Hollywood opts to imitate rather than innovate

Bill Castle was a colorful producer of a previous generation who had a simple philosophy about filmgoers. “Keep surprising ‘em,” he used to tell me. “Give ‘em something they’ve never seen before.”

Castle would himself be surprised were he around today (he died in 1977 having produced scores of films, including “Rosemary’s Baby”). That’s because today’s tentpoles are usually geared to deliver filmgoers something they’ve indeed seen before and hopefully will want to see again. Filmmakers of Castle’s era were expected to deliver “surprise,” but their successors are obliged to summon up the familiar.

The upshot, of course, is an abundance of sequels and prequels and, most recently, remakes from the ’80s. The closest thing to a game-changing new movie like “Titanic” is the 3D re-release of “Titanic,” which is finding a receptive audience even at 3 hours and 14 minutes of running time.

And now we have “The Avengers,” which will be honored April 28 with an extravaganza closing the Tribeca Film Festival — a new movie with an old cast. Its agglomeration of superheroes — Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk — don’t usually touch down at film festivals; tentpoles need tweets and viral buzz, not the nods of cineastes — but Tribeca decided that its audience, too, would enjoy a glimpse of the familiar.

The box office success of “21 Jump Street” will doubtless spur a recycling of ’80s movies and TV shows — today’s Hollywood decisionmakers came of age with this material. Already coming up soon are a new “Dirty Dancing” and the return of “RoboCop” and even a new installment in the “Die Hard” series. This means new careers for Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even Billy Crystal will be a leading man again.

It’s a paradox that studios today are working so hard to recapture the familiar, because that’s exactly what their predecessors of the ’70s were rebelling against. Hollywood back then had lost its “habit audience,” and a new generation of filmgoers was embracing films like “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Bonnie & Clyde.” While today’s tentpoles desperately seek instantaneous awareness, movies of that era opened in a limited number of markets and slowly built their own awareness. Their impact changed the pop culture of the moment.

I think if Bill Castle were around today, he would take heart in the remarkable success of “The Hunger Games.” Even though it was pre-ordained to be a tentpole and opened amid a global explosion of publicity, the movie offered a fresh cast of characters and considerable shock value.

It’s always amazing what happens when new ideas are introduced, not old ones recycled.

Heady numbers, indeed

I’m beginning to think that numbers are the new narcotic.

Staring at them leaves me disoriented, if not downright giddy.

Facebook tosses $1 billion at photo startup Instagram. The Dodgers sell for $2 billion. The new boss of Apple frets publicly that he’s got $100 billion in cash on his balance sheet and isn’t quite sure how to dispose of it.

The mavens responsible for dealing with these numbers dwell in an equally disorienting universe. Hedge funds had a lousy year in 2011 but a manager like Steven A. Cohen paid himself $585 million while John A. Paulson had to settle for $500 million in take-home pay.

Corporate CEOs had reasons for envy. In the entertainment world, Philippe Dauman of Viacom received $43.1 million in compensation and Disney’s Bob Iger $31.4 million, leaving Rupert Murdoch in third place with $29.4 million (OK, Rupe arguably earned his pay last year).

Why is all this disorienting? Possibly because most people live in a parallel universe where budgets are still being cut, temps are being hired instead of fulltime workers and gasoline prices are putting a crimp in home budgets.

Besides, I tried Instagram. I think it’s a sappy app.

Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Cynthia Littleton wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson

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