Saturday, September 26, 2009

Is Hollywood in the Age of the Big Budget B-Movie?

Well, first out, what we need is to explain what is meant by the term “B-movie” here. Now, I use the term highly loosely here in terms of a movie which is thoroughly commercial, campy fair with little content whatsoever. The movie usually uses a theme or tool to exploit like the blaxploitation, the sexploitation, cannibal films etc. It is certainly not a reference to the B movies which involved a high degree of craft or ingenuity like some of the sci-fi movies of the 1950s etc. The main point of departure from the usual B-movie fare is that while such movies are a low budget fare, the movies I seek to discuss here aren’t. For a more detailed idea of B movies, kindly Wiki either “B Movie” and/or “Exploitation Films.”

A month back, I had the misfortune of watching Michael Bay’s latest offering “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” I know what is usually expected from a Michael Bay film: eye candy (in the form of women and special effects) and a bare plot for tying all the eye candy sequences together. Nevertheless, the sequel to the wildly successful “Transformers” was shocking in its shallowness and its pathetic excuse of a plot. Sure, the effects were eye-popping. But the entire film was just a (very) poor excuse for one set of special effects after another. It was an unashamed, headache inducing big budget extravaganza, and I mean that in the worst way possible. As I exited the theatre, a thought came to me: are we living in the age of the big budget B movie?

I immediately started collecting data on the big budget movies that Hollywood has churned out in the past few years. In several genres this trend to churn out trash that sells can be seen. However, by far the biggest bucks for the studios have been earned in either (a) sequels; (b) remakes; (c) comic book adaptations; (d) children’s books adaptations; (e) adventure / sci-fi epics. There is one factor that runs commonly between all of these categories: special effects/technology. Despite the sheer quantum of special effects visuals that have been generated over the last 20 years with the technology boom, viewers can’t seem to have enough of it. As a result of which, I think all of the abovementioned movies can be collectively clubbed in a newly emerged B movie sub-genre: texploitation i.e. movies that exploits technology to lure people into watching and making a box office killing.

While special effects have been exploited to sell a film to viewers since decades, it has become increasingly unashamed, crude and in-your-face (not to mention, almost fool proof and highly profitable) in recent years. Studios are willing to empty their coffers for a “Transformers.” Budgets have spiralled out of control. While not so long ago, betting $300 million on a Lord of the Rings franchise was a risky bet, today shelling out $200 million on one movie is really no big deal. Also, who cares if creativity in effects is lacking so long as it is bigger and better in every other movie: more destruction, more mayhem, more explosions, more detailing, these are enough to sell a movie. With globalisation, the international market for Hollywood movies has grown by leaps and bounds which has only proliferated such reckless budgeting further.

Look at the last few years. While the biggest grosser (worldwide) include an occasional “Lord of the Rings” and a rare “the Dark Knight” the list is abound with crap superhero/comic book adaptations like “X Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Spider Man 3,” “Hancock,” crappy book adaptations like the “Harry Potter” series, “The Da Vinci Code,” “Eragon” (which actually managed to gross $250 million worldwide), sequels like “Terminator: Salvation,” “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” and big budget disaster/epic movies like “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Troy” etc. The list goes on and on. The trend for this probably started out small with movies like “True Lies” (a respectable but nevertheless obvious big budget spoof of action films), “Independence Day” (campy but fun), “Armageddon” (crap, plain and simple) etc. But these were fewer in number then and better in entertainment quotient at least. Further, it is painful to see that “Star Trek” (arguably the most wildly entertaining sci-fi epic in recent years, certainly the best of the series) grossed only (relatively) $382 million worldwide while “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (one of the most disappointing sequels ever made with all gloss and no content) grossed over $1 billion worldwide. Hence, the motivation for investing $150 million in a “Star Trek” is much lesser than investing $300 million in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

What perpetuates this trend? I think we can single out two factors: first, the marketing people know that the audiences are a sucker for visuals and play on that to hype a film. I mean, the visuals of “2012” really blew me away. I know the movie will be crap, I mean its Roland Emmerich. But the effects are gorgeous. Secondly, they often throw in either a good actor or a hot actor or both for good measure. Megan Fox worked wonders for “Transformers” and herself in the process. “2012” has John Cusack, an odd choice which is intriguing nevertheless. Secondly, of course, is the fact that the audiences are willing to buy into that hype and waste good money on such movies. Of course, this is not to say all is lost. Texploitation has been used advantageously in many movies to make memorable films. The best example I can think of is “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” which took special effects to a whole new level without sacrificing on the quality of the story itself. But it is true that such movies today are few and getting fewer every year. Word of advice: don’t buy into the packaging. Don't perpetuate this trend!


