Monday, July 26, 2010

Heroes in Hollywood’s blockbusters

Sylvester Stallone, while promoting his new movie ‘Expendables’, has made a comment recently in Comic Con 2010 in San Diego about his view on how heroes in Hollywood movies has changed from macho men like him to become ‘anyone’ (e.g. Keanu Reeves) can play heroes these days. He said that if he could know how that would change, he wouldn’t need to spend so much time in the gym to pump his muscles. He also cited that change in movie heroes has started by the movie ‘Batman’ in 1989 starring Michael Keaton with a body frame of 5’6’’without bulging biceps, could play the cape crusader and fought villains without sweat. I think that’s an interesting issue that Sly has raised that get me wanna share my view on this issue.

There have been movie heroes throughout Hollywood’s history. The standout ones like John Wayne in war movies, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, etc did plant the idea of what heroes in movies would look like back then. With the concept of blockbusters started with Jaws, movies with heroes became the tent poles of Hollywood’s big movies since then. Heroes have a wide range from everyday folks like those in Jaws or the fireman in World Trade Center, to total fantasy sci-fi cyborgs like Arnold in T2 or Navi in Avatar.
However, comparing both, the latter is getting bigger and bigger in the last 20+ years or so. Cuz, movies after all are entertainment, a mean to let us escape reality. Therefore, in terms of room for creativity, it would always be easier to create fictional heroes than present real people as heroes in adaptation of reality in movies.

Regarding fictional heroes, I believe that there are several reasons why human character heroes like those Sly represents has been fading in Hollywood movies in the last 2 decades as he suggested.

(i) The advancement of technology makes fantasy possible to be realized in movies.
(ii) Studios would like to steer away from the dependence on stars as well as to have greater control on the making of franchise.
(iii) Studios want better coordination of its products during the globalization of Hollywood movies.

Technology Development
Gone are the days of using mechanic pops in movies like Star Wars and Jaws. Since James Cameron first gave us a glimpse of what CG can do in Abyss (i.e. the few minutes scene of ‘water’ manipulated by aliens) and his subsequent T-1000 in T2 in 1992, the floodgate of CG driven movies just can’t be stopped.

You might argue that Arnold was the star in T2. Yes, he was, but that was also the last ‘bigger-than-life’ role that Arnold was able to find in Hollywood even he was in his prime then. With the aid of Stan Winston and ILM, Steven Spielberg was able to make dinosaurs came to live in Jurassic Park. Summer blockbusters just don’t need big stars anymore. Considering the speed of CG advancement, the effect has been getting more and more creditable by years. On the one hand, the animation side of CG got better and better, if you compare the original Toy Story to Toy Story 3. You can see the difference in the action scenes as well as the human characters. On the other hand, along the way of the usage of CG in human character movies, the mix of CG and human became more and more non-distinguishable in fantasy movies like Harry Potter, Lord of the Ring, The Pirate of Caribbean series. I would say that the status of CG in those movies is probably on par as actors/actresses. Hollywood has no intention to slowdown the deployment of CG in making of movies, the Beowulf, Polar Express, and Avatar just advanced the role of CG into the prime attraction of the movies rather than in supporting roles.

Less dependence on stars
Sly, Arnold, Bruce, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, etc were the biggest names in front of camera in the last two decades. Most of them became ‘bigger-than-life’ characters of their own. They could ‘open’ movies, i.e. called big shot at the box-office. Movies were green-lighted with their name attached. They did prove that they can deliver in many occasions in spite of some high profile misses along the way like Sly’s comedies, Bruce’s Striking Distance, Arnold’s Last Action Hero, Harrison Ford’s Devil’s Own, etc. However, Studios are in business to maximize profits. One way is to control cost, particularly the star’s paycheck. It might not be the greed of actors/actresses, certainly their agents must have their hands all over in paycheck negotiation. The upfront pay of many big stars in fact dwarfed by what they end up getting with those fancy financial deal of getting x% of returns of the movie profits. That’s why we heard that Jack Nicholson made US$60M from Batman back in 1989-1990, Tom Cruise made a Gazillion dollar from Mission Impossible series, etc. That had built benchmark as common practice for many other stars to follow. Money in Hollywood is a zero-sum game, actors’ gains are coming out of movie studios’ pocket. As such, studios has been driven to find other ways to tighten their wallets. An extreme example that I heard was playing with some accounting rules to make some profitable movies into losses legally on paper, so as to avoid paying those stars those x%. Also, studios have considered that their high-cost, high profile movies could strive as well as tank by the stars, i.e. they could both be assets as well as liabilities to movies themselves. Besides the stars do age which would affect the roles that they play, and they sometimes would also do stupid things off the screen that affect their movie appeals. Those are just things that studios would love to avoid if possible.

