How Superheroes Made Movie Stars Expendable (New Yorker, May 28, 2018)

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[A thought-provoking and informative piece (with far broader implications than its title might suggest), that ties into several themes that have been the subject of discussion on this site over the years — Qalandar]

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Excerpts: “…When movies were mostly one-offs—and not spinoffs, sequels, reboots, or remakes—they had to be good. A little blunt, too, maybe. Conjuring a universe out of nothing, bringing it to crisis and back again, all in under two hours, required, if nothing else, craftsmanship on a level admired even by European snobs. “The Americans, who are much more stupid when it comes to analysis, instinctively bring off very complex scripts,” Godard said, in 1962. “They also have a gift for the kind of simplicity which brings depth.” No matter how well executed, commercial success for such a film was never guaranteed. Laying out an enormous sum of money on a product whose creation depends upon a harmony of massive egos, and whose final appeal is the result of intangibles, is a terrible basis for a commercial enterprise.

For most of Hollywood history, the movie business has needed a hostage buyer, a customer with little choice but to purchase the product. First, this was the theatre chains, which the studios owned, or controlled, until 1948, when the Supreme Court forced the studios to sell them on antitrust grounds. In the eighties and nineties, video stores partly filled the role. But, increasingly, the hostage buyer is us.

Today, the major franchises are commercially invulnerable because they offer up proprietary universes that their legions of fans are desperate to reënter on almost any terms. These reliable sources of profit are now Hollywood’s financial bedrock. The business model began to take shape, gradually, in the eighties; it solidified a decade ago, when a writer’s strike recalibrated Hollywood’s tolerance for risk. (The global financial crisis played a role as well.) At the same time, digital distribution was on the rise; Netflix, which launched its streaming service early in 2007, after years as a mail-order company, began eating into DVD sales. As the major studios faced the loss of a large and predictable revenue stream, they trimmed their release schedules and focussed more of their efforts on the global mega-brands: Marvel, DC, “Harry Potter,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Star Wars.” The movie business transitioned from a system dominated by a handful of larger-than-life stars to one defined by I.P. This brought the era shaped by Ovitz to a close.” …”

 

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6 Responses to “How Superheroes Made Movie Stars Expendable (New Yorker, May 28, 2018)”

  1. Thanks a lot! Fantastic piece here, will come back to it in detail when i get time.

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  2. Great read. Can’t recall if I referenced this in one of the threads at some point but here’s a related older comment:

    [The box office results of this latest Avengers offers unfortunate commentary on what cinema has become in a global sense, spearheaded by various Hollywood trends. All the biggest blockbusters are superhero or sci-fi or monster flicks or car chases or whatever. I am a fan of many such films (though I am so sick of superheroes that I can’t imagine watching this new Avengers irrespective of how much it does and definitely not at that 2 hr 40 min length!) but it’s about the box office pace being set entirely by such products (and they are ‘products’ in the truest sense). And it shows in most of these films. Nothing remotely inspired about most of them. They simply keep pushing the right buttons in bigger ways all round (production decisions to marketing ones). Cinema becomes more and more Pavlovian by the day. Offer the right stimulus, the audience shows up!

    Still the difference between Hollywood and India is that with the former there is still a healthy critical culture that is not led by the box office. No one will give the Avengers a strong review just because they feel it’s going to make a billion dollars. Similarly no one thinks that otherwise big movies with marquee stars can be compared with such fantasy products. In other words when Di Caprio does a Revenant and gets a big enough number everyone knows that this can’t be compared straight up with a movie making 400m or 500m or whatever. And they’re right. Because the very definition of cinema changes when you go from one to the other. And one has to account for this. Just because it’s all happening in the same medium doesn’t mean it’s all the same. We make these obvious distinctions with books or music but we often forget this with cinema. Not as much in the West but certainly so in India.

