Big budget blockbusters. Tentpole pictures tested and refined. Studios so risk adverse they run a lunch order past a test audience before committing. Save the cat!
The desire and need for studios to turn a profit leaves little room for new cult classics. Granted, a cult classic is a film that gained a small, dedicated audience instead of having a greater mainstream appeal. Cult classics stumble at the box office but have longevity; The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of the top grossing film of the Seventies as a result. Today, movies need to be hit over the opening weekend or they’re considered failures. Studios compete for opening days. The result – movies either soar or they’re bland; crashing and burning is rare.
The problem coming up is a lack of innovation. Avatar showed that 3-D could be used to create an immersive experience, but few films used the film technique for anything beyond cheap scares and roller coaster rides. James Cameron took the risk, but he had a number of successes, including Titanic, to persuade the studio that he could succeed. Avatar had people returning to theatres for second and third viewings. The lesson the other studios learned? People will go to 3-D movies. Not, “People will go out for immersive experiences,” or, “People appreciate innovative work when done well.”
The lack of innovation, especially when married to the Save the Cat approach to scripts, means that, after a while, all movies start looking the same. Does “Washed out hero is forced to work with others to save the world,” sound like Guardians of the Galaxy or Battleship? The difference is often just execution. Granted, this sort of thing comes in waves. The Seventies had disaster movies*; the Eighties had science fiction and sequels. The Western was a staple until Heaven’s Gate and still appears from time to time. Superhero movies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The Eighties, though, show more variety even with the sequels. Not every movie succeeded, but there was room for other movies outside the Star Wars sequels and Indiana Jones films, from Short Circuit to The Breakfast Club to UHF to Weekend at Bernie’s to Alien From L.A. Not every film succeeded at the theatres, but there was variety.
The core issue is money. Studios don’t want to lose $200 million on a bad movie. At the same time, studios don’t see a problem in investing $200 million in a movie that follows a checklist. Battleship wears the checklist on its sleeve. Even comedies are getting into increased budgets. The Hangover 3 had a budget in the same neighbourhood as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. On the flip side, Johnny Mnemonic (1995) was first developed for a $3 million budget and the studio turned the idea down, but then accepted it when the budget was upped to $30 million.
This isn’t to say that cult classics don’t happen. They’re rare. Few people set out to create one, and deliberate attempts to be a cult classic tend to fail. Today, though, the elements that turn a movie into a cult hit get weeded out during the checklist and further removed with all the audience testing that happens. A movie that fails at the box office isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just bland. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li suffered this fate. Names could have been changed with no effect on the film. The earilier Street Fighter: The Movie may have been cheesy, but it was a better adaptation and it is more fun to watch**. Same goes with Flash Gordon; it was a fine cheddar, but the supporting cast and the soundtrack transform the film into the classic it is.
Today, the only way either Street Fighter or Flash Gordon could be made they way they were is if there was a big star attached. Granted, that is how Street Fighter was made, with Jean-Claude van Damme and Raul Julia. Today, much of the humour would be toned down or removed, turning the action-comedy to either pure action or an action-drama. The heart would be gone.
All of the above ignores television. The SyFy channel is the new home for B-movies, with such luminaries as Sharktopus, Lavalatula, and the Sharknado trilogy. Low budget monster movies with cheap CGI effects with an audience that wants to see that type of movie. It’s not the same; SyFy’s B-movies follow their own formula, mostly combining an animal with something else, either another animal or a natural disaster. Again, it comes down to execution and, for these movies, chutzpah.
Will the cheese return to the big screen? Eventually. Universal Studios managed to have a profitable summer without a non-franchise blockbuster. Outside Jurassic World and Fast and Furious 7, Universal’s line up has been of reasonable budgets, allowing for fewer losses on a movie that falls flat and huge profits for their successes, including Fifty Shades of Grey***. If other studios follow Universal’s lead, and give that a few years, the lower budgets means there’s room to experiment and try something different. An unsuccessful experiment won’t cost as much, especially if it does well on DVD. A successful one means that a larger budget can be assigned for similar in the future.
* Until Airplane! skewered the airplane crash genre so thoroughly.
** Raul Julia alone is worth seeing in the film. Having Adrian Cronauer as the Armed Forces Radio announcer was genius.
*** $40 million budget, over $560 million in box office take globally. That sort of success allows Universal to try another $40 million movie and not worry about failure.