Globalization of Hollywood movies
Hollywood movies used to be for American mostly. The N. American market matters the most, the returns from old Europe and Japan were like caveat for the studios. Basically, what American wanna see was the only thing that matter. In other words, Hollywood movies used to live or die by the reception in American market. However, with the opening and speedy development of global movie markets that need products to be put up on screen, Hollywood as the biggest source would happy to satisfy their appetites. Yes, Hollywood is still U.S. dominant, but over the last 2 decades, many mediocre movies in American market were able to get somewhat compensated by box-office overseas, e.g. Troy, Robinhood, Waterworld, etc. For the blockbusters, the share of foreign box office has become bigger each year. At the end of the day, Hollywood is not black or white, but green! That’s why we start to see greater diversity both in front of and behind the screen in Hollywood products, particularly if they can attract the audiences of many local markets. Theoretically, the stars would have greater negotiating bargaining power to the studios as many overseas audiences are believed to be less sophisticated that they are more star-struck than the American audiences. However, that wasn’t much the case indeed. Cuz, for audiences of newer markets, the starting point of getting to know Sam Worthington is about the same level of getting to know Green Hornet.
Therefore, Hollywood is hedging its bet to build up and cultivate new generations of stars at the same times as building franchises with ‘character’ heroes, like those in Marvel and DC Comics.

In addition, building those ‘character’ franchises make much more economic senses than making stars. Movie franchises can create greater universe of merchandises and other auxiliaries products to make money especially for global audiences. For example, audience would be more likely to buy Spiderman related merchandise, seek to ride on Spiderman ride in theme park than buying a ‘Commando’ (an Arnold’s movie in the 1980s) lunch box if it were available. Though we know that Peter Parker is a white man but covering him in a persona as well as costume of Spiderman does help to shield the ethnicity of character for easier empathy of global audiences. Also, those comic heroes were fighting evil characters which are largely unrelated to politics, ethnicity, or that sort of divisive and potentially controversial characteristics. That has helped in adoption by global audience as well. Meanwhile, Hollywood can still keep the hidden agenda of promoting Americana to the world (e.g. seeing the American flag waving in the background at the end of Spiderman.) without alienate audiences of any specific countries. That’s why, if you pay attention to the Hollywood movies in recent 2 decades, most of villains are different from those in the Cold War years. Except few villains from some alienated regimes like Burma (John Rambo), North Korea (Die another day), or terrorists of unidentified nationality still popped up in some movies, most of villains became evil scientists (Spiderman 2), aliens or monsters (Alien, Predators, ID4, Cloverfield), machines (Terminator, Matrix) or even American (Jason Bourne movies) themselves, so as to make the movies more marketable globally.

Looking forwards to the summer blockbusters in the recent years and the next few years, it seems that three types of movies are getting more and more dominant which has proved what I mentioned above as the strategy of studios.