    The Avengers hence makes the very opposite point that BOI is trying to make (cynically of course! everything they’re saying about the box office of Avengers they could have said for the last 5 big Aamir films… if his films are making so much what is everyone else doing?! Some of us have been saying this all along. Again not by attacking smaller films that are clearly not intended for a universal audience but precisely the big ones with big stars! BOI with their usually propaganda aims are hilariously stupid on this). It is the Salman kind of star or the Hrithik kind of star (take out fantasy from his career and you don’t have much left, certainly not in terms of major grossers) who taps into this kind of Hollywood logic (Tiger’s numbers recently prove exactly this, he doesn’t have to be Hrithik, the point rather is that Hrithik himself was profiting off the very same trends). And there is a masala vein, perfected by Telugu cinema but with strong representation in Tamil cinema as well, which again feeds into this kind of logic and where it is all about ‘surface effect’. All of this is different from commercial genres always being formulaic even in a historic sense. Of course those films also tried to cater to the audience in different ways but today it’s simply the logic of a joy ride. Might be fun while it lasts and that’s about it. Completely disposable cinema. Which is why these films are mostly review-proof except in a relative sense. The audience isn’t there to watch a movie in an experiential sense, they’re just there for a 5 min ride. It’s no different from theme park ads on TV. You see the ride, how it works, you go and sit on it, you get what you paid for! Sometimes the ride is so good, you might want to do it a few more times but even if not you’ve got your money’s worth because that’s all you signed up for. Again this is not about different genres becoming prominent in different ages, this is about the very definition of cinema changing. If so many video games are made into movies these days this is because cinema already follows the logic of video games with these blockbuster types.

    And so again getting back to India you can have a star who latches on to such a genre and keeps getting those numbers. Obviously not every star can be equally successful doing this stuff (even adult movies have bigger and smaller stars!) but the ones who do succeed cannot be compared with those who are still working in ‘normal cinema’. And here Baahubali too confirms the same logic. Yes it’s an enormously entertaining movie, the story is very well-told and so on, but still even this film is simply too dependent on the same elements (part 2 even moreso than part 1 in certain ways). It’s a bit like Star Wars. If this is the world you’re living in what’s the best you can do? Maybe make a good Star wars installment. Where it’s still about the SFX and so on but it taps into some greater or deeper resonance (in this case the older Star Wars history, with Baahubali an older masala tradition).

    In any case all of this is why offering the Baahubali example is simply wrong. Unless of course one simply wants cinema to be like the Avengers. Nothing more than this. Whereas on the other hand the Aamir brand of cinema, whether one likes any particular film or not, is still about making genuine films. One can offer ideological critiques of these films (I certainly have in the past), one can wonder whether one is more or less risky than another, but for the most part these are films that aren’t simply pushing buttons (obviously he does something like D3 once in a while, one can hardly blame him for this! I don’t incidentally consider Ghajini to be like D3 or like Salman’s films for reasons I’ve gone into many times before including in my piece on the film). This is the kind of thing a serious Hollywood star-actor also does. There are always commercial considerations, even in Hollywood stars will rarely do something totally risky but the balance is often not a bad one. Again Di Caprio’s career is a very good example here. Otherwise while the deal lasts Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious just makes more globally than even the most successful Di Caprio film. So what? Which is why Vin Diesel never gets the directors Di Caprio does. Even in India, even without that healthy critical culture, even with all the garbage we see dished out by the media and trade in these matters, the actor who’s considered better still gets certain chances that that someone like Salman doesn’t. let alone someone like Aamir who has the box office results he does.

    In any case, it’s important to understand these distinctions. But also it’s not enough to keep attacking BOI (yeah it’s propaganda, and it’s pretty stupid at that!) if one is going to follow the same logic with one’s favorite stars or only be impressed by big numbers when it comes to these results. There’s no denying that this is in large part what cinema has become. All the more reason to preserve some of these differences!]

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  3. With Ant-Man’s opening weekend haul, MCU has grossed 19B $ worldwide with their 20 films in last 10 years. And considering the entire run of Antman & Wasp, along with the 3 marvel films lined up for release in first half of 2019, it may not be a stretch to say Marvel will end up making 22-23B $ worldwide with 23 films in 11 years in three phases!

    These are some astounding statistics, no matter how much one may like or dislike superheroes. BW is also facing a similar fad. After Sanju’s success even Aamir Khan may now sign up for KJo’s Osho biopic which will have 4-5 different ‘looks’. If this is what the likes of hirani/aamir get reduced to, then what the heck can you expect from bollywood in general? And why would the multiplex audience not prefer the brain-dead alternative of HW blockbusters?

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  4. A lot is being written since franchise sequels and superhero genre took over HW. This blockbuster business is still going gung-ho at worldwide scale and its not going anywhere as of now. But storytelling is shifting to online platforms these days. The more they get us to binge-watch web series, which are being produced left and right these days, they are slowly changing the habits of the audience by large.

    Since seventies bw grossers have been depending more on stardom for business and its still continuing with salman. But aamir has brought the ‘concept’ film into vogue since lagaan, but bw by large has been lacking the skill and expertise to make it the larger trend.

    Anyways, digital is the future and it will be better if aamir spends his effort in making MB as a topnotch web series than making films like mogul and osho biopic. He has another chance to pioneer something big in the indian landscape with an open offer from netflix.

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