Thursday, January 7, 2010
Blue Cat People
Gaspar Noe is now on record as saying he thinks "Avatar" is amazing (here). I think he used the term "cat's pajamas." Manohla Dargis muses that the success of the film highlights the very nature of film and filmgoing changing before our eyes (here). Like "Titanic," "Avatar" arrived surrounded by clouds of doubt, negative buzz and poisonous PR right up to the time that it became the 2nd-highest grossing film IN THE WORLD - sometime last week.
Whether it costs $220 million or $600 million, it's a hit, and indeed will change the face of cinema. The anxiety over the coming digital revolution has been assuaged for the moment (documented earlier last year).
Hollywood has always been a popularity contest. Incredible three dimensional hi-jinx and digital delivery have been lauded as the lifesaver for theatrical film exhibition ever since about 70% of the $90 million gross of "Meet The Robinsons" (2007) came from the handful of 3-D screens it continued to play at throughout the summer with no other digital or 3-d competition and the worst reviews since "Chicken Little." Filmmakers from Robert Zemeckis to Pete Docter didn't merely jump on the bandwagon. They were pushed.
2009 has posted the largest box office numbers in years, not because of rising prices (which is the usual reason why annual box office goes up) but because actual attendance actually increased. In the failing economy and double-digit falls in DVD sales and record levels of unemployment, with echoes to the depression in the '30s, people are going to movies again, if only to pack up their troubles and brother can you spare a dime. Never mind that much of these numbers are related to films as "The Blind Side" and "The Hangover," two conservative and pretty old-school films that you could name (which arguably "Avatar" is as well).
What if "Avatar" had fallen onto its blue face? Hollywood would have understood that and actually been a little okay with it, and continued constricting and moaning, waiting for the new savior of the industry to be born or some unexpected film or trend or angle to present itself as a pleasant and exploitable surprise. And Cameron would maybe have been put in his place. But this isn't a Leno-at-10 situation. The studios and pundits have put so many eggs into the "Avatar" basket that its success is an uneasy relief. As well as a mixed signal.
So now, 3-D, and Imax, and science fiction, and even Robert Downey Jr. are going to inflect many films put into development this year. People are going to movie theatres again - because they have to. Who wants to see "Avatar" on their iPod? Except a dozen companies have now announced technologies to put 3-D into your home at the recent Electronic Expo (link) and soon you won't have to go to the Arclight after all to see it as if it were happening in front of you.
Millions of dollars will be spent on the infrastructure, new televisions, glasses and devices to stream proprietary content. All to get your eyeballs on their intellectual packages. Hollywood is gripped with a new hope, and a new panic, and finally something new to get to work on. This new technology will throw out 100 years of standards and the theatrical experience, newly reinvigorated, will speed faster to its inevitable decline. Companies will invest in the wrong standards, go bankrupt, won't have content even if their system does work, and then....
...some little $15k film will surprise everyone and do a ton of business. Like "Easy Rider" in 1969, which was inadvertently ruinous to the studios in the '70s when they threw all kinds of money at the youth movement, spending high on low culture, throwing out the old rules and selling the libraries and handing the keys to the kingdom to young turks who wanted to - and almost did - tear the edifice down, not understanding what they were investing in or where the future lied (link).
Recapturing the "Blair Witch" or "Easy Rider" or "Paranormal" magic in a bottle is hard. It's a lot easier to merely spend tons of money on giant loud blue cat people movies. "Avatar" may ruin the business after all, not because to replicate it comes at a dear cost, but because it was so damn successful and Hollywood is scared enough to try.