The 1997 holiday season is proving that the rules the industry lives by may no longer apply.
Take a quick glance at the scoreboard this week, and you realize anew that this has been a season of anomalies in the movie business.
– This was supposed to be the year when the majors would again seize center stage during award season. But what is getting all the heat from critics’ groups? “L.A. Confidential,” which was financed by an independent, New Regency, after a major, Warners, put it into turnaround because it did not attract star casting.
– This was supposed to be the year when the majors would dominate the year-end holiday box office. Yet a glimpse at the box office charts reveals “Scream 2” from Miramax’s Dimension banner levitating into outer space, while such high-end fare as “Alien Resurrection” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” fade slowly into the night.
– This was supposed to be the season when superstar directors like Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola would reassert their hegemony over the global box office. Yet who are the most talked-about filmmakers at year end? Wes Craven and Curtis Hanson, that’s who.
– This was supposed to be the year when the elite superstars would justify their astonishing paychecks by reminding us of their ability to “open” pictures. Yet while obscure non-star projects like “Bean” and “The Full Monty” were soaring past the $150 million mark, such star vehicles as “Mad City” were stirring nary a ripple.
There are two ways to interpret these phenomena. One can shrug them off as eccentric deviations from the norm. Or one can grudgingly acknowledge that, whoops, the times they are a-changing.
Indeed, a growing number of seers argue that we are witnessing the end of a business cycle in the movie industry. The toll of Hollywood’s blockbuster-driven economics has been severe. Profit margins have all but disappeared, and no magical new revenue streams like video are looming on the horizon.
Faced with these dour realities, the studios have quietly been taking some rather radical steps. Some like Fox have all but bowed out of the $100 million megapic business and are placing fewer chips on the gaming tables.
Others like Disney are putting far greater emphasis on the “big idea” rather than the “big star.” Witness two of next summer’s most anticipated pictures: “Godzilla” and “Armageddon.” It has not gone unnoticed that the studio that has experienced the greatest agonies lately, Warner Bros., is also the company that traditionally has placed the greatest dependence on the machinery of superstardom. Suddenly, the Warners formula seems to be on the endangered list.
Before cosmic conclusions can be drawn, some huge questions still hover over the holiday movie season. Will the Spielberg imprimatur help the worthy “Amistad” overcome its rather lethargic opening? Will “Tomorrow Never Dies,” the new James Bond pic, slog through its maze of product placements (the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern likens it to a dramatized trade show designed to “save the world from brand-name unawareness”) and recapture the loyalty of its global audience? Will Kevin Costner reconnect on “The Postman” with his post-apocalyptic fan club?
And finally, there’s the ultimate post-apocalyptic drama surrounding “Titanic.” The apocalypse in this case describes the ordeal that all but overwhelmed 20th Century Fox during its efforts to control James Cameron’s visual appetite.
Now finally launched, “Titanic” finds itself hemmed in by the new Bond as well as by “Scream 2,” a surprise megahit that could lure some of the Baby Boomlet progeny away from the putative charms of Leonardo DiCaprio.
The epic nonetheless will surely benefit from some epochal reviews, led by the Times’ Janet Maslin, who somehow conjured up comparisons with “Gone With the Wind.”
If “Titanic” lives up to its hype, it could prove the exception to all the previously elaborated phenomena. It is not only a studio picture, but virtually tapped out two studios, Fox and Paramount. Moreover, it is the product of a superstar, as Cameron will readily remind you. While the filmmaker’s “Terminator”-tainted oeuvre thus far has denied him the status of a Coppola or Scorsese, he nonetheless has long since penetrated the ranks of the multimillion-dollar directors club (though he’s developed the discomfiting need to give back much of that largesse to cover overages).
Cameron clearly lives to break the rules. And he may well succeed in doing all that once again in the closing days of ’97.