When Jaws landed in June, 1975, it thrilled so many movie-goers week after hot sticky week that within months it had made box office history. As the critic Tom Shone put it in his book Blockbuster, "That's what America did in the summer of 1975: It watched Jaws."
These days, though, Americans are rarely unified by one must-see movie for long, even when school's out. When Marvel's The Avengers opened in May, it topped the box office for three weeks until it was toppled by Men in Black 3, which held the top spot for two, until it was bested by Snow White and the Huntsman, which held on for one.
And so it goes as each studio behemoth is bumped by the next in what has become a faster cycle of planned obsolescence.
Unless, of course, the would-be blockbuster sinks as fast as Battleship, which cost $300 million to make and market and has made a bit over $65 million at the domestic box office. That's a little more than Tyler Perry has pulled in with his latest success, Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection, which cost much less to make. Perry has one of the summer's hits, as does Steven Soderbergh who, with help from Channing Tatum, women, and gay men, turned Magic Mike, a male-stripper movie that cost an estimated $7 million to produce, into a $110 million-and-counting crowd pleaser.
This was the summer when all eyes were supposed to be on heavily hyped spectacles such as Prometheus and Total Recall and on the latest comic vehicles for Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller. In some cases expectations have been met, as the Marvel and DC superheroes have sustained their box office hegemony. But those muscular do-gooders are far from the only game in town.
Audiences have also flocked to see Mike and Madea, Hushpuppy and Princess Merida, the runaway children of Moonrise Kingdom, and the randy geezers of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The chief film critics of The New York Times, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, discuss the surprises of the counterprogrammed, counterintuitive summer of 2012.
A.O. SCOTT: You and I sometimes worry about blockbuster domination, but maybe movies like The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers (and non-comic-book-based offerings like Brave and The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series) represent the last outpost of cultural consensus in a bitterly divided country. Whatever our differences of background, region, or belief, movies offer us a chance to be together and, since we're all looking ahead at the screen and not at one another, to forget our differences for a while. In spite of persistent efforts to conscript the movies into the culture wars, their broad, nonideological appeal persists.
The story of this season may be the success of movies that did not pander primarily to the teenage boy (or immature man) segment of the audience. Every summer for as long as I have been a critic, people have asked, Where are the movies for grown-ups? For women? For nonfanboys of all ages and persuasions? In 2012 the surprising answer seems to be: right here, at a theater near you.
MANOHLA DARGIS: Exactly. Each summer a few films emerge as counterprogramming favorites, the antiblockbusters; last year two such titles were Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life, and the year before audiences yearning for something other than cartoons and superheroes looked to The Kids Are All Right and Winter's Bone. But none of those relatively modestly budgeted movies cracked the summer Top 20. This season, however, four movies in the Top 20 were made for $20 million or under and, it's also worth noting, were sold to specific audiences: Moonrise Kingdom (art house), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (older boomers), Madea's Witness Protection (African-Americans) and Magic Mike (straight women, gay men, and anyone with a sense of humor).
As of early August the summer's big three (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Spider-Man) are also among the best grossers of the year. That's to be expected, especially given their hard sells and wide releases. What wasn't expected was that Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, even with a three-week jump, would have made more than movies starring Tom Cruise (Rock of Ages) and Adam Sandler (That's My Boy). It's impossible to know if the success of Moonrise and its humbly priced chart-busting brethren are a fluke, a harbinger of increasing diversity (subject, genre, audience demographic) or a sign of blockbuster fatigue. It would be nice to think that audiences have started to weary of the same quips, big bangs, and long underwear avengers.
The biggest story of the summer, though, has to be Magic Mike, which affirms that some like it hot and without any underwear, and also offers continuing proof of Soderbergh's talent for making pleasurable, accessible entertainments no matter their scale. Magic Mike was independently produced and bought by Warner Brothers for something like $7 million.
SCOTT: You note that Magic Mike owes much of its box office potency to its popularity with women. As you suggested in your review it's a "woman's picture" in two potentially radical ways. It caters to the kind of visual pleasure -- the delight in ogling beautiful bodies in motion -- that film theorists have long associated with the male gaze. And it tells what would have been, in an earlier era, the story of a woman, a good-hearted, hard-working striver selling sex appeal, pursuing dreams, and looking for true love in difficult circumstances. The stuff of classic melodrama but with a hard-bodied hero in place of the softhearted heroine.
Last summer the power of the female audience -- and also perhaps the renewed willingness of male movie-goers to seek out stories about women -- was demonstrated by the success of Bridesmaids and The Help. This year, after the springtime domination of The Hunger Games, another archer-girl movie, Pixar's Brave, featuring the company's first female protagonist after 10 boy-centric features, has quietly racked up more than $220 million at the domestic box office. Independent film also has a scrappy young heroine, thanks to Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild. There have often been one or two such hits in years past, most of them starring Meryl Streep: The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, and Julie & Julia. (Her latest, Hope Springs, is currently in theaters.). But something feels different about this year, and it may just be that such movies feel less anomalous, less like out-riders in a male-dominated entertainment universe. The ground may have shifted a little.
DARGIS: Only if there's enough money. Women have pushed certain titles to the top of the box office for years, but even presold titles like Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!, and The Devil Wears Prada were often regarded by industry analysts as "surprise" hits, which paints women as fickle instead of reliable repeat customers. One problem is that the business leans heavily on tentpoles like The Avengers, and most of these titles, including the majority of superhero flicks, make little room for women outside of supporting roles like Catwoman. All summer a handful of female-driven stories have been jumping in and out of the summer's box office Top 20, some of which are being helped to the top by women. The successes are promising, but I am going to wait until the numbers improve before I celebrate.
SCOTT: We will always have plenty to complain about, of that I'm quite certain. And I don't think the success of nonfranchise movies, woman friendly or not, foretells the end of the blockbuster era. The scale of the investments is just too large. But this summer provides some heartening evidence that alongside the appetite for large-scale dazzle, there is also a desire -- among audiences, filmmakers, actors, and maybe even studio executives -- for variety and surprise.