Over the course of the last twelve hours or so I've been bombarded at every turn with the news Jennifer Aniston is engaged to Justin Theroux. No matter where I turn it's "big" news, right there with the Olympics closing ceremonies and Mitt Romney choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate. These stories are perceived as equal in the eyes of today's news media. They're used to tease upcoming segments. "Stay tuned!" "Don't change that dial!"
Before that the big story was Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattinson with her Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders and surely the recent death of Whitney Houston will be used to sell this weekend's new opener Sparkle as the late celebrity's final onscreen performance.
Additionally, Pattinson has his own movie coming out this weekend in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, and we've already been made well aware that after he learned of Stewart's cheating ways he stayed with his Water for Elephants co-star, Reese Witherspoon, for a short spell. Witherspoon, again, is another actor that's enjoyed some time in the gossip rags after her public break-up with Ryan Phillippe.
What's most interesting about all of this, is that none of it has helped at the box-office. Where it has helped is in making these actors money as they are now perceived as stars when they are anything but.
The idea of the movie star is essentially dead outside of a few unique exceptions. Stewart isn't a movie star and yet, Forbes pegs her as today's highest paid actress ahead of Cameron Diaz, Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker, Meryl Streep, Kristen Wiig and Jennifer Aniston. Stewart defenders will likely point to Snow White and the Huntsman as evidence she can indeed open a film, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Snow White and the Huntsman is hardly the hit some would like to pretend it is, having made only $389.2 million worldwide on a massive $170 million budget before advertising, let alone accounting for theater splits. Sure, it will make some money for Universal, but we're not talking "hit" here folks. Looking at the rest of Stewart's releases there's nothing to suggest she should be paid any kind of real dough to open a film, and her number is obviously inflated as a result of what Summit had to pay to keep her and the rest of her Twilight co-horts together to finish off that franchise.
However, was that a necessary choice?
It's no secret the Twilight films are bad, but watching this woman to the right cry and scream as she lets go of her emotions upon hearing of Stewart's cheating ways she says something rather revealing, "I'm a fan of [Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson] because of the movies. And I'm a fan of them because of their acting in the movies, and the books and Stephenie Meyer." In short, these rabid Twilight fans aren't showing up to see Stewart or Pattinson, they're showing up to see Bella and Edward and their obsession with these characters has stormed the Internet. Their perceived "celebrity" gives a multitude of blogs reason to use their names in headlines to attain clicks and pageviews, which feeds advertising and pays the bills. (I am just as guilty of this as many others.)
So here we sit, with interest in movies on the decline and interest in tabloid gossip, rumors, story spoilers and the thought of sequels before a film is even released on the rise. Films with stars such as Stewart and Pattinson are fueled by gossip headlines and I expect even Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master will enjoy its own share of sensationalism to help it creep into the mainstream by using Scientology to sell its secrets.
Admittedly, I'm largely talking about Internet fandom, which is to say a small portion of society where there is a proclaimed appreciation and excitement for upcoming movies. But it's also a place where fans obsess over only a select few movies with superhero flicks and anything from Christopher Nolan gaining the most attention over the last few years.
I watch as attempts to spoil the story are not only read, but sought after. It happened with Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises and I won't say I wasn't part of the problem because I was, posting rumored plot details for both of those films while doing my best to not spoil the films for myself. That said, is it any surprise neither was declared the life-changing cinema most expected considering the infinite lengths people went to know everything about both films before going in? Both generated conversation following their release, but derision fueled the conversation just as much, if not more, than anything else.
With The Dark Knight Rises an endless number of bloggers listed off what they disliked about the film, one blogger suggesting to me it was a good move because it got "over 700 comments". In the case of Prometheus, initial conversations were fascinating, exploring the themes and ambiguity of the film but as quickly as fans were apt to discuss the pros they were just as swift to deride it while also hoping for a sequel. Gimme more! But before you do, tell me what it's about and how it ends and I'll tell you if you're on the right track.
We live in an age of instant gratification. We want to know everything now. As we've seen, the news media is guided by this idea of first and even comment sections on websites can often be found with people rushing to be "First!" Thought is absent from society, patience non-existent and the idea of the unknown is scary to both studios and audiences. Risk has been abandoned.
This isn't a new idea and even Pauline Kael at one point wrote, "There's no audience for new work." She wrote that back in 1974. She, of course, was a little different than the rest of us in more ways than one, palling around with directors and also, notoriously, never seeing a film more than once. But she had a point, there is no audience for new work, at least there is rarely a large one.
Studios don't like "new" because it's a risk. There's an idea you have to spend inordinate amounts of money to bring in the audiences and you spend that money on known quantities. Look at the money spent on Snow White and the Huntsman, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Alice in Wonderland, the Harry Potter films, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, Men in Black 3, etc. And when risks are taken and the films ultimately fail everyone looks to point the finger, such as the case with John Carter earlier this year while Battleship was able to only receive bits of shrapnel by comparison.
What surprises me out of all of this, and I feel this kind of a change is coming, is that studios don't take money spent on some of these films and just distribute it out to a collection of talented filmmakers to make smaller budgeted features. Why spend $125 million (the questionable budget reported for Total Recall) on one film when you could spend $20 million on six films?
Several films as of late were made for less than $30 million, films such as Magic Mike ($7 million), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($10 million), Moonrise Kingdom ($16 million), The Devil Inside ($1 million), Young Adult ($12 million), Margin Call ($3.5 million), Contraband ($25 million) and Haywire ($23 million). Right there you have eight films for only $94 million and $31 million left for marketing or just a nice dinner out. Eight films for the price of one Total Recall. And if the idea of celebrity is still a big thing to you, with those films you get the likes of Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Charlize Theron, Kevin Spacey, Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy. However, I'd suggest finding fresh faces as it will keep talent costs down and production values and originality high. No, not all of them are going to be hits, but that's par for the course and in this case it won't cost a ton of money.
Recently a commenter took me to task for mentioning how films such as Total Recall and The Bourne Legacy were nothing more than cheap knockoffs of films that came before them. It was suggested I "pretend" each film exists on its own without any prior influence, as if each new film is a new experience. In a blissfully ignorant world that would work just fine, but as humans we are informed by our experiences and crave something truly "new" although we might not always know it. Studios would prefer to continue feeding us the same junk.
The majors have become the McDonald's of cinema, feeding us Big Macs with super-sized fries and only occasionally attempting to serve something that's not fried. People are comforted in this food, they know what they're going to get, so they keep coming back even though it isn't very good and not at all good for them. This is to say, yes, people can tell what's good and what's bad, but they will also tell you they don't care... just look at the obesity rate in both our population and our summer blockbuster budgets. Feeding us the same old, focus-grouped junk with the latest "celebrity" packaging.
As someone that has seen plenty of movies in his life, and still not nearly as many as more seasoned critics in the industry, I pray for something new. I want every film to stand on its own. Directors are informed and influenced by the past and I love to see that shine through in today's movies, but not in the form of copying such as you find in Total Recall or failed attempts at an homage such as Cop Out. Give me the Hitchcockian nature of Source Code or The Adjustment Bureau, the Kubrickian stylings of Inception or the French New Wave influence found in Moonrise Kingdom.
Instead, however, what we're getting are reports on what actors are being sought for The Expendables 3 before The Expendables 2 even hits theaters. If this is where the majority of interest lies it's going to be a long road ahead, but sooner or later the bubble will hopefully burst and someone with the power to change will step in and ask, "Why?"