Here’s a crackpot theory about why blockbusters supposedly are getting sillier.
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17 Oct 2011 - 10:39 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 12:30 AM

Hollywood blockbusters are stupider than ever because the US studios increasingly are pandering to overseas audiences as international box-office receipts continue to outstrip US grosses for many films.

So goes one of the silliest theories I've ever heard from several otherwise sensible film commentators.

“Hollywood films have become stylistically generic because their success depends on crossing into multiple markets with differing cultures. Place and personality – the great irreducibles – get in the way,” The Guardian's Phil Hoad declared in an article headed Attack of the clones: Hollywood's mutant movies are on the march.

Hoad cleverly coined the term Helvetica Blockbuster to describe franchises such as Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious and G.I. Joe which he claims do a “remorseless death march on the global box office, operating in the money-minded limbo where Hollywood's least-questioned habits rule.”

To back up his argument, Hoad cited an essay by San Francisco-based author and writer David Thomson in Intelligent Life magazine.

"When the American film business became international, it moved towards what it believed was material for the 18-24s with franchising prospects: violent, cruel, cool, self-interrupting,” Thomson wrote. “The executives listened to the marketeers, and the film-makers had to decide whether to go along with them. The alternative was to go independent, or try television. Both of which meant a drastic cut in income.

“The overwhelming drive in the mainstream film business now is to make blockbuster animated films, preferably ones that can be cloned—repeated, reheated and sold in packs of two or three or six, like fizzy drinks. Another is to base films so much on special effects that the audience is always seeing something it has never seen before—like the earthquake rippling along the runway in 2012, challenging John Cusack's plane to get off the ground in time. In short: make movies that have as little to do with the photography of life, faces, real places and ordinary action as you can manage.”

That theme was enthusiastically taken up by one popular blogger, Badass Digest's Devin Faraci.

“The problem with our big budget movies, why they focus so much on spectacle instead of character or story, is because they need to be consumed by everybody in the world, no matter their cultural context,” opined Faraci. “An exploding robot crosses all cultural barriers while a smart comedy like Bridesmaids maybe doesn't.”

What's wrong with the kind of analysis quoted above? Plenty, although I do agree that blockbusters have become increasingly homogenised and formulaic.

As for Bridesmaids, it grossed $169 million in the US and a healthy $117 million in the rest of the world, which suggests its raunchy humour and sight gags translated pretty effectively.

My chief objection to the argument that movies are getting dumber to boost their appeal to non-Americans is that it seems based on the assumption that a sizable percentage of international audiences isn't sophisticated and doesn't crave intelligent fare: pure bunkum.

For proof of that, take Black Swan, 127 Hours and Hereafter, which earned more than twice as much overseas than in the US. X Men: First Class, Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau, to name a few recent releases, all grossed more internationally than at home.

Plus it's unfair to categorise Hollywood's output by the blockbuster mentality: that ignores the many fine films that are produced or acquired annually by Sony Pictures Classics (which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year), Fox Searchlight and NBC Universal's Focus Features.

Yes, I know other majors have closed their specialty divisions but the Hollywood companies will continue to do what they've done for many decades: strive to make profitable movies that appeal to various demographics and diverse cultures.