Clash of the Winter Blockbusters

When Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time in 2009 despite its December release date, it proved to Hollywood that there’s a place in the ‘holiday period’ for the kind of blockbusters we usually associate with summer. Considering
the length of the film-making process, we’re only now seeing the consequences of this revelation. When Avatar came out, the paradigm was that one big film came out in December. This year, there’s an unprecedented amount: Frozen, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Anchorman 2, Walking with Dinosaurs, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and 47 Ronin. How these films perform may go on to define what’s made by Hollywood and the way they distribute films. That may sound dramatic, but imagine these films all do gangbusters at the box-office: this trend will become the norm. Now, imagine if two or more of these films flop spectacularly: studios will not make the same mistake twice and the old paradigm will likely remain. So this month is pivotal.

We have at least one certain fiasco in the form of 47 Ronin. This CGI-heavy fantasy from first-time director Carl Rinsch is based on a Japanese myth and stars Keanu Reeves alongside a cast of unknowns. Regardless of whether it’s any good, I don’t think there’s enough audience appeal for it to recoup its staggering $175m production budget, let alone the marketing budget. Keanu’s box-office clout is currently negligible and any noise made by promotional material will most likely be drowned out by the competition. If it makes over $200m worldwide I’ll be very surprised.

The other films I mentioned, however, will likely thrive. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Anchorman 2 are guaranteed successes because of the built-in audiences from the previous films. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made over $1 billion at the box-office last year, so most of that audience will return for the second part of this inexplicable trilogy. If anything, it should do better because many people came to the series late via home media. Anchorman 2 may be niche in comparison, but there’s still a huge amount of hype surrounding it. The original Anchorman is regarded as one of the defining comedy films of the 00s and has become a huge part of popular culture. So this sequel will definitely make back its $50m budget, especially as the return of the original cast will inspire confidence. Moreover, the trailers show something that looks like an
appropriately absurd continuation of the Ron Burgundy legend, which will allay fears that
it’ll be lame attempt to recreate former glories.

Frozen is a likely box-office phenomenon. It’s the new film from Walt Disney Animation, and that alone generates a certain excitement. Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, Frozen is a musical that follows the same formula as 2010’s Tangled: take a well-known story, bring it up-to-date with modern conventions, add a strong female protagonist (something more studios should learn from), create goofy side characters to sell toys and add a bit of Disney magic. It prints money. Actually, that’s a slightly cynical description of what’s supposedly Disney’s best musical for decades. Indeed, the success of Frozen could consume the potential audience for the family-oriented Walking with Dinosaurs – adapted from the 90s BBC documentary of the same name. The popularity of the old TV show and the recent ‘arena spectacular’ could bring in large audiences, but, all things considered, the film looks rubbish so it’s hard to predict how it’ll fare at the box-office when Frozen is still around. Finally there’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the Ben Stiller directed adaptation of James Thurber’s story of a hapless dreamer attempting to embrace life. Early reviews have been negative, but the marketing is positioning it as a feel-good weepy akin to last year’s Life of Pi, and it will mostly likely rake in cash because audiences generally find that appealing. Also, Ben Stiller.

So it’s possible that this trend is here to stay, but that’s nothing to celebrate. It’s only proof that big budget, spectacle driven blockbusters have become so successful, pervasive and all-consuming that they’re overwhelming everything else. Winter is usually reserved for prestige pictures, smaller films from Hollywood and independent filmmakers that vie for awards, and they flourish when there are fewer blockbusters around. There’s no room for them this month because blockbusters invariably have the monopoly on cinema screens. They won’t be seen, and that’s bad for cinema because it limits choice and negatively influences the future films that get financed. The concern right now is that Hollywood, an industry that serves up anodyne homogenous gloop, will become even more homogenous. Now that’s a scary thought. Merry bloody Christmas indeed.

MICHAEL CLARK

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