The Heat Is Off -- Looking Back at the Summer of 1996

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 12, 1996

As the leaves begin their annual transformation to hues of scarlet, ocher, and umber, and the breeze from the north blows colder, thoughts of the season to come supplant our preoccupation with the season gone by. Fortunately, at this time of year, it's possible to look forward, because, at least as far as movies are concerned, it's not really worth looking back. Except, that is, to identify trends which could drive the studios' production plans during the foreseeable future.

The 1996 summer movie season can be described by one word: disappointing. While the big Hollywood features hammered us with repetitive action and nonstop special effects, the independent distributors cleaned off their shelves, releasing a distressingly bland mix of marginal foreign features and would-be offbeat domestic ventures. There were a number of oases in the desert, but, on the whole, this was the most depressingly uninspired single season that I've experienced since I started writing reviews.

For me, the high point came in the form of a limited-release series that is slowly crawling through the major United States markets. Backed by Sony Pictures Classics, a restored version of Satyajit Ray's amazing Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar) has been popping up in art houses during the past year. Because of the staggered, erratic release schedule (not to mention the fact that the films originally premiered in the 1950s), it's not fair to classify the Apu Trilogy as "summer movies", but, for three weeks in August, the trio of classics offered the most satisfying cinematic experience I've had all year. The pictures are available on video, so, even if the trilogy (which is part of a larger series, called The Masterworks of Satyjit Ray) doesn't obtain theatrical release in your neck of the woods, there's no reason to miss it.

There were some other very good, even great, summer releases -- several of which may not be recognized by the typical movie-goer. Films like these kept me going as I slogged my way through the fireworks extravaganzas populating multiplex screens. Nevertheless, these movies, which had names like Carried Away, Trainspotting, Courage Under Fire, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and Ma Saison Prefere, were the exception rather than the rule. It was necessary to search to find them, and, if you didn't act quickly, they'd be gone from theaters before you could dial 777-FILM to find out where they were playing.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me state up front that, in general, I like action films. As I see it (and I know I differ from many "serious" critics in this respect), movies don't always have to educate or expand the mind to be worthwhile. There's as much room for pure, unadulterated entertainment in a theater as there is for an enriching experience. In my opinion, Die Hard is an excellent motion picture in spite of its complete lack of socially redeeming qualities. It's not Citizen Kane, but that doesn't mean it isn't worthy of a spot on a top ten list.

There are different degrees of action, however. Adrenaline is important, but it's better to match the thrill with well-developed characters and an intelligent plot. Too many of 1996's summer features failed to recognize this basic truth of movie-making. From Twister, which opened the unofficial summer box office, to The Island of Dr. Moreau, which (arguably) closed it, film makers were interested in blowing us away. To this end, they used pyrotechnics and explosions to create a sensory overload. Yet, for all the money that was spent on special effects, very little was invested in screenplays. There wasn't a single well-written action film this summer. I liked The Rock and Twister, but neither had the sort of script that even an apologist would label as "literate".

This summer, the studios were going for the amusement park effect, although I'm not sure that anyone realized how stunningly successful this approach was destined to be. Two films scaled the $200 million summit (one of which might make it to $300 million before all is said and done), and a bunch more crested $100 million. All of the blockbusters except Eddie Murphy's The Nutty Professor and A Time to Kill were action films. The names are memorable: Twister, Mission Impossible, Eraser, Independence Day, and The Rock. There were also many smaller, similar films that didn't generate as much box-office thunder (but didn't cost as much to make). From mid-May to early-July, hardly a week went by when there wasn't some new action film to take in. And only a few (Dragonheart, The Phantom, Chain Reaction) flopped.

Audience reaction to Twister and Independence Day was as close as Hollywood gets to a mandate. Viewers loved the effects and the vibrating seats. They thrilled to the no-plot euphoria of battles and chases. I wasn't nearly as impressed as the average viewer, but maybe that's because I see so many movies, and it's difficult to overwhelm me. I enjoyed Twister, but that was the first one out of the gate. Back in May, the experience was still somewhat fresh. By Independence Day, however, I was actioned-out. There wasn't much adrenaline left to pump. I wanted characters and storylines, not more pops and flashes. Familiarity can breed contempt, and that's what started happening with the action films. But, as I said, those like me are unusual -- audiences as a whole certainly didn't feel the same way.

