Hope for summer movie dulldrums

Times Movie Critic

The SUMMER of 2008 is shaping up as an unusual one for me. I’m actually looking forward to seeing several of the films on offer.

After all, who wouldn’t want to see the first Indiana Jones film in nearly 20 years, the wonders the gifted Guillermo del Toro has cooked up for “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” Russian director Timur Bekmambetov’s American debut in “Wanted” or what director Christopher Nolan and Batman Christian Bale have in store for “The Dark Knight”?

Even comedies are looking more promising than usual. Will Smith as a terminally grumpy superhero in “Hancock,” Steve Carell as secret agent Maxwell Smart in “Get Smart” and Adam Sandler as a Mossad assassin turned Manhattan hairdresser in “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” look to be ideally cast (fingers crossed, of course, about the movies themselves). And a new picture from Pixar (this one’s about a robot named WALL-E) is always the best bet of any season.


It used to be that every summer held this high degree of anticipation for me. In fact, I used to look forward to everything coming out, no matter what the season. Though critics are often derided as people who don’t like films, the truth is you couldn’t have this job unless you cared passionately enough about movies to sit through the waves of nonsense that routinely get tossed at today’s audiences.

But over the last few years, I’ve noticed a change in what the studios were doing with the summer, the season Hollywood counts on for making most of its money. In a business in which the average cost of making and marketing a studio film is more than $100 million, the summer movies have been tailored more and more to the mindlessness often associated with the tastes of young males, still Hollywood’s most loyal audience.

This youth-pandering has become so relentless that it has put a crimp into one of my favorite rituals: walking through theater lobbies in the spring and looking at the posters for upcoming summer films. In some years things got so dire that I couldn’t find a film I even wanted to see, let alone review.

As if this tendency weren’t bad enough in and of itself, it began leaking into and infecting the rest of the year. The reality is that, except for the ghettoized adult window in the fall, this dumber-is-better attitude is threatening to take over all of the major studios’ output. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the summer is killing American movie culture.

With corporate owners demanding predictable profits, the studios have understandably narrowed their focus to the kinds of undemanding entertainments favored by the 25-and-younger audience that dominates theatrical attendance. And they are not just doing it during the summer, they’re doing it almost year-round.

In all likelihood that tendency is even contributing to the nationwide loss of film-critic jobs that’s been so commented on of late. With so many films coming out that don’t really demand serious examination, and an aging readership that is going to fewer and fewer movies, newspaper editors in cities where (unlike Los Angeles, New York and a few other places) films are not an intrinsic part of local culture are probably figuring that it’s not worth the expense of paying anyone to examine them. And if critics go, the mechanism for encouraging audiences to go to good small films, for creating a demand for alternatives to what critic Richard Schickel has called Hollywood’s “big clanking machines” goes with them.


Is there any way out?

If this summer turns out the way it might, it could encourage the studios to give films to people who could actually do a good job of writing and directing them, not just to the latest music video or commercial phenomenon who likely as not has as much interest in the human condition as a stone.

As always, it would help enormously if the adult audience did its part to patronize intelligent films, even at the risk of going to ones that they might not like.

The kids who made “Prom Night” the No. 1 film in the country a few weeks ago didn’t agonize about how satisfying it might be or whether perhaps a more involving film might be coming down the pike the following week. They saw the name and they went. That’s why another “Prom Night” movie is probably in the works and the people who made “Stop-Loss” are trying to figure out why their audience didn’t show up.