While some Hollywood insiders have decried 2011 as the “worst year for movies ever,” box office numbers would seem to disagree. We’re nearing the end of the summer season, and while it’s hard to think of a single “must see” movie that screened at multiplexes over the past few months, no fewer than three of the season’s offerings have managed to take a spot in the top ten highest grossing films of all time. Yes, you read that right – of all time.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides have all opened in the past few months – and each film has managed to become one of the top earning films in the history of the medium, meaning, if the next few months can keep up, 2011 should be set to go down as the biggest summer box office season in the history of movies. These three titles alone have combined for over $3.2 billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales.
The cynical amongst us might wonder what, exactly, this says about our culture and taste. While Potter has a literary inspiration and it’s the last film in a long line of movies (which was sure to draw a huge crowd of people who’d invested in the franchise up to this point), how do you rationalize Transformers: Dark of the Moon earning almost $1.1 billion worldwide? Sure, it’s been better received than the critically drubbed Revenge of the Fallen (that film earned a 20% rating on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, while Dark of the Moon is at 36% -- which is still a pretty lousy score), but good enough to make over a billion bucks? How about On Stranger Tides? The fourth film in the Pirates franchise is the worst reviewed – by far – of the series. Guess that huge Johnny Depp payday paid off.
It would be easy to look at the fact that all three of these films were released in 3D and cite the increased ticket prices for features shot in the medium for the huge returns – and while that certainly played a part, the truth is each of these three movies, for better or worse, simply did huge business. Pundits have cited recent declining 3D numbers as proof that the format is losing its appeal with mainstream audiences – but I suspect they’ll be revising their opinion in the wake of the summer box office season. 3D seems to be alive and well at this point.
It’s at least somewhat disheartening to film lovers to see forgettable summer fluff like Transformers and On Stranger Tides carve themselves out a place in box office history, but it’s not exactly the end of the world. I like to think that movies like this making a disturbing amount of money aren’t so much a commentary on our taste, but more a statement about how many of us feel the need to escape. We live in a turbulent world, one where economic crises, terrorists, political squabbling, and countless other upsetting topics dominate the daily discussion. Is it really so odd to think that many of us would want to get away from the doom and gloom by sitting in a darkened theater watching movies where the good guys win in the end? Doesn’t seem like a stretch to me.
The problem is that films like this earning such huge amounts of cash sends a bad message to studio execs: we want more pointless sequels to established franchises and not new stories and characters. That, more than any implied commentary on our society's taste (or lack thereof) is what's really worth getting upset about when movies like this succeed. In a perfect world, there'd be room for the tried and true sequels to popular franchises to coexist with daring new ideas. Unfortunately, that world doesn't seem to exist. Expect more big sequels in the months and years ahead...