  1. I disagree with your terminology - I don't think that a requisite of B-movie filmmaking is stupidity.

    Nomenclature aside, when addressing the question of big box office for big budget brainlessness, I want to address your comparison of Star Trek and PotC 2 - take note that while your point broadly holds, the two movies are wildly different beasts in terms of context.

    Star Trek was a reboot of a series that, the history and cult of the TV show aside, as far as films were concerned had fallen on bad times, manifested by Star Trek: Nemesis which was both a commercial and critical failure.

    PotC 2, on the other hand, was a sequel to an enormously popular movie, which by the time the sequels were greenlit was well on its way to cementing Jack Sparrow as one of the most memorable mainstream characters of this decade, and turned Johnny Depp into a bona fide movie star.

    Much like Matrix Reloaded, sheer expectation for the sequel ensured it was going to a blockbuster - and much like Matrix Revolutions, PotC 3 had quite a dip in box office compared to part 2 (though not as steep, partly because wasn't as crap - and even if it was, audiences were probably more favourable of mindless crap (potc 3) than pseudo-philosophical babble crap (Matrix 3)).

    Further, the worldwide take for PotC 2 was much much higher because of the amount of exposure the first film had, whereas Star Trek is very cult in the rest of the world, and it had no precedent as well, following Nemesis that was some five-odd years ago, and eminently forgettable.

    Comics/sci-fi is still (relatively) niche in the rest of the world, unless a suitably established franchise (eg. grosses of Spider Man 3, a 100-mil higher than the well-received Spider Man 2) or source material (Harry Potter) - borne by the performance of Star Trek, and even the Dark Knight.

    Aaanyway. So. Yeah.

  2. I agree with you in part. B movies needn't be equal to stupid. I mentioned that. There are quality B movies out there: even classics. However, you have to agree that a large chunk of B movies are complete pulp and when seen in the context of exploitation films, my categorisation of movies like Transformers and PoTC as B movies I think made more sense.

    Coming to your comments on PoTC, depite the monumental crappiness of PoTC2, PoTC3's revenues didn't really take a massive dip. It only earned $102 mil lesser worldwide. And I think it was even worse than PoTC2. I mean PoTC2 could have been salvaged had PoTC3 made any sense (which it didn't). And it's the moviegoer's appetite for crappiness which is the problem here.

    Also, I may concede that the comparison between Star Trek and PoTC 2 is a tad unfair given their context. However, there are several movies with which you can replace Star Trek with: take "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (with Fincher, Blanchett and Pitt) or "The Bourne Ultimatum" (a brilliant third following an excellent sequel) or others. You could replace "PoTC2" with "Hancock," "I am Legend" and several others and the main point would still remain the same.

    Finally, the post isn't restricted to comics/sci-fi. Disaster films have a massive market internationally as was proved long back by movies like "Independence Day." Even a movie like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" which was universally panned, had a bunch of has been stars but some stunning visuals managed to gross $230 mil worldwide most of which came from international markets. Adventure as a genre (which takes to some extent within it sci-fi, comics and fantasy) is a big money maker internationally. I mean if you look at your list of the top grossers worldwide, a large number of movies fall within this category. Comic franchises are quickly growing: you have Iron Man, Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern (coming up), Fantastic 4 and more. You have your V for Vendetta, Watchmen, 300 etc.

    Yeah. Hence. I stick by my original.

  3. The problem with classification these days is the sense of irony that pervades filmmakers. If you take a film like Mars Attacks!, it failed for me because of a slightly contemptuous tone (which is funny, given Burton's love for B-movies, seen with his Ed Wood bio-pic, for eg.), but it's basically a $100 mil homage to films that were made for something like $100,000. Even, for example, a really low budget movie like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, it's ultimately a failure because it's self-referential. The best B-movies are made with utter sincerity.

    I have yet to summon the courage to watch Uwe Boll movies.

    Oh, and you should check out Susan Sontag's essay on camp (it's available on the web.. wiki links to it, I think). It's interesting.

  4. such irony pervades few film makers. Burton is certainly one of them. as is, of course, Tarantino. however, a Michael Bay film has no sense of irony. in fact, it actually manages to take itself seriously which is disturbing at some level.

    the essay i will read. as regards uwe boll, i saw parts of bloodrayne to see whether he was really as bad as they say. it's true. he is.