No mystery why the 2010 effects have been mild

The past few years have seen many movies with cutting-edge effects open in the May-June period, and more than a few have gone on to win attention at Oscar time. But this year, though there have been some CGI-heavy films, most of the effects have been underwhelming. The eventual outcome in award races is a question mark — but there’s no mystery why the 2010 effects have been so mild.

The triple whammy of the financial crisis, the WGA strike and SAG unrest caused a slump in movie production that has worried insiders for 18 months. The downturn was particularly worrisome for the visual effects business as high-budget tentpoles were pushed back, work dried up and some companies didn’t survive.

Now that slump is showing up at theaters as a May-June period short of the usual vfx-driven tentpoles — and, along with that, soft grosses.

Coincidence? Probably not.

For decades, box office has been dominated by vfx-driven tentpoles and CG-animated features. In short: As goes the digital imagery biz, so goes Hollywood. And so far, 2010’s CG scorecard is mixed at best.

CG animation, which continued despite the slump, has been humming along nicely with three hits: “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Shrek Forever After” and “Toy Story 3.”

There’s been a relative paucity, though, of live-action vfx pics. Typically, May and June bring three or four vfx titles with top quality work, and at least two that are clear Oscar contenders in the category.

There are only two obvious contenders for the vfx Oscar this year — “Alice in Wonderland,” which opened in March, and “Iron Man 2″ in May. (Warner’s vfx tentpole “Clash of the Titans” is also among the year’s box office leaders, though the fx world’s reaction to the 3D version could be a factor at Oscar time.)

After “Iron Man 2’s” bow, there were several pics with lots of CG but little buzz within the vfx community: “The A-Team,” “Robin Hood,” “Prince of Persia” and “Marmaduke.”

Contrast that with last year, when May and June brought “Star Trek,” “Terminator Salvation” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” All three made the Academy vfx bakeoff.

May-June 2008 saw bows of bakeoff entry “Iron Man” plus “Indiana Jones IV,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” and “The Incredible Hulk.” In 2007, May-June included “Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “Evan Almighty” (which quickly fizzled at the box office) and “Transformers.” All but Spidey made the bakeoff.

May-June releases from 2005-2006 include bakeoff entries “Superman Returns,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Batman Begins,” “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” and “War of the Worlds.”

The lack of cutting-edge CG suggests studios’ ambitions have shrunk with their slates.

Vfx-driven tentpoles are the studios’ biggest bets. They often benefit from the studio’s most aggressive marketing campaigns.

There’s a reason they’re often vfx award contenders. Whether based on an existing, successful franchise (like “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels or the “Star Trek” reboot), popular comicbook characters (Superman, Batman, X-Men and Spider-Man) or pre-sold material from another medium (“The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Transformers” and the Harry Potter pics), such fantastical stories give vfx artists a chance to get truly creative and create the kind of eye-popping images that can anchor a marketing campaign and create audience buzz.

Such opportunities also attract the best vfx studios, supervisors and artists, and their work in turn raises the overall level of the picture.

Pics that inspire such creativity — and such a full-court marketing press — have been few this spring, though to be fair, Disney may have seen “Prince of Persia” exactly this way. Likewise Universal with “Robin Hood.”

Looking ahead, the rest of 2010 isn’t packed with high-end vfx pics.

“The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” steps up the f/x from previous entries in the franchise, though it relies more on story and stars than the creature work.

“The Last Airbender” and “Inception” both have the kind of vfx buzz recent tentpoles have lacked, with work from top shops supporting major directors. “Predators” and “Salt” could also surprise.

Last year, though, August indie “District 9″ (also a vfx Oscar contender) stirred as much buzz as the big boys. There doesn’t seem to be any equivalent on the horizon this year.

Holiday 2010 slates include a new Harry Potter, a new Narnia and Disney’s “Tron: Legacy.” But aside from those titles, the schedule is relatively light on vfx excitement.

A deeper lineup of CG blockbusters is likely in 2011, when several comicbook pics arrive and the Transformers return to theaters.

Effects pros say that year after year their studio clients ask them to deliver images no one has ever seen before. When they do, more often than not, big grosses follow.

What happens when clients ask for less? It looks like they get less back, too.

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