A long, hot summer at the movies: one blockbuster after another

by Mark Burger

Although summer officially begins this week, in Hollywood it began in May, and in recent years it’s been beginning as early as mid-April. Indeed, the Fourth of July is usually a harbinger of the beginning of the end of the Hollywood summer. By that time, the vast majority of big summer movies have already been released.

We’ve had a plethora of blockbusters already, including The Hangover Part II, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, X-Men: First Class, Fast Five, Thor, Rio and Kung Fu Panda 2, although the latter film’s $50-million opening was considered by some to be a disappointment. (That hasn’t prevented plans for a third film.)

The $100 million domestic gross that used to qualify as blockbuster status is no more, given the exorbitant price tags of some of these films. It’s a general rule of thumb that a film needs to gross approximately 2.5 times what it cost to make and market to show a profit. If a film costs $150 or $200 million to make — and it’s not uncommon, even in this economy — it must gross about $500 million worldwide. Evidently, ticket buyers have enough disposable income to “help” the studios achieve their goal. Gone are the days when one film dominates the summer.

Still, the Hollywood publicity machines can rumble until they go bust, because the ultimate barometer is the audience. True, there have been countless bad movies that have hit paydirt, and it’s far more common (unfortunately) that a good film doesn’t measure up to box-office expectations. Consider a “disappointing” $50-million opening while also considering that The Hurt Locker, which won the Oscar as Best Picture two years ago, didn’t gross $50 million during its entire run. It is the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in Hollywood history, yet does that make it a failure?

If so, it was the audience’s fault; they failed to attend.

This summer has already seen an abundance of superhero films and sequels (or prequels, or spin-offs), but that’s not a guarantee of success. Nor is the novelty of big-screen 3-D, as the makers of Sanctum and Drive Angry discovered, likely to their chagrin, in the spring. In the case of Sanctum, its box-office failure was deserved

(3-D or not), but Drive Angry, one of the best junk movies in recent memory (and boasting delightful 3-D effects), deserved better.

There are, however, quite a few films still to be released this summer, each clamoring for a piece of the box-office cake: Cars 2 hits theaters next week, while July sees the release of Transformers 3, Larry Crowne (directed by and starring Tom Hanks, and co-starring Julia Roberts), Zookeeper, Horrible Bosses, the reboot of Winnie the Pooh, Captain America and Friends With Benefits, to name a handful of the hyped.

August has sometimes been considered a month to release the also-rans, movies that may not have been considered strong enough for early summer release. But once the big blockbusters have played out, there’s still conceivably room for more. (The month of January, however, is still the traditional dumping ground for last year’s leftovers – that tradition hasn’t changed!) At a recent visit to a multiplex in Greensboro, I noted with some amusement that there were only five films playing on 14 screens. The Hangover Part II, Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda were all playing on multiple screens. The formula is to hit hard and fast, take the money and run. Needless to say, summer isn’t always the friendliest time for an independent film, although very often independents offer a refreshing alternative to high-concept fare. But there’s not enough room amid the big-studio summer barrage, and that’s a shame.

There’s hardly a shortage of potential blockbusters to cap off the summer this August: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Change- Up, 30 Minutes or Less, Final Destination 5 (enough’s enough…), Spy Kids 4, the remake of Conan the Barbarian, Our Idiot Brother, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (the big-screen remake of a classic ’70s TV shocker) and the remake of Fright Night, which brings to mind the memory that the original 1985 film was the very first movie I went to see after getting my driver’s license. (What a summer that was!) Come season’s end, we’ll tally up the winner and losers, at which point the fall movie season kicks off — the “serious” season. One thing’s for certain: It’s hard to conceive that any of this summer’s films (thus far, anyway) will receive serious Oscar consideration, no matter how many Best Picture slots there are. Commerce first, art second. Summer is money.