First published online by Phil Hoad.
With its very first words, The Avengers lays out the stall for the next phase of global blockbuster film-making. “The Tesseract has awakened. It is on a little world, a human world.” Sure enough, the film’s tag-team of Marvel superheroes – who have been teasingly cameoing in each other’s movies in recent years – stormed together to the No 3 spot at the all-time worldwide box office. An expanded outfit breaking out into a wider universe, it seems to mirror what’s happening to the blockbuster as globalisation continues to open up new markets. Director Peter Berg put his finger on the tumescent mood when he declared that Battleship was his attempt to make his own “super-movie”. Even the Batman franchise, the most grimly sequestered in its brooding on the American soul, has had to embrace the rest of the world, taking in Bhutan, Hong Kong and India’s most circular prison during the trilogy. Back in 1991, Michael Eisner, then Disney chairman, described Hollywood’s future goal as “planetised entertainment”. We have now reached that point. This is your guide to the global super-movie, and where it might have left to go.
Virtually every blockbuster has a strongly animated component because of CGI. Data usage tells the story of just how central special effects have become: in 1989, The Abyss used 45GB of storage for sequences that lasted 73 seconds; A Perfect Storm, in 1999, about 500GB; The Avengers, which barely had a shot without a digital trace, 200 terabytes (20,000GB). “What happened in the 90s is that CGI made anything possible,” says Don Murphy, producer of Transformers. In other words: if you can think it, you can show it. The strange thing about this infinite flexibility is that it has resulted in a strangely homogenised, machine-tooled feel to a lot of marquee films. John Gaeta, who invented the Bullet Time effect for the Matrix films, says he is “worried about visual effects. For western audiences, I think they’re less and less riveted – they’ve seen a lot of this stuff before. Indirectly, I’m saying: I’m jaded. I’m bored.” US patent law actually contains loopholes that allow studios to reverse-engineer code in patented SFX techniques; so some of the lightshows you see may literally be duplicates of the competition.
Hollywood’s growth markets are abroad: US annual box office has been stagnant around the $10bn mark for the past decade, while overseas takings nearly tripled to $22.4bn last year. With films such as Tintin, the third Ice Age and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean pulling in close to 80% of receipts outside the US, blockbusters increasingly hedge their bets in terms of their settings, so they can appeal across as many markets as possible. Avoiding real-world, present-day specifics that might exclude, or bring in awkward politics, is good: hence the run on fantasy backdrops (The Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter), prehistory (Ice Age; 10,000BC), mythic and fairytale (Immortals; Clash of the Titans; Red Riding Hood; Snow White and Huntsman), history so denuded of reality it borders on fantasy (Pirates of the Caribbean; Prince of Persia) and sci-fi (too many to list). The globe-trotting antics that used to be the preserve of James Bond have become a commonplace format, as in 2012, and the Transformers, Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises. But back in 1996, Paramount wasn’t making the latter go to Prague to exploit the burgeoning Czech box-office scene; with showcase episodes in Shanghai and Moscow in the last two installments, it is most definitely targetting two of the fastest-growing markets in the world. Roberto Orci, who co-wrote the first two Transformers and third M:I, says writers don’t necessarily tailor their work consciously to foreign preferences, but other forces are in play. “The studios probably do tweak [writers] one way or the other – through expressing story preferences and not telling us that their preferences are based on research,” he says.
The Avatar effect
The plot of James Cameron’s record-breaker was a metaphor for the super-movie experience: download your own personality into another body. The average movie protagonist these days can’t be burdened with too many psychological traits in order to facilitate this videogame-like proxy experience; the likes of old Star Wars and Indiana Jones look like The Deerhunter in comparison with the generic personal-journey narratives that have taken over. Character types seem to migrate across movies with a quick wardrobe change, like the badass-comes-good of Battleship or Prince of Persia, or Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes, a cousin-in-tomfoolery to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow.
You can’t lay the blame for rising budgets at the door of the A-list: they have had as tough a decade as anyone. “Stars have plummeted,” says Murphy, “And they’ll continue to plummet. I think what matters now is concept. If you ask your mates how many of them are going to see The Dark Knight Rises, I bet it’s all of them. Then ask, ‘It’s because you love that Christian Bale guy, right?’ And I bet half of them go: ‘I forgot he was in it.’” Will Smith is widely cited as the only dead-cert name consistently able to open a film worldwide. – and the recent response to Men in Black 3 suggests that’s still true Though old-school deals with massive up-front fees topped with profit participation (such as the $30m plus 15% deal Keanu Reeves took on the Matrix sequels) are still around, it’s more the case that the franchise makes the star these days, not the other way around. Daniel Radcliffe and Kristen Stewart have made good post-Potter and Twilight starts with The Women in Black and Snow White and the Huntsman, but do they really have decades-long appeal?
