The James Clayton Column: No blockbuster season, no flops and no bombs?

As the summer movie season brings speculation about flops and bombs, James argues that, for viewers, there's no such thing as failure...

We’re now well into blockbuster season, and the rest of the summer lies before us bright with big screen promise. The tentpole features are stacked like tenpins on the shiny stage, and you’re eyeing them up from afar and you’re wearing jaunty shoes. Which ones will fall and which ones will remain standing proudly once the turn’s been rolled and the tallies have been totalled up?

The bowling metaphor is ill-fitting and awful (even more ill-fitting and awful than the shoes) so I apologise for chuckin’ it up. Nevertheless, if you view it from a certain angle (probably the gutter) the summer movie season does look like a game. It’s a kitschy game that’s subject to quirks of fate and chance, and it’s all about the numbers. Still, it can be fun to play if you overlook its slightly ridiculous aspects and go at it with gusto with like-minded friends. (I may have lost you already and started off badly by slinging a series of gutterballs. We might need to put up the barriers to actually get some sure strikes here.)

I like tenpin bowling, I really like movies and from time to time I like trying to handle irrational Los Angeles mystery plots, so altogether this brief assessment of blockbuster season has an air of The Big Lebowski about it. Still, even though it’s not Shabbos (“I don’t roll on Shabbos!”) I’ll quit with the bowling comparisons and just cut to the chase. What’s more, ice hockey is the sport that best resembles the film industry, but that’s an analogy I’m saving for the winter.

For now, we’re in late spring and the early signs of summer are already in the air. Aside from longer days and increased sunlight, I get a palpable sense of summer’s presence in the form of the cinema release schedule. It’s relatively early days but already several of the big blockbusters of summer 2013 have passed through theatres and made their mark.

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Oblivion, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Fast & Furious 6 are those big hitters that have dropped and done big business at the box office worldwide. June offers After Earth, Man Of Steel and World War Z with the likes of Wolverine, Monsters University, Pacific Rim, The Lone Ranger and many, many more arriving in subsequent months.

In part, your own definition as to what constitutes a blockbuster may vary. For simplicity’s sake, I’m talking about blockbusters as ‘big-budget, special effect-heavy tentpole releases produced by major studios that generate immense hype, expectation and hopefully massive box office hauls’.

‘Blockbuster’ is, indeed, a generic label that’s casually thrown around and that won’t make for a good bowling average or a totally sound understanding of cinema. Rolling that label over, the whole notion of blockbuster season doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny if you look at it a little harder. Massive tentpole movies come out all year round – major animated features surface in all seasons and, to give two examples from 2013 to come, Thor: The Dark World will emerge in October and the next part of The Hobbit will hit at Christmas time. We got A Good Die to Die Hard and Jack The Giant Slayer in February and March respectively, and the snowy weather of the those months was the polar opposite of what I’d consider ‘summery’.

Blockbuster season is a marketing construct created for commercial purposes that bares little actual relevance in the real world. What I’ve also noticed is that it amplifies the idea of competition in the crowded movie marketplace. It’s the nature of the industry that films released around the same time are always going to be vying for cinemagoers’ attention and disposable income, but in the summer period it seems that this becomes an even bigger deal.

The result is that something that once felt fun – a golden period where the spotlight beams on giant popcorn pictures – now feels more like a pressure cooker manhandled by accountants. It’s a multibillion dollar ‘Survival of the Flashest’ contest or ‘Battle Royale at the Box Office’. I just want to see a lot of exciting movies that move me and immerse me in fantastical escapism, so I’m perturbed by this encroaching mindset.

The tentpoles are all lined up like tenpins (I’ve come back to the bowling again. Foul!). Audiences, critics and industry insiders are all eyeing them and, inevitably, they start to size them up and consider their chances. Expectations and predictions are made about the quality and promise of the pictures but also – and I think this is becoming increasingly common and crucial in the movie arena – about the business prospects of each individual release.

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Which movies will be a hit? Which will get critics raving and which will draw the masses to the multiplex? Which will underperform and which will absolutely bomb? Everything on offer is weighed up and rated even before the reels have been shipped to cinemas, written off or ratcheted up sometimes even before the first trailer has landed.

Man Of Steel is already a super success, World War Z is a dead husk with a target on its head and The Lone Ranger is a wild Western mess that will struggle to break even on its bloated budget. At least that’s how they’re being widely perceived, and that perception will pollute viewers’ approach to these features as they head to the cinema (if they end up going at all).

Our experience of these great entertainments becomes entirely skewed by all this premature buzz and immaterial static on subspace frequencies. Recall John Carter of last year (released in March, which makes it a summer blockbuster that didn’t come out in summer, perhaps reinforcing my point).

When you read about John Carter, was your first thought “epic special effects space fantasy” or was it “epic space flop”? Unfortunately, it was probably the latter, even though Andrew Stanton’s A Princess Of Mars adaptation got a fair few good critical reviews and was enjoyed by many cinemagoers. The film has gone down as a flop because not enough people saw it, so it couldn’t recoup its production and marketing budget. It was mishandled by both the studio and the media as a folly, and it didn’t find the audience its ambitious imagination deserved, in my humble opinion.

The institutional hive and the hot air around Hollywood  are cumulatively more deadly suffocating than the atmosphere of Mars itself. This tentpole was pitched as a bomb, word spread and it became a film deemed okay to dismiss in spite of its great creative achievements.

John Carter finally brought Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom to the screen and showed that Pixar animation director Andrew Stanton could execute a live-action movie. Yet they and its other successes don’t count in a counting game, and ‘success’ is configured in commercial terms when we’re playing blockbuster cinema moneyball. (Baseball, now? I thought we were bowling.)

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Tremendous success in overseas markets also tends to be ignored, so films like Battleship – another Taylor Kitsch “bomb” of last year – get a bad rep off the back of underwhelming US domestic performances. Is a flop still a flop if it makes a profit?

Turning to a couple of notable ‘geek’ hits, I don’t think you can consider Dredd and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World as failures when you note their cult status, the widespread enthusiastic acclaim and, financially, how much money they continue to accumulate through home release and merchandise.

I feel dirty even talking about these modern pop art movie masterpieces in cold, hard commercial terms. We’re in a very sad situation if the ultimate value of a film is decided on the basis of box office takings in relation to its budget, and the yield of ‘rivals’ released around the same time.

Still, Dude, I believe that the really good stuff abides, and take comfort in the knowledge that the likes of Dredd, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and perhaps even John Carter will outlive and overcome the temporal flop tab. See the box office bombs of the 1982 season – Blade Runner and The Thing – as just two examples of how films dismissed firsthand as failures can become beloved cult movies and eventually genre touchstones lauded as all-time classics.

In total, success is relative, subjective and it shouldn’t be conceived along arbitrary institutional lines according to a tightened timeframe. ‘Winning’ this game isn’t important at all – what’s vital first and foremost is enjoying the experience.

There is no failure. There is no blockbuster season. There’s some Dudeist Zen philosophy for you. Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.

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James Clayton never flops, never bombs and never runs around the swimming pool or down the middle of the bowling alley for that matter because he’s a considerate individual and he doesn’t want to spoil the experience for anyone else. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.

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