When the Extraordinary Becomes Ordinary

June 15, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

It was the summer of 1977 when everything changed. I can't claim to recall much about that year - bits and pieces, to be sure, but a fragmentation of memory is expected when gazing back more than 30 years to age nine. But I remember Star Wars. Not as it is today, with the waters muddied by sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and a Holiday Special, but as it was during those first few months, when people of all ages were discovering it. George Lucas was a god. Boys developed crushes on Carrie Fisher and girls on either Mark Hamill or (more likely) Harrison Ford. We loved Greedo and didn't have to worry about whether he fired first. And those of us without a good background in movie history discovered Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. We saw things on the big screen that we had never before seen. Suddenly, special effects weren't just clunky images of the Enterprise or the godawful efforts of the BBC in Doctor Who. For many adults, Star Wars was a blast - a great two hours spent in an auditorium with sticky floors or at a drive-in. But for many kids, it was something more. And for the movie industry, it was the film that sent shockwaves around the world.

Star Wars didn't explode upon the scene in a single ecstatic rush. Unsure of what they had, Fox unleashed it carefully, initially opening it only in major markets. If you saw it Memorial Day weekend, it was probably after standing in a long line on the streets of a major city. It didn't take long before Fox realized what it had, but it took a while for enough prints to be made, and the limited number of early venues merely bottled the pent-up demand. Still, by the Fourth of July, the movie was everywhere. I can't say with certainty exactly when I saw Star Wars, except that it was sometime after the last day of school and before Independence Day (which would likely make it late June). It was a Saturday, and I went with my next-door neighbor and his family. They took a station wagon to a drive-in. Everything about that evening remains crystal clear in my memory, even though the events of the days before and the days after have long since vanished into oblivion.

Almost everyone of a certain age has a Star Wars-related memory. I have never heard anyone speak so reverently about the opening of a motion picture before or since. For those who saw Star Wars that summer, whether it was on Memorial Day weekend or as Labor Day approached, there was something unique about it. Those who were introduced to the movie in later years, either during a re-release or on home video, got a chance to see the movie and (in many cases) fall in love with it, but they didn't get the full experience. Some things need to be experienced first-hand.

Star Wars represented more than the foundation for fandom and the backdrop of memories - it cemented the concept of the "Summer Blockbuster." It wasn't the first movie to claim that title - that honor would probably go to Jaws, which made waves two years earlier. But Star Wars opened a flood gate. As studio executives watched the film's reception, light bulbs went on. This is what audiences wanted: fun, family-oriented, escapist spectacles. With kids out of school, young adults home from college, and Mom and Dad looking at a few weeks of vacation, what better time to offer this sort of fare? High exposure + maximum audience potential = big revenue.

The 1978 and 1979 re-releases of Star Wars proved to be box office gold, but the competition for summer dollars was already building in those early years of summer overkill. Grease, which opened in June 1978, was a smash hit, grossing nearly $190 million (a figure that, when adjusted for inflation, would top $600 million today). That same summer, Animal House proved that "family friendly" could be taken out of the equation. The momentum was swinging from December (previously the accepted time of release for most films with box office aspirations) to May-June-July. By 1980, the pendulum was at full tilt.

Over the years, we have gotten used to summer as the time of motion picture events. Some have been good, some have been bad, but the titles are hard to forget: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Return of the Jedi, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Top Gun, Batman, Jurassic Park, The Lion King, Independence Day, Men in Black, Shrek, Spider-Man, Transformers, The Dark Knight. Summer also became the playground of sequels and remakes. For example, the five highest grossing films of 2007 were all summer releases and four of those five were sequels.

Now, it's 2010, and there's a question that cannot be ignored: What's wrong with the summer? There's no dearth of big-budget movies: the Iron Man sequel, a new take on Robin Hood, a fourth Shrek, a return engagement for the Sex and the City harpies... But there's something missing. Call it magic or mojo, it's not there. Attendance isn't suffering - at least not much - but that doesn't tell the whole story. How many people are attending these summer movies as a result of conditioning? Who is going for no more compelling reason than that they don't want to miss out? Are we seeing blockbusters more out of habit than because there's something seductive about them that pulls us to a theater?

Is there anyone who feels the way about any of 2010's crop of movies as the way audiences felt about Star Wars in 1977? Of course not. Blockbusters are now programmed. They are products, not discoveries. When was the last time you counted down the days to the opening of a movie? How long since you woke up on an opening day with a slightly elevated heart rate? Has the anticipation of seeing anything in 2010 made a day seem more alive?

Blockbusters are built by more than big box office numbers, although that's certainly part of the foundation. But anticipation is equally important: the "want to see" factor. That's why people camped out in tents for months leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace. Whether that movie met expectations (for most, it didn't) is beside the point: it was the most talked-about and longed-for motion picture of its decade. Looking back, it's amazing to recall how desperately people wanted to see it.

The problem with the summer of 2010 has less to do with the box office potential of the big titles (although one has to question whether any title will come close to $400 million, and whether more than a tiny handful will cross the $250 million plateau) than with a general lack of excitement. What are the most sexy movies coming out in the next two months? Toy Story 3? (Don't count out Pixar, but can Buzz and Woody still bring it after 11 years in the toy chest?) Knight and Day? (Is Tom Cruise relevant?) Twilight: Eclipse? (The haters outnumber the die-hards.) Salt? (Has paparazzi overexposure killed Jolie's ability to make a movie like this?) The Expendables? (Is it 20 years too late?) I have some interest in most of those films, but I can wait. The only movie for which I can express a level of genuine excitement is Inception, but I'm not sure the non-geek public shares that feeling.

So maybe the problem is that we burden summer movies with unreasonable expectations. Perhaps we expect every hyped release to recapture that 1977 Star Wars feeling. It may never happen. Movies aren't like they were in the '70s. Just like everything else, they have moved on. They are more market-driven than ever, and that means they try too hard to appease the greatest number of people. But are we looking for appeasement? Don't we hope for something a little more elevating? For me, the greatest feeling I can get within the walls of a multiplex auditorium is one of discovery: finding something wonderful that I can't wait to write about. I love ***1/2 movies, but I crave the elusive **** gem. This is the hunt that encourages me to sacrifice my weeknights and occasionally a weekend. The next great movie is out there, waiting to be seen. But expecting it to be in the 2010 crop of blockbusters may be asking too much.

Perhaps the most disturbing question to ponder is one that should frighten Hollywood movers-and-shakers, but which they are ignoring. People are going to movies because it's a cheap and readily available form of entertainment (although, factoring in price hikes and 3-D surcharges, the "cheapness" is debatable). It renews itself every seven days with new releases. But do viewers really care anymore? Do they see a movie as a unique experience or just another way to kill time? Is it a Friday night destination or a fall-back plan? If it's the latter, and I suspect it might be, then the long-term prognosis for the industry isn't good.

Then again, all it takes is a good **** to wipe away the pessimism.