Summer School – Part II


Last week: Lessons learned from a decidedly mixed Summer Movie season. This week: The rest of the curriculum…


JJ Abrams is the man with a million eyes on him as the creative muscle behind the controversial-relaunch of Star Trek and the continuation of Star Wars. His most famous personal touch is fixation on “mystery box” storytelling, a nebulous concept that boils down to “be cryptic and play games with your audience via marketing, even if there’s no real point to it.” It’s served him well as an attention-keeper for TV series like Lost, but in this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness the lid finally came off the box and we found out it we were better off not knowing.

Into Darkness is a pretty lousy film on its own, an utter squandering of the potential that existed within the margins of the decent-enough first movie, but it’s most glaring failure was the fizzle of its meaningless central mystery: The film’s marketing was built around the question of who or what Benedict Cumberbatch might be playing, but it turned out A) to be the most obvious guess everyone had already made and B) that using it as a mystery (rather than just saying so upfront and getting on with the plot) turned the story into a bunch of mush.


Quick: What was the most profitable movie of the summer by far? Answer: The Purge. A terrible film, to be sure, but produced for next to nothing and very well marketed. Another big hit? The Conjuring, a 70s-style haunted house chiller that was so old-school it’s kind of sad I won’t be able to buy it on VHS. Earlier in the year, the remake/successor to Evil Dead scored big despite (or because of?) being one of the goriest films to hit screen in years. You’re Next didn’t have the same boxoffice luck, but it earned something splatterfests almost never do: Good reviews. For a long time, Hollywood has been fixated on the idea of the “four quadrant” blockbuster, movies that can draw audiences equally from all ages, genders, backgrounds, etc; but the comeback of the horror genre is demonstrating that “niche” movies, properly budgeted and sold, can still pull their weight – and that’s encouraging news for people looking to make any kind of movie that might not be “for everyone.” Speaking of which…


Hollywood has finally noticed. For over a decade now, filmmakers like Tyler Perry have been raking in money off objectively bad films on the basis of their ability to fill a void: Hollywood rarely makes movies with predominantly African-American casts, and even less rarely makes films that “speak” to a black audience in any kind of authentic way.

But maybe they’re finally figuring it out. Precious did remarkable business given its bleak subject matter, and the slavery-revenge Western Django Unchained was a smash-hit. And this Summer the trend continued as Lee Daniels’ The Butler opened at #1 and proceeded to stay there for almost a month. Meanwhile, the powerful Fruitvale Station is turning into a mini-event on the independent circuit. The world changes slowly, but it does change.

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You can’t blame Will Smith for thinking that he can turn anything into a worthwhile enterprise through sheer force of will – this is a guy who has worked his way up from being just another late-80s rapper to a one man music, film and TV empire on charm, smarts and raw determination. If anyone was capable of turning a metaphor for helping their kid become a movie star into a functional science fiction epic, it’s going to be him…

In which case, apparently no one can do that, because After Earth was an embarrassingly bad movie even if you were already expecting that given the presence of director M. Night Shyamalan.


But perhaps the biggest lesson of Summer 2013 could end up being that the notion of the unique Summer Movie Season might be on the way out in and of itself. The whole enterprise is premised on a business model wherein American families and teenagers are the “golden” demographics and have the most time and money to spend in the Summer months, but lately the crowded schedule has moved more and more conventionally Summer-style movies to the Spring and Fall – where they’ve been making money.

Case in point: All of Marvel Studio’s Avengers-related features have made their bows in or adjacent to Summer. This year, Iron Man 3 had its traditional warm-weather debut, but Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier will open in November and April, respectively, hoping to take advantage of not having a slew of other big action films to contend against (and keep the Avengers brand spread-out and fresh in audience’s minds since the next installment, Guardians of The Galaxy, won’t feature any of the familiar characters.)

But there are bigger things at play here: Traditionally, films have debuted around the world at different times to maximize seasonal profits from multiple territories, but piracy is making that model untenable – eventually, movies are going to have to start opening at the same time worldwide, and given the ever-increasing boxoffice prospects in China and other territories it’s probably not going to be only the U.S. timetable under consideration. It’s very plausible that we face a future where we won’t have specific seasons for specific types of moviegoing, for good or ill.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.