The movie business has undergone radical changes in the past decade. That would be the movie business, not the film business. The industry is still producing moving pictures, but less and less of them are on actual film. High-definition digital video projection of feature-length narratives was a novelty when George Lucas insisted that his first Star Wars prequel be shot and subsequently presented in theaters on digital video. In a comparatively short time, it’s become the rule, not the exception.
Celluloid is so last-century. In general, digitally projected movies shown properly at any halfway-decent theater look sharp and clear and are never sullied by scratches or missed frames. Although we must endure pixels and artifacts on rare occasions, it’s a small and infrequently assessed price to pay for all of those pristine images.
Theater conversions are in progress, but a more significant change is impacting the movie business: prodigious home-entertainment systems with enormous HD plasma or LED widescreen monitors and surround-sound, offering an experience that can be a satisfying alternative to public movie houses. We’ve seen the corresponding rise of video-on-demand services, Netflix and Amazon streaming, and Redbox kiosks contributing to shrinking DVD sales and a shorter window before films go from the multiplex to people’s homes and laptops. So advances on the homefront undermine box-office receipts. Accordingly, the longtime major studios — Fox, Sony-Columbia, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal and Paramount — perceive that they’re backed into a corner by economic necessity. Which brings me to Hollywood’s blockbuster conundrum.
Technological innovation? Economy in distress? Low-budget indie films and foreign imports are unlikely to pack theaters when cash is in short supply for the masses. Middle-budget studio-backed films with so-called stars who no longer ensure ticket sales seem like a risky proposition. The answer for a bottom-line-obsessed industry on the ropes? Blockbusters! More massive and immersive special effects-heavy films shown first-run in 3D and/or on IMAX screens — and generally developed from proven properties: best-selling espionage and fantasy novels, time-tested superheroes, animated cartoon franchises, remakes of sci-fi classics, and so on.
The Big 6 are determined to bring the paying customer thrill rides that can’t be duplicated in a living room, unless said living room happens to be coliseum-sized and with state-of-the-art equipment beyond the home console.
The powers that be are concentrating on the pursuit of tentpole movies —releases that prop up earnings for a company, could launch a series of features and spin-offs as franchises, or promise ancillary revenue from merchandise. It doesn’t matter that action “schlockmeister” Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, (inspired by a toy line and cartoons about giant robots) are played out, dumbed down and frenetic with barrages of computer-generated effects, weak quips, cheap stereotypes, and ham acting whipped together courtesy of Bay’s feckless direction.
This fourth Transformers “event” is Bay’s latest insult to thinking humans — chock-a-block with inescapable product placement that’s more blatant than 10 Times Square billboards. It introduces the magical alien compound clumsily dubbed Transformium, which alone should ensure the movie’s vilification. It’s also rife with Chinese locations, the better to tap into China, the largest and fastest growing movie-going demographic in the world. If only the title of this installment was right about the series: “Age of Extinction.” Its massive success suggests otherwise. In other words, get ready for “Transformers 5.”
Why bother bankrolling a serious drama with a high-priced cast that’s lost its commercial clout when the profit margin is so piddling compared to the high-risk high-reward tentpole? As for lemons-producing-lemonade, a few of this summer’s blockbusters satisfied on multiple levels: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past (two relatively clever, exciting continuations of super-heroic Marvel comic-book properties); Godzilla (a reverent, well-executed Hollywood homage to the original Japanese monster series); and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (a follow-up to the DreamWorks cheery, exciting, family-friendly Viking cartoon feature).
Finally, there’s the comparatively thoughtful and visually impressive sequel to the 2011 reboot of the 1968 movie adaptation of Pierre Boulez’s novel Planet of the Apes. That’s right. A sequel to a reboot of a big-screen adaptation of a novel. How’s that for proof of concept? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is fun and a little scary. In addition to actor Andy Sirkis’s phenomenal, emotive, believable motion-capture performance as super-intelligent ape leader Caesar, we also get to see downtown San Francisco devolved by the special-effects geniuses into a realistic post-apocalyptic shambles. It’s very cool, even if I fear that the tableau will be a little too close to the state of Hollywood if the masses start to tire of blockbusters.