After Titanic, every blockbuster had to become an event. The economics of selling to the entire globe, with US domestic no longer a certain guarantee of profitability for such a large budget, made it a necessity. But, with 20 or more tentpole films a year by the mid-noughties, all pumping up the spectacle on screen and stoking the hype off it, it became a lot harder to invoke a sense of the exceptional. Murphy thinks the bottomless digital toybox has also made it tougher: “If all you have to do is think of it, it becomes harder, right? Because [everyone is] trying to think of something new.” With $900m mega-hits regular occurrences, few of the super-movies were non pareil events: in the noughties, only the first Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, the second Pirates of the Caribbean, The Dark Knight and the peerless Avatar.
That’s the industry buzzword for ensuring audiences are on board – by basing films on existing properties – before a single frame has been shot. Seventeen out of this year’s top 20 worldwide so far fall into this category. Murphy points out pre-selling is nothing new: “The Maltese Falcon was a Dashiell Hammett novel. The thing with a property is that someone has has already worked out that the story works. Sixty years of Avengers comics proves that the idea of superheroes teaming up works.” But such is the desperation for a safety net, there is nothing the studios won’t plunder now: the much-maligned videogames trough (Prince of Persia); theme-park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean); boardgames (Battleship; Ridley Scott’s gestating Monopoly film); self-help books (What to Expect When You’re Expecting); toys (GI: Joe; the forthcoming Lego: The Movie). As Battleship showed, the perception of being a desperate cash-in can do irreparable damage from the start (the film isn’t as bad as some have said), undermining the kind of insurance effect that being pre-sold is designed to guarantee in the first place.
Once they’ve got you, they’re not letting you leave. That’s the mentality behind 150-minute-plus runtimes, and the growth in multi-episode funfairs that have broken the elegant rule of three that used to rule the franchise world. Franchises are especially important overseas, where the familiarity factor helps ensure success across diverse markets. It’s not a cast-iron rule, but sequels tend to do better abroad than in the US; in fact, there are numerous instances of America being less keen on shopworn franchises (late 90s Bond, Hannibal, Ocean’s 12 & 13) than international audiences. And now, with The Avengers, comes the dawn of the meta-franchise, combining four existing properties. Whatever you think of the recent franchise binge, the level of Marvel’s ambition is impressive, displaying the same kind of long-range vision that Chris Nolan has trained on Batman; film-making that strives to unlock the possibilities of its chosen universe. Gaeta is excited about a marked change from the old tendency to exploit commercial property, to exploring it: “Younger makers of IP are starting to get savvy – the smartest and most innovative entrepreneurs are the ones who understand their universes go into multiple places.”
At blockbuster level, the studios’ approach to the new international frontiers hasn’t been very sophisticated yet. It doesn’t amount to much more than a stripping-down of the traditional spectacular picture, with a more generic approach to setting and character engineered to play the averages, to pull in significant grosses from lots of countries. But more deeply focused attempts to court Chinese and Indian audiences have already begun, such as Stan Lee’s The Annihilator, the first Chinese superhero movie. Sooner or later, the foreign companies that are increasingly bankrolling Hollywood, such as India’s Reliance, will begin to demand more creative input; then the American values that are the tectonic plates of the blockbuster world will shift. “The west has perfected making super-polished films, but that’s not to say it can’t be perfected elsewhere,” says Gaeta. “There are super-bright people everywhere, right?”
Technologically, Gaeta thinks we are five to 10 years from another quantum leap – hinted at in the virtual-cinematography techniques James Cameron used in Avatar. He says that he is working on smaller blockbuster innovations on a two-year timeframe; he won’t give details, but they’re possibly for the Wachowski original sci-fi script Jupiter Ascending. “Volumetric cinema” – films projected in three-dimensional space, like Star Trek’s holodeck, which the viewer would be able to interact with – is going to make conventional 3D look like the zoetrope, says Gaeta. “If you want to know what movies are going to look like, you’re going to have them pour off the screen and into your living room. That’s what our culture is going to look like. It’s a freight train that isn’t going to stop.”
Thanks to Curt Miyashiro at Industrial Light & Magic for CGI statistics.