Twenty years ago this week, the summer movie season was kicking off with the release of Jan de Bont’s Twister. Though hindsight has revealed the film to be little more than empty spectacle and its director something of a one trick pony, the anticipation for the film at the time was enormous. The trailer, loaded with CGI storms, was pulse-pounding and the marketing machine expertly added to the storm.
The decision to open the film on May 10 might have seemed a bit strange at the time — back when “Summer Movie Season” reliably meant the weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day. By coming out early, Twister was “cheating” in a way, at least according to the old calendar.
But Twister had to jump the gun. All the hype-fueled tornados in the world couldn’t compete with aliens blowing up The White House. Independence Day was coming on, yes, July 4. Though it existed before you could watch trailers on the Internet, Independence Day was in many ways the blueprint for modern viral movie marketing, with its trailers that were by turn coy and jaw-dropping. The summer of ‘96 would also feature action blockbusters The Rock and the first Mission Impossible film, the beginning of Eddie Murphy’s reinvention as a children’s entertainer with The Nutty Professor, Matthew McConaughey’s first lead role (in a John Grisham thriller, when Grisham was still a draw) and Disney’s first flop, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, following its late ‘80s/early ‘90s hot streak.
Now consider this summer’s movie releases. Nostalgia baiting returns with Ghostbusters, Finding Nemo and yes, Independence Day, all of which have been greeted with something between a resigned shrug and open hostility. Marvel’s latest Captain America entry is already in theaters, Batman vs Superman came out in March. Star Wars won’t return to theaters until Christmas. For those looking for an original film made mostly for grownups, this is not the summer for you.
The problem seems to be less that there is no longer a summer movie season and more that, in the modern film landscape, it’s always summer blockbuster season.
It wasn’t always like that. Wind the clock back all the way to the summer of ’76 and you’ll find a movie lineup more indicative of how Hollywood used to regard the season. Few films from that summer have stood the test of time. The Man Who Fell to Earth is more remembered for David Bowie than actually seen. The Outlaw Josey Wales stands out for Clint Eastwood fans. But most of the films that summer were easily forgotten, quite unlike the summers just before and after, which featured the releases of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), two immortal films that also fundamentally changed the way summer movies were regarded.
As the undistinguished 1976 list suggests, summer was previously a dumping ground for disposable crap (which both Jaws and Star Wars were basically considered before their success). It was the Baby Boomers entering adulthood — with their massive demographic size, disposable income and deep belief in the “magic of movies” — that enabled the high toned B-movies of the Spielberg/Lucas camp to become the dominant product and cash cow of Hollywood.
If it was hunger for success that originally drove Hollywood to focus on this type of film to the detriment of others, it is now blind terror that ensures that these are almost the only films being produced.
Three main factors have contributed to the current situation. The technological advances in home entertainment have Hollywood fighting to keep fans filling theater seats. Color films, widescreen films, onscreen nudity and sexuality, and graphic violence were all introduced on the big screen as enticements you couldn’t watch at home. As all of those things did become available on TV (and of course, now, the internet) cineastes began to rely on plain old snobbery, arguing that there was something morally superior about seeing a film in a theater. Television was the Big Mac to cinema’s healthy home cooked meal.
But a generation that has seen television shows as intellectually compelling as The Wire or Breaking Bad, or as grippingly cinematic as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead — all while Hollywood continues to pump out Transformers movies — has a hard time swallowing the argument that cinema is the superior art form.
The simple burden of going to a movie theater, both financial and in terms of time and hassle, is also a factor. Since 1996, the average national movie ticket price has nearly doubled, from $4.40 to $8.70. Add in sky-high prices for popcorn, candy and soft drinks and a family of 4 can easily drop $100 (or more) on a night at the movies. Beyond the financial costs, the experience of going to a movie theater is not pleasant either. For many city dwellers, in order to even get a seat at a theater showing a new release, you need to buy your ticket in the morning and show up early (or pay extra for assigned seats). You will then sit through a series of inane commercials before the movie trailers begin.
The atmosphere, once touted as one of the theater’s superior features, is now nearly insufferable. Smartphones have rendered the idea of a dark and silent “temple to cinema” beyond obsolete. Parents, one of the few reliable groups of moviegoers, are often accused of bringing their children to wildly inappropriate films or making zero effort to control them. Teenagers, the current crop of whom never knew the heyday of “summer movies,” have better, cheaper options for hanging out or hooking up.
Studios too have been burned. Decades of expensive failures trying to imitate the success of past blockbusters have left the money men unwilling to back films that do not have built in audience and international appeal. So the only films that get made are sequels, remakes and comic book adaptations (with a few Oscar-bait titles in December, for good measure). Intimate films, of the sort that were championed by cineastes for so long, are increasingly seen as not fit for the big screen.
Take a film like last year’s best picture winner, Spotlight. Based on real events involving hot-button topics and filled with a cast of A-list actors at the top of their game, it should have done well. But audiences stayed away in droves. It wasn’t a movie you could take your kids to. There were no explosions, dragons or space battles for the big screen to magnify. There was no reason for viewers not to simply watch this film at home. Chances are, it would be a better experience.
And so we sit, at the beginning of summer 2016, with no real summer movie enthusiasm, and no real answer to the way forward for movies. The only question is, how much longer can the art of filmmaking be forcibly tied to the experience of seeing these movies in what is increasingly a high-tech daycare center? The cineplex is now where we see Jungle Books, comic books and Star Wars. For thoughtful and intelligent work, this summer, we’ll mostly stay home.