By Todd Leopold
(CNN) — It was a terrible year for movies.
“The Lone Ranger” was awful — roasted by critics, avoided by audiences. “Pain and Gain,” “After Earth” and “R.I.P.D.” also stunk up the multiplex.
There was the usual spate of sequels and franchises and throbbing video-game spectacles, once again provoking the complaint that nobody in Hollywood has an original idea. There were even two movies that destroyed Washington landmarks.
No, it was a great year for movies.
“Gravity” was a rush, a 3-D blockbuster that lived up to its technology and featured a nice character study, too. A lot of “adult” films — that is, movies with well-drawn characters and capable acting and the kind of stuff that is allegedly box-office poison to 15-year-old boys — did well at the box office, indicating that the market for well-told stories (in addition to video-game spectacle) isn’t dead yet.
Even some of the CGI-laden adventures, the ones often deplored by film snobs, had unusual features. The year’s box office leader, “Iron Man 3” — featuring one of Robert Downey Jr.’s typically offbeat performances — took an unexpected detour into rural Tennessee, and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” helped by its terrific cast, raised the stakes from the sometimes clumsy first film in the series.
And the most important people in Hollywood — the accountants — should be happy. Going into the holidays, domestic box office has kept up with 2012’s record pace, and international markets have been strong.
So: Terrible or terrific?
Take your pick.
“At the end of the summer there was kind of an exhaustion and a sense of that it had been one lousy movie after another,” says Keith Phipps, the editorial director of the movie site The Dissolve. “But I’m not sure the big picture bears that out.”
Overall, he says, “it was a really good year.”
Indeed, it was the summer that really got the naysayers naysaying — and their criticisms were foreshadowed in the spring by three of the most notable names in Hollywood: the eclectic director Steven Soderbergh and blockbuster kings Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
In a widely circulated speech, Soderbergh — the Oscar-winning director of “Traffic,” “Contagion” and the “Oceans” films — told an audience at the San Francisco Film Festival that he believed the studios were “kind of like Detroit before the bailout.” The movie business, he said pessimistically, was making it increasingly hard to produce “cinema” instead of product, and was putting too many of its eggs in blockbuster baskets.
A month later, Spielberg predicted the “implosion” of the business, thanks to the same trend.
“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm,” he told a group at the University of Southern California. Lucas, sharing a panel with Spielberg, agreed: “The pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller.”
Summer seemed to prove their point.
“The Lone Ranger” was a huge bust domestically, making less than $90 million on a reported $215 million budget and becoming 2013’s version of “Waterworld.” (Though, like “Waterworld,” it actually didn’t do as poorly as imagined — overseas the film took in $171 million.) “After Earth,” Will Smith’s latest summer entry, also got crushed by both critics and domestic audiences — though, like “Ranger,” international audiences were kinder.
Even films that did well with both critics and audiences somehow conveyed an image of “I’ve seen this before.” “Star Trek Into Darkness” was voted the worst of the “Star Trek” films (yes, even worse than “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”) at a Las Vegas “Trek” convention, despite solid reviews and box office. “Man of Steel,” Zack Snyder’s rebooting of the Superman saga, earned catcalls from many critics and fanboys, but nevertheless drummed up almost $300 million domestically.
The problem, producer Lynda Obst told CNN in August, was “tentpole fatigue.”
“How many times can you see the same cities being blown up? They all seem to mirror the same sensibility,” she said.
From rubble to revival
And yet, even then, there were glimmers of something different — and audiences responded.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opened in August and stunned Hollywood with its strong box office performance, unexpected for a straight drama about the black experience starring two African-American leads. It joined “42” and “Fruitvale Station” as films that put African-Americans front and center and enjoyed rewarding reviews and revenues.
“We’re the Millers,” a comedy about a drug dealer, a stripper and two teens who pose as a family to smuggle marijuana, was the year’s sleeper, a $37 million film (chump change in today’s market) that did more than $150 million domestically and topped $250 million total. It was also that rarity, a Jennifer Aniston hit. (It outdid every one of her films except for “Bruce Almighty.”)
And then came the fall, with “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Captain Phillips” and “Rush” all earning excellent reviews and awards talk without nine-figure budgets. Not all of them were huge hits — Ron Howard’s “Rush,” in particular, failed miserably at the box office — but they offered some hope that there was still a market for something besides tentpoles.