Another factor that gets thrown into the whole mix is marketing. Several high-profile films, like Striptease, Dragonheart, and The Cable Guy, didn't have strong advertising campaigns. The TV spots, theatrical trailers, and print ads hardly made anyone want to see them. In fact, at least in the case of The Cable Guy, the opposite was true. It's no coincidence that all three were bombs. Neither Sean Connery's voice nor Demi Moore's breasts nor Jim Carrey's rubber face could draw enough viewers into theaters to recoup massive production costs. On the other hand, the two best marketed films of the summer, Twister and Independence Day, were the top money makers. And, curiously enough, neither featured any "big name" stars -- the special effects took center stage.

The ID4 hype started as early as late last year, with tantalizing trailers that showed the Empire State Building and the White House being blown to smithereens. Fox's marketing strategy was simple-yet-brilliant -- by saturating theaters with previews that teased without giving away the whole story, they hooked a huge audience. Independence Day became the movie to see. And everyone, from the serious movie critic to the casual theater-goer, had to go, if just to decide whether they agreed with everything that was being said. Like moths drawn to the flame, effects-loving fans went back multiple times to get their fill of exploding models.

Twister's approach was similar. Trailers started early in 1996, followed by more impressive spots as opening day drew nearer. The tornadoes, which were the movie's chief attraction, were never shown in the previews, and this created a sense of anticipation. Unintentional, real-life cross-promotion also helped Twister. This spring spawned an inordinate number of tornadoes, and the Weather Channel was happy to show video clips of seemingly every one. Great word-of-mouth, coupled with the decision to open this film exceptionally early, helped at the box office. Had Mission Impossible and Twister flip-flopped dates, it's entirely possible that their grosses ($175+ million and 230+ million, respectively) might have been reversed.

But where does all this leave Disney, the marketing master? Licking their wounds, I suppose. Since the crowning success of 1994's The Lion King, Disney's animated releases have been losing steam. Pocahontas was successful, but didn't do nearly as well as its predecessor, and the numbers for this year's The Hunchback of Notre Dame have been disappointing (at least by Disney's recent standards -- the movie is struggling to reach $100 million). The problem had more to do with the story than with the marketing, however. Hunchback was a bad idea from the beginning. The plot is too dark and complicated for children, and plays too loosely with Victor Hugo's classic for adults. Quasimodo isn't the kind of hero who makes for good merchandising -- he was the least popular of the Burger King figurines. On top of that, the soundtrack is easily the most unmemorable to-date from composer Alan Menken.

The summer of '96 didn't offer much in the way of romance, either. Typically, movie-goers can expect at least one solid romantic comedy each summer, as a kind of "female counterprogramming" to the action flood, which attracts men more than women. This year, however, there was no defining romance; in fact, there was very little in the way of on-screen kissing at all. Emma and Tin Cup both fall under the broad umbrella of the romantic comedy genre, but one is based on a classic novel and the other could just as easily be considered a sports movie. The most straightforward love story of the summer, Edward Burns' She's the One, turned out to be poorly-acted and hard-to-swallow. As a result, it's been five months since the release of the last good romantic comedy, The Truth about Cats and Dogs.

Generally, the small films made this summer's fare palatable. Using them as antidotes to the action overdose, I was able to keep a perspective about everything I was seeing. But what does the success of Twister and Independence Day mean for the future? Predictably, there will be more of the same -- a lot more. Godzilla and King Kong will roam the screen again. Dante's Inferno will erupt. Batman will return, as will Sandra Bullock in Speed 2, the next generation crew in Star Trek: First Contact, and Sylvester Stallone looking for Daylight. Death can't stop Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, who, believe it or not, will be on hand for the fourth Alien film next spring. Jeff Goldblum and the dinosaurs will be back for the Jurassic Park sequel, and Bruce Willis will pull down a huge paycheck to once again Die Hard. James Cameron will wreck The Titanic and the West Coast will get flooded by a Tsunami. And all this doesn't take into account the next James Bond film and the long-awaited Star Wars prequels, which should finally reach theater screens beginning in 1999.

It's obvious that blockbusters will continue to dominate summers (if not the entire year), with budgets routinely topping $100 million. Independent features should also continue to thrive, since there's always a market for the kind of low-key, inexpensive motion pictures that have made Miramax a force to be reckoned with. The question is, what about moderately-priced studio projects, those with price tags in the $15-25 million range? In the rush to get expensive, "event" movies to the screen, will middle-tier films be passed over? Courage Under Fire, one of the summer's best entries, is a member of that category, and it's scary to consider what the movie industry might become without this sort of picture.

So, while it's fun to watch a Twister, consider the price if Hollywood decides that this is all audiences really want to see. The summers of 1997 and beyond could end up brasher, louder, and more barren than this one. And, for those who are attracted to movies because of the diversity of what they can offer, such uniformity, no matter how visually and audially stimulating, would be both a travesty and a tragedy.

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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