(i) CG animations – It started with Antz and Toy Story 15 years ago. Since then, Dreamwork, Pixar/Disney, Fox, Sony Pictures all over them keep on making this type of CG animations each year. Some of them are hugely successful on both artistic and commercial basis (e.g. Toy Story Trilogy, Up, Wall-E). Even for those not very big in box office (e.g. Over the Hedge, Madagascar), they are still much better investments than human movies. Cuz, they can make up a lot of off screen profits from DVD and merchandises. Also, the costs of making sequels are cheaper and profits are higher for those successful one. Just think about the cost of making Ice Age 3 have comparing to that for Men in Black 3. Stars would jack up their asking price and need to be pampered to get their schedules right to make sequels, but animated characters are always available 24/7. That’s why Kung Fu Panda 2, Cars 2, Monster Inc.2, Puss the Boot, etc are gonna be on pipeline in next few years.

(ii) Comic Book Heroes – They are just more enduring than human characters. Indiana Jones, Rambo just aged, Arnold’s T-800 would no longer be the draw of Terminator. On the contrary, the franchise of Batman, Spiderman, Superman, etc, can be rebooted over and over again. If an actor that played those comic book heroes asked for too much money to reprise the roles, like the rumor of why Edward Norton is not gonna play Incredible Hulk in the upcoming Avengers, studio won’t hesitate for a moment for making replacement. Also, creativity wise, the deep sea and decades of history of comic book heroes are treasures for studios to make them into franchises with much less risks. Just looked at the success of Marvel characters for examples, X-men series have 4 movies with more Wolverine and Early Year in the making, 2 Fantastic Four movies are decent, Spiderman has a great trilogy with an upcoming (unnecessary in my opinion) reboot, 2 Iron man are hits. Though Hulk has been rebooted with so-so result, that hasn’t stopped Thor and Captain America to come next year, and the most anticipating Avengers is coming afterwards.
The possibility of crossovers and sequels, prequels is endless. DC Comic side is relatively poorly developed so far compared with Marvels. Batman had 2 good ones and 2 bad ones until greatly rebooted by Christopher Nolan with Batman Begin and The Dark Knight. The third one is pending to be made. Superman Returns didn’t meet expectation. Warner Brothers also relies on Christopher Nolan to reboot it somehow. Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman are all on drawing board. Unless they can reach decent success, I doubt that Justice League would be seen anytime soon. Nonetheless, studios would certainly keep on churning out this type of movies in spite of some failures along the way, like Punisher, Ghostrider, Electra, Catwoman, etc.

(iii) Aliens/Monsters/Sci-Fi
– they started as B movies back in the black-and-white movie era. However, those movies are getting bigger and more successful with CG advancements. Though there have been hits (ID4, Cloverfield, District 9, Aliens, Star Wars, Star Treks, Jurassic Park, Terminator, Avatar, Matrix, Transformers, etc) and some misses (Gozilla, Aliens vs. Predators, etc), Hollywood will no doubt continue to make them, as they are relatively easy to translate in other cultures as well as being less star-dependent. As it is known, ID4 sequels, Avatar sequel, Transformers 3 and other alien-invasion movies are being planned, so just stay tune.

Having said all these doesn’t mean that Hollywood has totally ruled out the genre of human heroes movies at all. They are still milking some old concepts or making the last shot of the genre (like Expendables, Indiana Jones 5) or trying to reboot some old franchises (A-Team, Karate Kid). Also, Men in Black 3, Priate of Caribean 4 is also in the works. However, it is very obvious that Hollywood is not very keen in making new generation of global stars. There is not shortage of young actors/actresses, even if they get famous in some franchises, like Daniel Radcliffe from Harry Potter series or Robert Patterson in Twlight series, they would not just as bankable as Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson in their heydays. The young guys can try and may reach a reasonable success, but I believe that the days that stars can charge US$20M plus per movies are gone as the existing group of aging stars past their batons to the new groups.

For audience like us, we care less for what the actors/actresses can make, rather we would be more interested in what kind of movies are gonna come out. I don’t think we have reached the point of ‘heroes-fatique’ by those molded Hollywood products…yet. Certainly, we would make our choice based on the quality of the output and I’m sure Hollywood would continue to adapt in making products that would entertain us, aka. squeezing every penny from us if possible.


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