Return of the Blockbuster or Something Different?

When theaters open, will we choose to see them? Will we be so eager to leave the house, we won’t care what’s showing?

Out of other options to reach D.C.’s Uptown Theater to see the original “Star Wars,” we rode our bikes from Arlington to the subway that let us out right next door. If we had been in Europe, riding our bikes would have been normal, but this was during the 1977 Oil Crisis and the yellow Karmann Ghia’s fuel gauge registered empty. We really wanted to see the movie that we had heard so much about and it did not disappoint.

The strong characters—Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Princess Lia, Yoda, Han Solo, Chewbacca (golden retriever Rowdy’s Halloween character)—endeared themselves to us, at least through the first four—1977, 1980, 1983, 1999—through Phantom Menace. Since then it has become a merchandizing extravaganza that continues unabated as the ninth segment pushed out earlier this year.

Studios caught up in the Pandemic have much more to contend with than ticketholders forced to hop on bikes during an international oil shortage fifty years ago. Although they seem to have difficulty understanding that eventually a good idea runs dry after a decade or so. Some movie buffs are looking for more than wall-to-wall spandex, black capes and masks (before public masking became a health v. personal rights issue), which had previously guaranteed a healthy payday not just here, but in theaters around the world. The willingness to spend mightily to create a seemingly endless array of look-alike, sound-alike, named-alike movies seemed to start with the oceanic monster “Jaws.” Those scary shark teeth brought in $100 million at the box office and kept some bathers on the beach in fear of the Great White in 1975, beginning the perpetual cash register ring-up of merchandize with the slightest connection to the beast from the deep. “Jaws” returned in 1978 and emerged again in 1983, before diving into streaming summer rotation. 

Even before the Pandemic, studios began to question throwing millions after a movie, when there was no guarantee that the box office would return in kind. As ticket prices rose and the quality of movies streamed from home increased, consumers began to choose to relax on their own couches and pop their own popcorn at a small fraction of the cost charged at the theatres. Once the Pandemic hit, theaters were struggling to find ways to establish a six-foot safety distance, but now are struggling mightily to adjust opening dates for theaters and release dates for anticipated movies. The lure of Marvel Comic-based stories has continued until now, when closed theaters around the country have pushed the opening dates for already completed movies from May-June to October, now into 2021, guaranteeing some studios will struggle along with the theaters as their coffers are drained.  

Normally studios are willing to invest millions in their “tentpole” movies, planned to bring folks in to see the coming attractions in hopes they will select what they’d like to see next. Theaters have worked to enhance the movie experience as a one-stop night out—no need for dinner reservations. Inside upgraded theaters: gourmet ranging from pizza to steak dinner, wine, cocktails augment a movie viewed from plush seats as comfortable as the couch at home with no day-old peanut butter sandwiches tucked in the cushions.

“Tenet” Up in the Air

Before the madness began, Warner Brothers with Syncopy willingly ponied up $225 million in a potential tentpole movie by someone who has an excellent record for bringing in an audience for just those blockbusters. Sir Christopher Nolan delivered box office bounty with “Batman,” “Dark Knight,” “Inception,” and “Dunkirk,” the massive World War II pic for which Sir Christopher Nolan received a 2019 Best Picture nomination. He showed his versatility in directing “Dunkirk” in 2017, while completing the closely held script for the previously expected 2020 tentpole: “Tenet.” Nolan ruminated on the scenarios for a decade, this twist and that. Once he was done, he took the cast and crew to seven countries to shoot film segments, some with IMAX cameras: Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, UK, and US, which indicates the scope of the movie. Film being more difficult to shoot and edit than video, but that’s how Nolan delivers exceptional work audiences have come to expect.

Initially “Tenet” was scheduled to open this month, as he likes to slate his films in July. With the theaters closed for the Pandemic, “Tenet” was initially moved back into August, but now this international thriller sits in limbo, awaiting a thaw in the Pandemic that will allow movie theaters to reopen and provide the marketing worthy of leading men John David Washington and Robert Pittman and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, a 29-year-old actress from Australia, who appeared as a golden-clad alien in a Marvel movie, but has proven herself in the Great Gatsby and “The Night Manager” opposite Hugh Lorrie.

While we wait for that to appear, some are lamenting the lack of women directors, though the numbers are slowly rising, and that men still seem to dominate the screen. You might thing it was always like that, but Ann Hornaday (below) reminds us the ‘70s were a strong decade for female-centered movies—think Jane Fonda in “Klute,” “Coming Home,” and “The China Syndrome,” Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall,” Shirley MacLaine in “The Turning Point,” and Jill Clayburgh in “An Unmarried Woman.” But the performance that many forget is Diahann Carroll in “Claudine,” opposite James Earl Jones in a comedy-drama from 1974 with humor, tough love and something not usually seen on the big screen—middle-aged romance. This warm-hearted tale got lost under the tsunami initiated by “Shaft.” Just like the blockbusters, the blaxploitation films could be counted on financially and they were much cheaper to make.

In any event the movies of the ‘70s did not resemble each other, rather they were standalone, offered different flavors, different ideas to mull over after leaving the theater. Studios, not wanting to alienate their audiences in the midst of the nation’s political divisions, boil it down to a pablum. That formula might not satisfy an audience that’s been home for months watching Hulu and Netflick. The current lineup through 2020: “Wonder Woman 1984” with Gal Gadot on October 2, provided the date is not extended further. Followed by “Candyman” (a remake from 1992) by Jordan Peele on Oct. 16 with Watchman Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and “Black Widow” with Scarlet Johansson Nov. 6.  Jamie Foxx and Pixar partnered on the animated “Soul” with Angela Bassett. The final movie scheduled for 2020 release, perennial favorite Daniel Craig on Nov. 20, in what is rumored to be his final Bond, “No Time to Die.” What is playing well this summer in open theaters in Europe and Japan?  Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.”

In closing, an appreciation for the diminutive lady who seemed most vulnerable in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” Olivia de Havilland. At 104, she outlived the entire cast. Maybe Paris agreed with her—she lived there for 60 years, avoiding Hollywood hassles. Actors and creatives there still appreciate her work to improve their opportunities in negotiations with the studios. In 1943 she sued Warner Brothers for illegal contracting practices. Previously actors were suspended without pay if they were under contract and turned down a role. Their contracts were automatically extended after a seven-year agreement, without opportunity to amend them. She won and was able to pull down roles in “To Each His Own,” and “The Dark Mirror.” Olivia won Oscars for both roles.

Washington Post Movie Critic Ann Hornaday wrote about the current crisis in the film industry that stimulated my thoughts about movies.   

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