Between the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon and the writers’ and actors’ strike that began in May and seems poised to last into the fall, this summer movie season has been one of the most dramatic. Surely there are some lessons to be gleaned from it, but will Hollywood learn the right ones? History says no. Let’s give them a little help.
Let Creators Create
Undoubtedly, the two biggest films of the season, in terms of both box-office gross and sheer excitement, were “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”. Directors Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan were given large budgets and more creative control than we’re used to seeing from summer blockbusters, and audiences responded to their original visions. Studio executives seeking the next big summer hit should not try to imitate “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer” but find the next one by letting another talented filmmaker execute his or her own vision.
Make More Films by (and about) Women
Mattel has already responded to the success of “Barbie” by announcing 14 (!) more films they plan to make based on their line of toys. Next up is a “Polly Pocket” movie directed by Lena Dunham and starring Lily Collins (“Emily in Paris”), a clear attempt to replicate “Barbie”. It won’t work. “Polly Pocket” is not as iconic as “Barbie”, and Lily Collins is not the draw that Margot Robbie is. Instead, studios should recognize that a big part of the success of “Barbie” was that it was designed by and for women. There’s an untapped market there. The summer movie season need not be all explosions and shootouts.
Old Heroes aren’t Familiar — They’re Just Old
“Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” and “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” were two of the summer’s biggest disappointments, at least judging by the box office. Maybe viewers just prefer short titles. More likely, it’s that the older movie stars —Tom Cruise is 61 and Harrison Ford is 80 — just aren’t the draws they once were, and their films, while technically impressive, feel perfunctory. Ford has already declared “Dial of Destiny” to be his last time donning the whip and fedora. Perhaps Cruise should move on to other missions, as well.
Animated Superheroes Rule
It was an odd summer for the capes-and-cowls set. The third “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie was a smash, but “The Flash” bombed and the latest “Ant-Man” underwhelmed. Meanwhile, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, animated superheroes that painted their stories in bold, expressionistic strokes, overperformed expectations. It’s too early to say that life-action superhero films are dead; DC is set to reboot Superman and the entire Justice League next year. But it’s clear that viewers are ready for a new approach.
Make Room for Indies
Counterprogramming the summer blockbuster has historically been a sound strategy — not everyone is into big, dumb action movies — but some pundits have wondered if there’s room for that approach in the age of streaming. Will audiences still turn out for a small, human story when they can just wait a month or two and watch it at home? The success of “Asteroid City” and “Past Lives” says there is. Word of mouth (and in the case of “Asteroid City”, the Wes Anderson brand) propelled these films to very respectable showings in a fickle summer market. If both films, as expected, make a showing at the Oscars next year, other Oscar hopefuls might abscond from the crowded fall season and try to find a spotlight in the summer.
Comedy Is Back?
Film comedy has been in a famine of late, smothered by our quip-laden superhero films and our politically correct era. One success does not make a trend, but the $86 million gross of “No Hard Feelings”, which gets by on a tantalizing premise — helicopter parents pay a young woman to “date” their wallflower son — and a go-for-broke performance by Jennifer Lawrence. This used to be a reliable formula, but studios have gotten gun-shy in recent years. Here’s to hoping “No Hard Feelings” inspires some hard thinking about the future of comedy.
Horror Is Still the Secret King
Superheroes come and go, but the most efficient way to turn a profit in the movie business is still to scare the heck out of people. Horror movies are cheap to make, they don’t require expensive movie stars, and fans make a concerted effort to see them in the theater. Critics like them, too, as the genre is a slippery way to make political and social comments. This summer, “Evil Dead Rise”, “Talk to Me”, “Boogeyman”, and “The Blackening” each took a different approach to horror, but they all returned a hefty profit for their investors. A genre defined by darkness that thrives when the days are the longest? I guess there’s room for everything in a summer at the movies.