Tuesday, May 18, 2004

High expectations

The summer movie season in the US used to start on the Memorial Day holiday, and the box office statistics until recently reflected this fact. However, ever since Twister was a big hit when released two weeks before Memorial Day in 1996, the studios have started rolling out their big summer movies starting from two weeks before Memorial Day. A couple of years ago, the box office statistics compiled by AC Nielsen EDI were adjusted to reflect this fact.

This year the first big summer movie was released three weeks before Memorial Day. (This may be a one off thing. Memorial Day is late in the month this year. EDI tweaked the definition of summer again to take this into account). That first move was Universal's Van Helsing. This movie really sucked, and after two weekends it has limped to $85 million in North America after two weekends. This is perceived as not especially good, given that the film cost at least $160m to make, but the studios are making so much money from DVDs these days that the film will probably make money.

That film was followed this weekend by Troy, which managed a middling $47 million gross. Warner Bros are admitting to a $150m budget for this film, but it is rumoured to be much higher. I have heard $250 mentioned, and although I don't think I believe this that would make it the most expensive film of all time, in nominal dollars at least. On that budget a $47 million opening gross is disappointing, although the DVD factor again comes into play and the film will make money in the end. (One thing Warners will take heart in is that the film gross on Sunday of its first weekend was substantially better than expected. This is normally a sign that audiences like a film and the film's grosses are going to hold up well in subsequent weeks, so the film's final gross could still be quite good).

But still, the summer has started in a rather lackluster fashion. Rather worse than last year in fact, when the summer started really well with the X-Men sequel. Things will probably perk up this weekend, with Dreamworks' Shrek 2, followed by The Day After Tomorrow on the Memorial Day weekend (which is apparently a very spectacular and exciting movie, however ludicrous its science) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban a week after that (which also has extremely positive advance word).

What has changed thid summer is that more and more movies are now getting simultaneous releases around the world. There are two reasons for this. One is more frequently stated, which is that this is a way to fight piracy. Hollywood is frightened of illicit (or even legal) DVDs hitting the streets in countries before films are released theatrically, and releasing them in lots of other countries simultaneously makes this much harder. The second reason is that it is impossible to keep publicity campaigns from crossing national borders these days. A US publicity campaign gets attention all round the world, and the way to take advantage all round the world is to have the movie showing there too. So the summer movie season is now starting everywhere at the same time, whereas it used to start in the US earlier than everywhere else. Also, the two big summer movies so far have been released in Britain the same weekend as in the US, so I have seen them.

Van Helsing did, as I said, suck. Troy was somewhat better, but it has the same problem as any movie based on that story. This is that the part of Helen is impossible to cast. Virtually anyone is going to get the response of "A thousand ships?. Her. Give me a break". It is a truly thankless role for anyone to play, and this one is the same. Diane Kruger is perfectly attractive, but she doesn't strike me as greatly remarkable. She doesn't manage to be this great idealised beauty. Or at least not to me. It's a nighmare role for casting directors and actors, because nobody can possibly live up to the ideal.

Oddly, I observed a similar state of affairs in real life once. I was in the US in 2000, and an attempted meeting with a friend had not worked out, so I somehow found myself driving through the towns along the Connecticut coast looking for something to do. On the map, I saw the town of Mystic, once one of many cod fishing ports of New England, but today a town largely catering to tourists and day trippers from New York. I drove into town.

Mystic was familiar to me, as a movie set in the town named Mystic Pizza had been made a few years earlier. This told the story of three young women (played by Lili Taylor, Annabeth Gish, and the then unknown Julia Roberts) who worked as waitresses in a local pizza restaurant named "Mystic Pizza". As I drove into town I discovered that the pizza restaurant in which the film had been set was perfectly real, right down to the "A Slice of heaven" slogan on the pizza boxes. I parked the car, went in and ordered a slice of pizza a beer. The waitress who served me was about the same age as the three women in the movie, and was perfectly nice and perfectly attractive, but I kind of felt sorry for her. Because clearly a substantial portion of the people who walked into the restaurant came in and the first thing that went through their minds was that she was no doubt quite attractive, but was not the 21 year old Julia Roberts. And that would be a fairly hard ideal to live up to.

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