Fellow blogger Felix Salmon writes, apropos of Monday’s posting claiming that the failure of Master and Commander to achive full-fledged hit status represents “the sound of doom for big-budget adult movies, which were already sick unto death and have now officially straight-lined”:
You say they’re officially dead, but I wonder when, exactly, they were alive. I’ve just been looking down the list of the top-grossing films of all time, after adjusting for inflation, and I really can’t find anything you might call a big-budget adult movie from the past 20 years. The Sixth Sense probably comes closest, as you surely don’t have stuff like Forrest Gump or Lord of the Rings in mind. Oh, here we go: at the bottom of the list they start appearing. At #92 there’s Saving Private Ryan, and at #106 is Dances With Wolves.
I guess my point is that if you’re bemoaning the death of adult-oriented movies with nine-figure budgets, I’d simply say that they never existed in the first place. Even Saving Private Ryan cost “only” $70 million: pretty much half of Master & Commander’s budget.
In other words, the Hollywood Blockbuster with the nine-figure budget is, and always has been, a mass-market affair. Let’s look at Oscar winners: Chicago had a $45m budget, A Beautiful Mind was $60m, American Beauty and Shakespeare in Love were tiny, English Patient was $27m, Braveheart was $72m, and so on.
So what does that leave us with? Titanic, of course, which I’m sure is not what you consider an adult movie, and the one exception — Gladiator, with a $103m budget, and which was clearly the success that Master & Commander was trying to replicate.
What’s expensive is big special effects, bangs and crashes, all the sort of things which you really don’t need in an adult film. So do I mind that directors making adult films can’t get nine-figure budgets? Not really, since I don’t think there’s any need for a nine-figure budget when making an adult film. And if we adults want bangs and crashes, we’re more than capable of enjoying Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a wonderful movie for people of all ages.
The lesson which I draw from Master & Commander’s box-office (which, as you say, is perfectly respectable, and much more in three weeks than, say, Mystic River or Lost In Translation can hope to gross in their entire runs, assuming they don’t win Best Picture) is basically that water-based films (Titanic, Waterworld) are always incredibly expensive, and in this case clearly the budget got out of hand. Criticise the producers for spending too much, don’t write off ambitious adult films.
Cute, and interesting, too. But while I take Felix’s point about actual numbers (facts do have a way of messing up a terrific generalization!), I think maybe it’s just to the side of the point. Of the other movies he mentions, The Sixth Sense is an adult film, in the same sense that Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers were at the same time popular and serious. So, in their different ways, were Chicago (which I thought quite good) and American Beauty (about which I had sharply mixed feelings). The others are for the most part pseudo-adult movies, a genre at which Hollywood excels. Conversely, Master and Commander is an adventure film, but its premises and methods seem to me genuinely adult, which is why it isn’t working with the mass audience so expensive a film must command in order to succeed.
The real point of my original post, of course, was the claim with which it ended: “Movies as novels, bought on the Web and consumed at home: that’s the future of grownup filmmaking in America.” About this I feel absolutely certain. What was hitherto missing was the technology necessary to make such a transformation feasible, and now it is rapidly falling into place. I don’t say that I necessarily look forward to the contraction of cinematic possibilities that will come from the loss of the theatrical experience (as several other readers wrote to point out, the cinematography of films like Lost in Translation really does benefit from being seen on a large screen), but it will have its reciprocal advantages, too, mostly having to do with convenience. In any case, under-50 filmgoers are universally habituated to the experience of watching movies, even well-known ones, on TV, and in a death match between the enveloping aesthetic experience of a large-screen theatrical film and the comfort and intimacy of home viewing, comfort will win every time.