(P.69) The year Hollywood lost the plot.

The old magic seems to have deserted the studios,
with one of the worst crops of films in living memory

Ed Helmore and Vanessa Thorpe report
The Observer, FOCUS Box Office Blues 17 December 2000

column 1
This year
at the movies was:

  1. The worst in a decade.
  2. The worst in history.
  3. So bad, the Academy should cancel the Oscars.
  4. All of the above.

This ballot, published as the headline to a review of the year in films in Rolling Stone magazine, captures the common feeling of audiences and critics toward Hollywood's latest output.

Battlefield Earth, Red Planet, Mission to Mars, Quills, Proof of Life, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Coyote Ugly, Pay it Forward, Remembering with the Titans, What Lies Beneath, Autumn in New York, The Perfect Storm, The Beach, Duets, Bounce, The Sixth Day, The Next Best Thing - just a random sampling of the film industry's output this year. Forgettable? Forgotten them already, or at least trying to, say the pundits. 'Every year has lousy movies,' says Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers, 'but Team 2000 launched a relentless assault.'

column 2
The problem, film critics - and some in the industry itself - suggest, is that the business has lost its nerve. 'The steam has run out of Hollywood and the studios are collectively showing fear of failure,' says Graham Fuller, entertainment editor of the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News. 'This has led to a lack of adventurousness about the films being financed and they prefer to stick to the old formulas. The trouble is the old formulas are past their sell-by date.'

The situation, according to tipsters for this year's Oscars, is so dire that only three films stand out as best picture contenders: Ridley Scott's Gladiator, Julia Roberts and her push-up bra in Erin Brockovich and Steven Soderberg's forthcoming Traffic, based on the 1989 Channel 4 drug trade documentary and starring Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is hotly tipped, but it's hard to imagine a film spoken in Mandarin taking the top award. Others may emerge at the last minute - Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks, for instance - but for the moment the US election phrase 'unprecedented uncertainty' seems most apt.

column 3
'The creative crisis has allowed films like Crouching Tiger and Traffic, either of which could take best picture, to fill the vacuum. But neither looks nor feels like a conventional Hollywood film,' says Fuller. 'Until two or three years ago the studios were consistent at churning out big movies. They may not have been quality films, but they were effective. That efficiency has evaporated.'

So uncertain is the situation that Dreamworks, Steven Spielberg's company, has decided to re-release the animated Chicken Run for best picture consideration - a signal they believe a movie starring plasticine fowl could be better than any starring flesh and-blood actors.

British cinemas too have been affected by the bad year. The lack of action blockbusters or event movies that usually bring in the cash has hit hard. Even George Clooney in The Perfect Storm failed to make the predicted financial splash. Niche market movies such as Guy Ritchie's Snatch and Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot have also failed to draw in the mass audiences that cover the over heads for distributors and cinema chains.

In Hollywood, creative problems are beginning to hurt where it hurts most - on the balance sheet.

column 4
With few certifiable hits, the industry suffered a box-office slump in the middle of the year and sales were still down 17 percent on last year by mid-November. Ron Howard's The Grinch has done much to pull up overall receipts at the end of the year (it is nearing the $200 million mark in its fourth weekend), but some studios have only escaped with a squeak.

Even more - ominous, cinema attendance is down for the second year in a row and theatre owners, who face flat fees and a huge glut of multiplex screens, are beginning to complain loudly. In London the year saw the last screenings at the Golders Green Ionic and at the Hampstead Odeon, and the vulnerability of small picture houses has been reflected across the country.

But cinema owners are not complaining as loudly as audiences. A recent Wall Street Journal article offered a suggestion to moviegoers fed up with claptrap: just walk out. In a rarely advertised but increasingly widespread practice, theatres will now give money back or free passes to disgruntled customers - in some case, even if you've seen the whole show.

The British director Simon Monjack is depressed. He has worked in the States for most of his adult life and says he has rarely seen a weaker list of probable Oscar nominees. 'There has been a wholesale abandonment of the screenplay,' he said. 'Look at the films in serious contention. Gladiator and Erin Brockovich have pedestrian scripts that don't have anything to add to the cultural debate.

In an Oscar bid, Chicken Run is being re-released - a signal that plasticine fowl could beat flesh and blood actors

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THE BIGGEST box-office draws in London this Christmas have been Charlie's Angels, The Grinch and Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks. 'We have seen a year with no really big blockbusters,' said Philip French, the Observer film critic. 'Gladiator has been a stupendous success, admittedly, and I think a well deserved one. But there have not been any of the surprise successes, like The Sixth Sense last year. Even a popular film like Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot, which has had critical success on both sides of the Atlantic, has only been shown for shorter runs.'

Pinning the blame for this low creativity is difficult. The cost of the average Hollywood film (around $60m including marketing) has simply made it too risky. It's not directors or actors who rule, argues Rolling Stone's Travers, it's the marketing departments. 'If you can sell the public crap, you're a genius. Nothing new about the hustle, but now those who scam us are getting admired for their artistry.'

Others blame the loss of originality on the use of focus groups, but Hollywood has always used test audiences.

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Then, of course, the actors can be blamed. With so few certifiable movie stars, a vacuum exists where action stars like Sylvester Stalone and Arnold Schwarzenegger once guaranteed box office. A-list actors now dictate terms ever more favourable. Last week the Hollywood Reporter predicted that, even with The Grinch's $200m, Universal may still not make a profit. Not only had the film cost $125m to make but its star Jim Carrey, was getting 17 per cent of the gross after his $20m dollar fee was recouped.

The genre hit hardest by Hollywood's crisis of confidence is the big budget action adventure. More than half a dozen have bombed and most have been slated by critics. Action writers say they have been overwhelmed by special effects. They say, "We don't know who this guy is but we know we want him to go tumbling down the air shaft", says Jurassic Park co-writer David Koepp. 'Nothing makes sense. It's all backwards.'

Under the current system, movies like Billy Elliot, Croupier and Best in Show fall through the cracks where no obvious demographic is served. What happens when these artistic successes are labelled failures? 'Film makers and audiences lose their compass,'says Travers.

In fickle Hollywood what has been a bad year for films may turn good next year. Then again with the business terrified of an actors' and writers' strike next summer, a spate of cheap comedies and horror films is being rushed into production.

'Movies are at a turning point,' says Travers. 'What happens when quality films fight for distribution and mainstream crap dominates the multiplexes? Big fish eat little fish.

The golden age of blockbusters

The early Eighties proved a lucrative time for the big Hollywood studios, with a succession of huge hits.

Biggest grossing

Oscar winner for best picture


The Empire Strikes Back

Ordinary People


Raiders of the Lost Ark

Chariots of Fire


ET-The Extra Terrestial



Return of the Jedi

Terms of Endearment





Back to the Future

Out of Africa

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last updated 30/12/00