Coming to a megaplex near you: 2015
With new films from the ‘Star Wars’, ‘Finding Nemo’, ‘Avatar’ and ‘Avengers’ franchises on the way, 2015 could be cinema’s biggest year ever
Dory days: the sequel to Finding Nemo is named after Ellen DeGeneres’s character
Stranger and stranger: Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Avengers reassemble: Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey jnr and Mark Ruffalo in Marvel Avengers Assemble
Box-office topper: Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in James Cameron’s Avatar
The force is with them: JJ Abrams is making Star Wars: Episode VII, the sequel to Return of the Jedi, which starred Carri Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford
When, two weeks ago, Pixar confirmed that the sequel to Finding Nemo would, as rumoured, be released in 2015, a jarring realisation hit lonely, obsessive cinema soothsayers. If that year is not the biggest in movie history then exhibitors may as well convert the last remaining cinemas into bingo halls (or whatever they convert movie theatres into these days).
In any normal year, Finding Dory – named for Ellen DeGeneres’s forgetful blue fish – would have no difficulty finishing top of the box-office heap. Released a decade ago, the first Nemo film remained Pixar’s most successful release until the emergence of Toy Story 3 . That film took more than $1 billion worldwide and headed the charts in 2010. Dory only has to turn up. Doesn’t she? We predict a huge number one for Disney (which owns Pixar).
Not so fast. That year will also see the release of the seventh episode in some class of continuing space opera. It is just about possible that memories of the malodorous prequels to Star Wars will dissuade cinemagoers from attending JJ Abrams’s reinvention. It is also possible that sea monsters will rise from the deep and become our new masters. We predict a colossal number one for Disney (which owns Lucasfilm).
Hang on there, Tiger. The summer of 2015 will also welcome Joss Whedon’s follow-up to the film that nobody really calls Marvel Avengers Assemble . The first picture was, remember, last year’s biggest and is currently the third most successful release of all time. We predict a record-breaking number one for Disney (which owns Marvel Studios).
Well, I hear you say, at least one thing is certain. The folks at the Mouse House are, come Christmas 2015, sure to find themselves sitting on the biggest pile of loot. What’s this? James Cameron is planning to release his prequel to Avatar in 2015? That strange amalgam of Lawrence of Arabia and Fraggle Rock is, of course, the most successful film ever. We predict an eye-watering number one for 20th Century Fox.
All-time top six
It is far from impossible that each of these four big films could find itself sitting in the all-time top six when 2016 arrives. ( Avatar and Titanic , the only members of the Two Billion Dollar Club, are so far ahead that they could prove impossible to shift.) Heck, there isn’t even a World Cup or an Olympics to distract the punters.
It hardly needs to be said that the predominance of sequels in this article will depress most right-thinking cinema enthusiasts. If we view the Avengers film as the latest in a connected series of Marvel episodes – and we should – then the Avatar franchise, launched in 2009, emerges as the freshest of the bunch. Such is the nature of surprises that nobody can predict with any certainty what original project will break through and give the big boys a run for their money. The history books do not offer encouraging precedents. Before Avatar , the last nonsequel to top the charts was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King , in 2003. The last film to head the year’s list without inspiring a sequel was Armageddon , way back in 1998.
Ask yourself a more slippery question and the state of contemporary cinema begins to seem grimmer still. When was the last time a film that wasn’t a “blockbuster” topped the charts? That term is as hard to define as is “cult movie”. In his fine 2004 book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer , Tom Shone worries greatly about the semantics. He points out that, at one stage, “blockbuster” simply implied a film that made a great deal of money. In the current era, however, you will read stories in the trade papers about “blockbusters” – projects such as John Carter or The Green Lantern – that failed spectacularly at the box office.
Mainstream media reports on the latest high-profile adaptation of the latest voguish novel will often use the term before the script has even been written. “Now it signifies a type of movie,” Shone writes. “Not quite a genre, but almost; often science fiction, but not necessarily; something to do with action movies, but not always”.
The term is probably now neatly synonymous with the ugly phrase “event movie”: that is to say a picture that is unveiled with so much staggering hoopla that you feel you’ve seen the thing, bought the soundtrack, played with the action figures and got bored with the sequel long before it is even released. These are the sorts of films that (ahem) trigger pointless articles in newspapers two years before they make it into cinemas.
To get back to that last question, if we include animated films in the heavy-hitting gang, the last nonblockbuster to crown the charts looks to have been Ghost , in 1990. You can say what you like about that drippy supernatural romance, but you can’t deny that it really did succeed on word of mouth. It was a very different time. Other films in the 1990 top five include Home Alone , Pretty Woman and Dances With Wolves . None was a sequel. None would, if released today, figure on any box-office prognisticator’s shortlist of likely year-end victors.
Such pondering puts recent bullish reports on cinema figures into worrying perspective. Yes, last year’s US domestic revenue, at $10.6 billion, was the biggest it had been since 2009. True, the number of tickets sold went up for the first time in three years. Worldwide figures are also looking healthy. We are, however, dealing with an ugly simulacrum for decadent late capitalism. A small gang of robber barons now owns a staggeringly large amount of the world’s wealth. Take the blockbusters out of the reckoning and cinema looks like a struggling art form.
Ask any film-maker about the current situation and they will tell you the same story. The major studios, spending money to make money, construct their strategies around a series of “tent poles” that rarely cost less than $100 million. If you’re crafty you can make a film for next to nothing. None of the giants is, however, particularly interested in producing films that come in between $10 million and $30 million. The reliance on blockbusters is likely to rise with the advance of China as a market. It is very difficult to flog nuanced drama to a wide array of cultures. Everybody understands explosions. Everybody grasps hurtling spaceships. Superheroes and Jedi speak that lingua franca fluently.
All of which leads us back to the swell of product working its way towards 2015. The news is not all bad. The Avengers was a very decent film. Finding Nemo was a classic. JJ Abrams, currently tidying up Star Trek , has a good record in revitalising ancient space epics. Many people think Avatar is something more than a $240 million lava lamp.
The problem is not with the quality of the blockbusters. They are, arguably, better than ever. The difficulty is that studios make too little effort to finance midbudget pictures. Who can blame them? Punters seem increasingly reluctant to seek out those smaller films when they do emerge. Instead, we make hits of fatuous pabulum such as the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Oh, that reminds me. Pirates of the Caribbean V is also due for release in 2015. It is a Disney production. How did that company ever let Avatar slip through its fingers?