It doesn’t take a Hollywood marketing genius to see that there’s a growing disconnect between films that critics love — and that the Academy deems Oscar-worthy — and the films that the average American really wants to see.
Sure, “Titanic” grabbed a ton of Oscars and racked up the biggest box office in history. But more recent critically acclaimed best picture winners such as “Shakespeare in Love,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Chicago” did middling to poor business. And “Crash” and “The English Patient” simply crashed and, well, burned at the box office.
This disparity between art and commerce seems to be accelerating, at least in terms of box office.
Many of this year’s biggest and most profitable hits — “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “New Moon,” “2012” — received poor reviews that dismissed them as escapist films “designed for 11- and 12-year-olds, like most movies,” notes Los Angeles Daily News entertainment reporter (and film critic for 20 years) Bob Strauss.
Jeffrey Lyons, host of KNBC’s “Lyons Den Radio,” notes that “certain movies are critic-proof. When Robert Pattinson sauntered onscreen in (“Twilight” sequel) ‘New Moon’ in slow motion, his shirt open, a gentle breeze coming from somewhere off-camera, the preteen girls screamed even though they know he’s a terrible actor — but they love what they see up there because of all he and the movie implies.”
Producer Mike Marcus, ex-head of MGM who’s currently producing “The Ward” for John Carpenter, is even blunter. “Kids don’t care about critics — they care about and trust what their friends think, and what the buzz is among their peers,” he says. “That’s where the excitement first builds. They’re on the Internet, texting and tweeting — not reading reviews. They don’t even read newspapers, and not many magazines. It’s the older audiences who read reviews and trust someone like (L.A. Times film critic) Kenny Turan.”
Many critics note that even much older audiences don’t want to be challenged. “The public has always preferred escapism to probing human drama — it’s nothing new,” says Leonard Maltin, “Entertainment Tonight’s” film critic. “I’ve never understood the belief that critics have any power over audiences. Some people think that’s true, and they’re just wrong.” According to Maltin, a critic can have “a modest effect” on a smaller, specialized arthouse film — “but when it’s ‘Transformers’ or ‘New Moon,’ forget it. They’re completely critic-proof.”
Claudia Puig, film critic for USA Today, notes that both those particular films have built-in audiences, since both are sequels to highly successful films. “Audiences will go to them regardless of advance negative buzz or terrible reviews because they saw the first installment and feel compelled to see the second or third,” she says.
Puig feels this is “particularly true” for some genres. “Horror films are a notable example, specifically the ‘Saw, ‘Hostel’ or ‘Final Destination’ series,” she points out. “None of these tend to get good reviews, but they draw large audiences, some of whom are aware the movies are bad, but enjoy laughing at just how bad they are. In the case of these movies, and also visual effects blockbusters, people often go just to be scared or dazzled, to watch stuff blow up or transform or mutate. The dialogue, performances and overall plot is secondary and possibly even inconsequential to those fans.”
Occasionally, a genre film such as the sci-fi actioners “District 9” and “Star Trek” or the ghost thriller “Paranormal Activity” stumbles onto the holy grail of cinema: great reviews coupled with great box office. “I loved ‘District 9’ — which did well despite critical acclaim,” laughs Marcus.