Are Tentpoles Too Much of a Good Thing?

Hard times and pricey tix are turning auds off

It’s summer tentpole season, and this summer has been a veritable groaning table for visual effects fans like me.

I’m an oddity: I see all the big visual-effects pictures. Since I cover the beat, I pretty much have to. Generally I like those tentpoles. Lately, though, they have me worried.

There are more of these movies than there used to be, and they look and sound better than ever, but I’ve come to think that they can’t possibly be made with the intention that anybody would actually see all of them. Because the more I see, the less I want to go to the movies.

And I don’t think it’s just me. Movie bizzers have long felt successful movies help the whole business, that if people have a good time at the multiplex they’re more likely to go again. I have this gnawing suspicion that tentpoles, the majors’ flagship movies, have stopped being the best advertisement for movies.In fact, they may be having the opposite effect.

I’m not saying studio tentpoles are bad. There are good ones and bad ones, and different pics for different tastes. Technically, even the worst of them is superb. Sound is more powerful and precise than ever. With digital intermediate, every frame is incredibly polished. CG visual effects are so sophisticated and pervasive that pictures like “The Avengers” are almost a different art form from their forbears like “Ben Hur,” “Spartacus,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” or even early Bond pictures.

Sometimes these pictures let us re-experience the guileless joy of a kid with a new comicbook. Sometimes they prick our intellects by using “kid stuff” forms like superheroes to explore sophisticated themes, as Bryan Singer did with “X-Men” and Christopher Nolan with “Batman.”

But today’s tentpoles are to movies what Thanksgiving is to dinner — nice for a special occasion, but not something you’d want to have every week. Unfortunately, “every week” is about how often they open for several months a year, starting in May. My colleague Peter Debruge puts it another way. He observes that with so many entertainment options available, tentpoles are designed to overdeliver — to be bigger, louder, longer and longer — just to get people into the multiplex and leave them feeling they got their money’s worth. The resulting movies are as rich and heavy as a super-sized meal at McDonald’s.

You might be thinking I’m the problem, that these movies aren’t aimed at me, that I’m old and that I see too many of them. But in some ways, I’m the perfect tentpole audience. I’m a genre movie geek. I grew up on comic books and Famous Monsters of Filmland, then on the Steven Spielberg-George Lucas generation of summer blockbusters. I’m not spending my spare time playing video games or extreme sports. When I want a dose of adrenaline, movie theaters are my first stop.

And as for the idea I see too many of them, well, shouldn’t the movie business want people to see a lot of tentpoles? That’s the problem. For these movies to succeed — for the industry to succeed — millions of people have to see several of these movies every summer. But the tentpole experience doesn’t encourage that.

Is it a surprise, then, that an alarming number of tentpoles are underperforming? I sense a growing dread in Hollywood that America’s moviegoing culture is withering. There’s reason for that worry. Admissions in the U.S. and Canada have been basically flat since 2005 even as the population is growing, so per capita admissions are trending down.

Box office grosses are holding, more or less, thanks to upcharges for 3D and Imax on spectacle films. But those upcharges make moviegoing expensive, so people don’t go to the movies as often. Which in turn fuels the drive to make more ginormous spectacles that auds will feel are worth the expense. It’s a vicious circle.

I suspect the combination of overstuffed spectacles, hard times and pricey tickets is turning tentpoles into a zero-sum game, where it’s impossible for all tentpoles to succeed and the success of one hurts others more than it helps. I’d sure love to be wrong, cause I really do love these movies. But too often now I emerge into the lobby not wanting to see another movie again for a while, even if I liked the picture I just saw. That worries me. It should worry Hollywood more.

Bits & Bytes: A trio of vfx artists, Shant Jordan, Shahen Jordan, and Ken Gust have launched a new boutique shingle, Synaptic VFX. Burbank-ased facility will offer vfx design, production, 3D conversion and digital intermediate for features and commercials. Rebecca Ramsey is also on board at Synaptic as executive producer. Company’s website is http://www.synapticvfx.com. … DFT Digital Film Technology has promoted Pietro Troilo to software product manager. He will be based out of the company’s offices in Weiterstadt, Germany. Motion graphics studio Fish Eggs has hired TJ Welch as executive producer and Andrew Marshall as senior designer. Welch’s TV credits include SyFy’s “Ghost Hunters” and MTV’s “Randy Jackson’s America’s Best Dance Crew.” Marshall joins Fish Eggs from Aerodrome Pictures, where he did title design for “American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Got Talent” and “TMZ.”

TV facility management software maker Xytech has upped Greg Dolan to chief operating officer. Dolan had been executive VP. DigiKore of Pune, India, is moving into 3D conversion of studio library titles. Company’s senior producer, Abhisek More, said they are negotiating with Sony and Fox for library title conversion deals and hope to announce NBC Universal has settled on MTI Film’s Control Dailies Enterprise and Cortex::Control Dailies for processing digital camera dailies. NBC U has also purchased more seats of MTI Film’s Correct DRS, increasing its digital film restoration capacity.

Answering strong demand for color grading at Narduzzo Too at Pinewood Studios, Narduzzo Too has teamed with Goldcrest Post of London. Goldcrest has adopted Light Illusion’s LightSpace CMS for color management and calibration. It’s the same system already in use at Narduzzo Too, Pinewood and at Goldcrest Post’s Gotham facility. SMPTE has extended its call for proposals for technical papers for the 2012 SMPTE Technical Conference & Exhibition. Abstracts must be received by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time Friday, July 13. The conference is to be held in Hollywood Oct. 22-25. … Creatasphere will present its Post-Production Master Class at the New Yorker Hotel in Gotham on Sept. 27. … Rising Sun Pictures of Australia will offer a 10-week intensive vfx training course at Flinders U. in South Australia, beginning in August. … Qube Cinema has released version 3.0 of its d-cinema server software. … Vancouver visual effects studio Image Engine has installed a Christie 4K projector for its new screening room. It’s the first such installation in a Vancouver vfx facility. … Golden Village Multiplex in Singapore has installed Barco digital projectors at all locations. … ABC reality/competition show “The Glass House” is using Panasonic AW-HE120 HD remote cameras throughout the set. … ABC News VideoSource has expanded and updated its online video library, including tens of thousands of video assets from the ABC News library. Stock footage provider Footage Search has made an array of its underwater, wildlife and adventure footage available for screening and download through search platform Footage.net. MLB Network has purchased a Grass Valley Kayenne Video Production Center switcher for “MLB Tonight.” … New Delhi Television (HDTV) has switched to HD file-based workflows, using Grass Valley K2 Summit Transmission Servers. … Want to comment or suggest a column topic? Email david.cohen@variety.com

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