Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Iron Man 2"? Probably Rusty, But Nobody Cares

The first rumblings of discontent began on Monday, when early "Iron Man 2" reviews from the UK started trickling onto the web. First there was the disappointed account from the blog Heyguys, followed by a blistering notice from The Mirror. A few fans got a little worried, but the alarm klaxons didn't go off full blast until roughly around midnight, when reports from the world premiere screening rolled in along with reviews from the two big industry trades, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Brian Lowry at Variety delivered a mixed review, but The Report's Kirk Honeycutt savaged the film, leading off with, "Everything fun and terrific about 'Iron Man,' a mere two years ago, has vanished with its sequel." Ouch. Subsequent reviews from various sources have been all all over the place, but there have been few raves aside from, predictably, Harry Knowles over at Aint it Cool News.

Once upon a time, these negative early reviews might have given studio executives heart palpitations, but no longer. "Iron Man 2" is primed to be this summer blockbuster season's most massive event film, and is easily the most highly anticipated title of the year. The media hype and the goodwill from the excellent first film are so strong, it's hard to imagine that it won't end up breaking box office records upon its release next week. Conversely, traditional print critics have seen their influence wane in recent years, to the point where even the most universally panned films like "Transformers 2" or "GI Joe" see no impact on their box office earnings or future franschise prospects. The announcement was made today that the poorly received "Clash of the Titans" reboot is getting a sequel, mostly due to strong performance overseas. No matter what the critics say, people are going to see "Iron Man 2."

As a self-avowed pretentious movie geek, I've long made my peace with the fact that the studios make movies for general audiences, not movie critics, and people genuinely enjoy pictures that I consider miserable drivel. However, it doesn't feel like the audience has as much say as they used to when it comes to a film's financial success either. Where so much of the audience interest is drummed up by studio hype, it often feels like the quality of a film's marketing campaign is a better determination of success than the quality of the film itself - or whether anybody actually liked watching it. Of course big, hyped-up films can still be affected by negative audience response. Highly anticipated projects like "Clash of the Titans" or last year's "Wolverine" will often have great first weekends and then plummet like so many turkeys. "Spider-man 3" has one of the highest domestic grosses of all time, but nobody seems to have enjoyed it much and Sony backed away from follow-up films. Yet all of these films made millions in profits.

The troubling early reviews might be a bellwether for negative audience reaction to "Iron Man 2," but this won't pose much of a hurdle for Paramount. The movie business has structured itself to capitalize on front-loaded films that do big business in their first week or two of release, and subsequently drop out of sight to be replaced by the next big title. Since they're relying almost exclusively on hype and other factors independent of the film's actual quality, distributors put films into as many theaters as it possibly can in the first few weeks, and marketers expend the bulk of their budgets months in advance. Because no one listens to reviewers anymore, it takes at least a few days for word to get around as to whether a film is actually worth seeing, and by that time chances are viewers have already seen it. Steady performers like "How to Train Your Dragon," which won the past weekend box-office after four weeks, are becoming more and more of a rarity, and long gone are the days when popular films could linger in theaters for a year or more. The current system of tight exhibition windows, with DVD released dates worked out far in advance, make shorter theatrical releases a necessity. Occasionally you'll see limited encore engagements, like FOX recently did with "Avatar," but these days it takes a bona fide cultural phenomenon to win over exhibitors for that kind of deal.

I worry that as the studios' efforts to hedge their bets against negative word of mouth, they also undermine positive word of mouth in the process. "Alice in Wonderland," for instance, garnered some controversy when Disney announced that they were shortening the period between the theatrical run of "Alice" and its DVD release to about three months. Theater owners protested that it would cut into their earnings and there were threats of a boycott and other dramatics that ultimately came to nothing. "Alice in Wonderland" turned out to be a huge hit, everyone made lots of money, and industry observers concluded that and earlier DVD release date didn't deter audiences at all. And yet, the film is not going to make as much box office bank as it could have, because it will be leaving theater screens earlier. Disney only made the initial decision to bump up the DVD release because it assumed that "Alice" had fairly niche appeal and was going to have the same sort of front-loaded theatrical run as its other recent genre films. Even "Avatar" had its initial run cut short when theater owners were contractually obligated to turn over many of its screens to other films.

Of course all films aren't subject to these constraints. Smaller films, art-house films, and indies still benefit enormously from critical response and word of mouth reactions. The hits that come out of this world, usually the prestige films that crowd awards season, are the ones that build on genuine support from its viewers. Most of these titles are modestly budgeted, and most are never expected to turn much of a profit from their theatrical runs, so distributors are more willing to take risks. But when it comes to the monster studio action films, full of expensive CGI and A-list stars, the executives are not willing to take any risks that people won't like them, and rely on aggressive pre-selling to make sure the audience shows up. So they like films that are easier to sell, like adaptations and sequels, and reboots of familiar properties. They like predictability, and the dirty little secret of most film fans is that we like it too.

I confess that I've been caught up in the "Iron Man 2" hype too, and I'm planning to see it as soon as I can. I might have held out on "Spider-man 3," but this is different. The first "Iron Man" was one of my favorites of 2008, ranking well above "The Dark Knight." I've skimmed the negative reviews I've linked in this post, but haven't read too closely for fear of spoilers. And though they have put a dampener on my expectations for the film, I'm significantly invested in the characters and story already that I want to go and see for myself how bad it is. But more than that, since the presumption is that everyone else is excited for the film and will be seeing it in the theaters, I'm anticipating the communal experience of discussing it with others. Whether I end up defending or damning "Iron Man 2," I like participating.

And if I'm going to be disappointed, at least I'll have plenty of company.

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