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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

a record summer for the box office — be afraid

It’s Labor Day weekend, which means summer is officially unofficially over, although the only people who care are those for whom the unofficial change of seasons is really important. Like kids, who have to shuffle back to school. And people obsessed with movies, because now we move from the season of Big Stupid Blockbusters into the season of Serious Filum. Which also means it’s time for we movie people to listen to excitable wrapups of how the box office performed this summer. It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly the box office did: the money people will be excited one way or the other in their attempts to explain it all to us.

As it turns out, the Hollywood bean counters are very happy this week, according to Bloomberg.com:

Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) — Sony Corp.’s “Superbad” pushed Hollywood’s U.S. summer box-office sales to a record $4 billion this past weekend, surpassing the industry’s previous high established in 2004.

With a week left until Labor Day, the traditional end to the movie-going season, sales from May 1 through yesterday exceeded the $3.95 billion record for the entire summer set three years ago, according to Media By Numbers LLC.

Hoorah! Or not! Anyone who cares about movies — who really believes that creativity and originality are part of the equation that go into making a movie entertaining — should be worried. Cuz look at what the top money-making movies of the summer are (via Box Office Mojo):

Spider-Man 3
Shrek the Third
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Only one isn’t a sequel. Spidey and Shrek are the poorest showings, creatively speaking, by far, of their franchises; some would include Pirates in that category too (I was in a minority in thinking the film brilliant). All these movies cost between $150 and $300 million to produce ($300 million for a movie? that’s simply obscene… and that’s Pirates, which I loved), and they earned between $284 and $336 million domestically. That’s not a great return. POTC:AWE did the poorest, barely earning back its budget.

What does this mean for movie fans like us? Hollywood execs will be celebrating this long holiday weekend, congratulating themselves for greenlighting movies that, on paper, look like they made a ton of money, no matter how crappy or boring or worn out they are. They’ll ignore the lesson of the flopping of the $200 million Evan Almighty because it was a sequel, and sequels will now be perceived as a “good risk.” Never mind that whoever allowed the spending on that one to get so out of hand has no business working as a studio executive; any fool could have seen the movie was a disaster in the making, even if it had cost “only” $100 million. But these same execs will take the flopping of Stardust as an indication that taking a creative risk is a bad move; the quality of that film is, to be fair, debatable, but as an adventure in creative risktaking, though, it should be applauded, particularly since its $70 million budget is modest in terms of the cost of many a film these days, and extremely modest for what got up on the screen with that budget.

BusinessWeek, which is all about the money, misses this point. Josh Tyler and Scott Gwin at CinemaBlend, in their summer box-office wrapup, get it. Who do you think the studios will listen to?

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