wrote about it in more detail here, but it's arguably no coincidence that the onslaught of digital filmmaking has coincided with the lengthening of major blockbusters.
It's not the only reason, certainly, and there are many other ingredients. But too many day to day members of a cinema audience are getting to the end of big features and declaring 'they could easily have lost ten minutes off them'. Increasingly, it's hard to disagree.
9. Too much reverence
Focus groups, expensive bits of research and a general paranoia amongst aforementioned posh people in Hollywood inevitably fosters a feeling of staying close to things that have worked before. In extreme cases, that's why you get films that aren't even remakes weaving themselves as closely as possible to films in a franchise that have worked before (Star Trek Into Darkness again being a prime example there).
The Total Recall remake, for instance, isn't a particularly loved film, and for good reason. But just when you think it's at least charting its own course, it cuts to the infamous three-breasted woman, as seen in the 1990 take on the material, and the link to a previous film is clearly made. In that instance, Sony Pictures released said moment in the new film as a clip online, and got lots of publicity for the new movie, all the while slightly diluting it as it did so.
Reverence is also a problem in adaptations. Is it any wonder that the first two Harry Potter movies, seemingly keen to carry as many pages of the text over to the screen, are about the least liked? It's in the moments where the films tried to follow a path more suitable to cinema, by working out where a book ends and a film starts, that the movie itself works the best.
It's often said that it's much easier to say no when working in movies, because that's when the finger of blame is unlikely to end up pointing at you if everything goes wrong. But for a film to really stand alone, surely it needs to cut whatever ties it has to previous ventures to fully realise whatever potential it has.
10. The audience
And so we arrive at the last one: us. We’re not talking readers of sites such as these, who tend to care more about a film and are willing to seek out interesting things to watch. Rather, the movie-going public as a whole.
Because, even though audiences can be shaped via good marketing, and restriction of choice, ultimately the films that end up in big cinemas are the ones that people are more likely to see. Thus, the reason why a big new Transformers sequel is made, and a potentially more interesting original film isn’t, is that more of us are likely to see the former. More than that, more of us are likely to pick up the DVDs, buy the merchandise, and, ultimately, buy a ticket at the cinema.
It's not as if interesting films aren't being made. And it's not as if there aren't more ways than ever to legally watch them. Take Arbitrage, a quality Richard Gere-driven thriller than arrived earlier in the year. It had an admittedly brief cinema release, but if you're keen to see it, it's out on disc and streaming services. Heck, even watching a film on Netflix puts some legal lolly back in the pot of the people who funded the film.
The onus, ultimately, is on us, and websites like this. Because if the audience isn't willing to embrace interesting films, risks and something different, and to spend two hours and a few quid getting behind something, then Michael Bay's film career is to be firmly established for some time to come.
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