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R.i.p.d. (#110 of 3)

Box Office Rap Thor: The Dark World and the No-Marketing-Required Blockbuster

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Box Office Rap: Thor: The Dark World and the No-Marketing-Required Blockbuster
Box Office Rap: Thor: The Dark World and the No-Marketing-Required Blockbuster

Although Thor: The Dark World doesn’t hit North American theaters until this Friday, it’s already amassed $109.4 million from 29 overseas territories in just its first weekend. Opening Hollywood films internationally before debuting them stateside is a trend that’s existed in some capacity for a number of decades, but it’s only become a more common practice in the last few years, beginning with Iron Man 2 in 2010, which saw release in nearly 70 foreign territories weeks before domestic theaters.

The prevalence of American films in foreign markets has existed essentially since the start of World War I; as film scholar David Cook tells it, European studios were forced to shut down production since the same chemicals being used to manufacture celluloid film were needed to make gunpowder, while the American film industry faced no such problems, making over 90% of the world’s motion pictures by 1918. Nearly a century later, little has changed, with mega-budget, Hollywood actioners now dominating the global marketplace. Lynda Obst discusses these trends in her recent book Sleepless in Hollywood with what she calls the “New Abnormal,” where Hollywood studios are heavily reliant on foreign markets to see profits and now produce content with dozens of marketplaces in mind. Thus, international casts in spectacle-driven vehicles are preferred, while U.S.-specific blockbusters are becoming a rare breed (look to White House Down, The Lone Ranger, and R.I.P.D. for recent failings on this front).

Box Office Rap One Direction: This Is Us and the Box-Office Horizon

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Box Office Rap: One Direction: This Is Us and the Box-Office Horizon
Box Office Rap: One Direction: This Is Us and the Box-Office Horizon

The end of summer is officially upon us. Okay, technically that isn’t until September 21st, but as far as Hollywood is concerned, the summer box-office receipts have been tallied, with the winners and losers already determined. What have we learned? For starters, that Brian De Palma wanted to see The Lone Ranger, but it was gone from theaters before he had a chance to; that lower-budget horror films can stand their own against big-budget blockbusters, though audiences prefer their horror either slovenly supernatural (The Conjuring) or strictly high-concept (The Purge), as proved by the weak opening this past weekend of the excellent, reflexive You’re Next; and that Hollywood is still capable of producing mega-bombs, as demonstrated by the alarming disappearing acts performed by films such as White House Down, R.I.P.D., and Paranoia. Finally, we’ve learned that, all in all, not much has truly changed in the box-office landscape over the past 30 years, as summers continue to be ruled by sequels and commercially driven pap, with the occasional indie (like Fruitvale Station, The Way, Way Back, and Blue Jasmine) lucky enough to make a drop in the bucket.

Box Office Rap 2 Guns and the Cycles of Popularity

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Box Office Rap: 2 Guns and the Cycles of Popularity
Box Office Rap: 2 Guns and the Cycles of Popularity

When Martin Scorsese takes the time to write a critical piece on legitimating film culture disguised as a reflection on the language of cinema, not only do you read it, but you read it twice for good measure. That’s precisely what happened this past week, as Scorsese joined Steven Soderbergh to deliver the second, excellent “state of cinema” address of 2013. Scorsese’s prose is packed with an expected degree of passion, reverence, and Romanticism, such as when he lovingly calls cinema “the invocation of life…an ongoing dialogue with life,” and on that premise, he laments the decline of cinema associated with cinephilia, a lack of visual literacy being taught in schools, and the rise of box-office culture as “a kind of sport—and really, a form of judgment,” where “the cycles of popularity are down to a matter of hours, minutes, seconds, and the work that’s been created out of seriousness and real passion is lumped together with the work that hasn’t.”

To Scorsese’s claims I say: absolutely. Box office is indeed used as a form of judgment to determine what films audiences are interested in seeing. Thus, studios act accordingly and try to replicate success through like-minded projects with stars that have a proven pedigree. Nevertheless, the cinema, as a form of popular culture has, more or less, always been a democratic medium, contingent on viewers showing up in support. I think of Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! when reading this argument; in that film, Van Peebles plays his father Melvin, whose new film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, is opening in a single Los Angeles theater. A dejected Melvin sits in the theater as no one fills the auditorium on opening night. Suddenly, the doors burst open, and people start flooding in. He’s elated because people want to see his film.