A couple of weeks ago, millions of people talked about (if they didn't always watch) a made-for-cable movie about Los Angeles enduring a flying-shark attack. Thirty-eight years ago it was Steven Spielberg's "Jaws"; this summer it was Ian Ziering's "Sharknado."
It would be a stretch to say that the same spirit is motivating all of our multiplex choices this summer. But you could be forgiven for drawing some comparisons. The niche, the obscure and even the silly (rather than the somber, the big-budget and the effects-laden) have dominated our moviegoing habits. We loved lower-priority studio pictures such as "The Heat," "Grown-Ups 2" and "The Purge" -- and largely turned our backs on "After Earth," White House Down" and "Pacific Rim." Sure "Iron Man 3" and "World War Z" proved to be effects-driven, big-budget hits. But week in and week out, it has been the small comedy or horror movie that's snagged our attention a lot more than a massive Guillermo del Toro or Will Smith action-adventure.
That was pointedly on display this weekend when "The Conjuring" -- a $20 million movie about a paranormal investigator played by Vera Farmiga -- thoroughly walloped the far more expensive, celebrity-laden "R.I.P.D.," outdrawing it by a ratio of more than three to one.
For years Universal puzzled over how to make "R.I.P.D.," eventually casting Jeff Bridges, hot off his "True Grit" Oscar win, and Ryan Reynolds, at the time minted as a superhero and romantic lead. The project seemed like a no-brainer: "R.I.P.D" was a popular Dark Horse comic, and it lent itself to effects set-pieces and shiny actor names. It was a perfect summer movie as conceived in 2010. Unfortunately, that's not what's proving to work in 2013.
It's hard to say what's changed exactly in what's turning out to be the summer of the B-movie — certainly the volume and sameness of these big-budget films don't help. Nor does the growth of social media, which makes it harder than ever to keep bad buzz quiet even through an opening weekend.
Whatever it is, it's a real and potentially significant trend, as my colleague Amy Kaufman and I explored in a story in The Times this weekend. If you give us something that feels a little smaller and made for us —whoever that might be — we'll get excited about it. If you give us something big and broad that feels as if it was made for everyone and thus no one at all, we'll turn a cold shoulder.
So will the studios want to shift gears to concentrate more on these kinds of movies in summer? Could they even if they wanted to?
On the one hand, those who run Hollywood's biggest movie machines are adaptive creatures, and will always go where the audiences are. And these smaller movies are cheaper, which is always appealing in any season.
On the other hand, a wholesale summer shift is a lot harder than it looks. Mid-budget comedies and low-budget horror are not what studios are designed for, not in summer anyway -- they're not what they pay their biggest executives to think about, they're not why those executives negotiated $20-million deals with stars, they're not why studios buy a gazillion ads during prime time (nor does one need to do that).
The four-quadrant business, much as it seems like a skill-lite, hammer-into-submission realm, requires not just money but savvy. It's a difficult task and one that the studios have been good at, particularly over the past two decades, when the summer blockbuster reached new heights of both budget and box office. To hear from audiences that maybe they didn't want big production values and big money after all is a lesson that's not easy to assimilate, let alone react to. It would be like asking Karl Rove to run a student election. (It's also worth noting that numbers from these smaller movies are not what Wall Street is inclined to like; though from a fiscal standpoint these films are actually more responsible, concentrating on them means lower revenues and fewer analyst-friendly home runs.)
Still, studios will inevitably begin to make at least some changes. In the coming years we're likely to see just a few less star-driven effects movies that cost an obscene amount of money, and more of the targeted movies that have done so well this year. Summer, in other words, will look a little more like the rest of the year.
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