“I’m optimistic that good films always find a way to get made,” said The Dissolve’s Phipps.
However, he added that Soderbergh and Spielberg may not necessarily be wrong. “The frequency with which (good films) get made can be a little concerning, and the frequency with which midsized films, or films that don’t have a high-concept hook is really concerning to me.”
He mentioned the 2012 film “Hope Springs,” a well-written piece about a middle-aged couple trying to reignite their marriage, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep and Steve Carell. The film did fairly well with both audiences and critics, but hasn’t exactly spawned a rush of similar works.
“You don’t see that often enough, I think,” Phipps said.
‘Nobody knows anything’
As awards season beckons, the old William Goldman adage about Hollywood — “Nobody knows anything” — remains in effect.
Is a lesson of 2013 that stars still open movies? Sandra Bullock certainly can — “Gravity,” for all its wonder, was also her show — and Tom Hanks has “Captain Phillips” and, probably, “Saving Mr. Banks” on his side.
But is Melissa McCarthy a star? She dominated two hits — the reasonably well-reviewed “The Heat” and the poorly reviewed “Identity Thief.” It’s that latter that will make studios take notice: a relatively low-budget comedy released in the depths of February that earned $135 million will mean plenty more opportunities for the “Mike & Molly” star.
What about Matthew McConaughey? After years of bland romantic comedies, he earned raves for his performances in both “Mud” and “Dallas Buyers Club” and stands to figure in awards season chatter. But both were indie-level successes. Next year he stars in “Interstellar,” the new Christopher Nolan film.
“At some point he took the reins of his career and remembered he was a great actor,” Phipps said.
Is a lesson of 2013 that you pump big budgets and CGI into franchise bids? “Iron Man 3,” “Man of Steel,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Thor: The Dark World” say shoveling money to make money still works; “Lone Ranger,” “Oblivion,” “After Earth” and “Ender’s Game” say you could lose your shirt.
Finally, for all the “adult” films that are hitting theaters now — Hollywood’s traditional prestige season — it’s an open question if the great buzz will translate into big dollars.
Last year a number of well-reviewed movies also hit with audiences; though a number of major films have yet to go into wide release, it’s likely that the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Martin Scorsese’s three-hour “The Wolf of Wall Street” and Spike Jonze’s “Her” will be tough sells. Fortunately, the studios have “Catching Fire,” the second “Hobbit” and “Anchorman 2” to take to the bank.
The future of Hollywood
It has become conventional wisdom to say that rich dramas and innovative comedies have moved to television, leaving the movies to rise and fall with their tentpoles.
“Winning formulas and popular brands (Pixar, Marvel, J.R.R. Tolkien, Johnny Depp) are run into the ground, stripped of novelty and magic in pursuit of profit,” New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott wrote in a thoughtful essay in The New York Times Magazine.
But it’s worth pointing out that even the famed late-’60s/early ’70s golden age wasn’t 24-karat perfection. For all the films like “The French Connection” (try that downbeat ending nowadays), “The Godfather,” “Chinatown” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” there were the Irwin Allen disaster films (the hokey CGI extravanganzas of their time), mediocre sequels (“Shaft in Africa”?), sloppy Disney films (“The Apple Dumpling Gang”) and big-budget misfires (“Lost Horizon,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!”).
Even sequels and remakes aren’t a recent invention. “Great movies aren’t made,” Warner Bros. founder Harry Warner reportedly once said. “They’re remade.”
Overall, 2013 may end up with mixed reviews. But that in itself may be a sign that things are changing for the better — or, at least, for the interesting.
“Like every period of decline — which is to say like just about every other moment in the past century — this is an age of wild and restless experimentation,” writes Scott.
These days directors and actors have gotten shrewder about “one for me, one for them” and have been quick to turn to unusual producers (Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, helped fund Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and Jonze’s “Her”), new ways of distribution and even Kickstarter. As Phipps put it, Hollywood is coping with “unsettled times.”
And, like Scott, he sees promise in the chaos.
He mentioned “Upstream Color,” one of the most intriguing films of 2013. A fever dream of color and unease that inspired lots of chatter at Sundance, it earned a theatrical run despite its uncommercial bent — mainly because director Shane Carruth distributed it himself.
“It’s sort of a singular case of a filmmaker trying to do things himself,” he said. “If the system is putting up roadblocks, then ways of sneaking through the roadblocks is what people are going to have to do.”
What would Iron Man think?
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