As the famous saying from screenwriter William Goldman goes, when it comes to the movie industry, nobody knows anything. It’s been taken as a truism for years now, but this may have been the summer when audiences decided to prove that to studios once and for all.
The success of the Wednesday opening of The Help yesterday – outstripping expectations with a strong $5.5 overnight take – underscores something that surprised many studioheads earlier this summer: There’s a large female audience out there, and they’re hungry for good movies. The success story of the summer was possibly Bridesmaids, which massively outperformed what was expected of it, despite having Judd Apatow’s name attached as a producer. The lesson here is probably one about underestimating movies based on demographics – Looking back, the idea that Bridesmaids wouldn’t be a hit because it was a female-led comedy seems especially ridiculous; think of 30Rock, Parks & Recreation and other female-led television sitcoms, and then try and work out why people thought that wouldn’t transfer to movies – but there’s every possibility that it’s something even more obvious about learning not to believe any box office predictions based on anything other than hard evidence.
For example: Who really thought that X-Men: First Class would be more successful than Green Lantern? Who expected Cowboys and Aliens to flame out quite as badly as it did? Who really thought that The Hangover Part 2 would be nothing more than a more expensive retread of The Hangover? All of those went against the conventional wisdom of the industry (As did the fact that the superhero audience didn’t just up and collapse through oversaturation. Not to mention the success of The Smurfs, which I am tempted to say is the random event of the season), underscoring Goldman’s line, and making me wonder… Will this finally be the summer that makes the movie industry throw away the rulebook – or, at least, look at it a little less often?
With the exception of Transformers and, to a lesser extent, Thor, this summer was the one where sure things didn’t necessarily pay off; it was a year when playing it safe disappointed everyone, which – if this were any other industry – might lead to a rethinking of the value of playing it safe. In a world where a movie can have all of the “right” ingredients like Cowboys and Aliens and still flop, you’d hope that it would cause some sense of reconsideration over what “right” means. Over the last few years, the idea of “guaranteed hit” has begun to fade into the background, leaving the space open for this revolutionary idea: Just make good movies that you think will entertain.
The thing is, of course, it won’t happen. The lead time involved in movies means that the next few years are already scheduled with the same kind of movies and the same schools of thought as the ones from this summer, and unless audiences manage to resist the obvious lures of The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises or The Amazing Spider-Man, it’s unlikely that we’ll get the same kind of odd summer of refusal of taking what we’re being offered again, so the moment will pass. But… Just imagine, as the saying goes. Picture a movie industry more about individual projects that people believe in than chasing after fads and fashions… Nice thought, isn’t it?