As the summer comes to an end and the kids return to school, I'm prompted to reflect on the difference a year makes. Last September, America was obsessing over Gary Condit (who?) and Survivor. The good times were still rolling, despite the market downturn, and Bush had managed eight months in office without selling Nebraska or opening Central Park to oil drilling.
Then September 11 happened. And today there's threat of war against Iraq, rampant corporate fraud, and national bracing for the dreaded 9/11 anniversary.
Anxiety and uncertainty has replaced optimism and confidence.
This change in the national mood is being reflected in Hollywood. Serious and contemplative is out, escapism and fantasy is in. We are taking refuge from the crisis in darkened theaters where the emphasis is on comic-book fare. Just about everything released this summer seemed to rake it in (as long as it wasn't something that made us think or touched too closely on reality). Total take for the summer was a record setting $3.67 billion!
And that's not even counting the sale of Raisinettes.
Look at this season's big winners: Spider-Man, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Signs, xXx, Men In Black II, Blade 2, etc. Pure escapism. Sure, summer is typically a time for popcorn movies, but normally there are a handful of releases between Memorial Day and Labor Day that garner an adult audience and some legit Oscar buzz. With the exception of Road to Perdition, the Tom Hanks/Paul Newman drama, there wasn't a single high-profile movie this summer that I can recall having that distinction.
The mantra of the summer of '02 was, "Bring on your aliens and superheroes. The theater is no place for grownups. That's what video stores are for."
It's a trend with no end in sight. A publicist at one of the studios told me, "We only have maybe one or two films in our production pipeline that could be considered mature. The rest are all aimed at teenagers or 22-year-old males. I don't see any Oscar contenders from us this year or next."
Oscar, schmoscar. Give me grosses, say studio heads.
Comic books are the hottest properties. Producers are not looking to option the next great American novel. They are scouring comic book stands hopeful of finding an undiscovered (more importantly, unoptioned) gem in the bin. Some of those Fantastic Four nerds you may have laughed at in school are sitting on film rights worth more than your 401K. I'm working with a producer right now, in fact, a self-professed "comic-book geek," who holds the rights to nearly two dozen properties, making him one of the smartest guys in Hollywood. His current project is shaping up to be one of next summer's blockbusters, and it ain't exactly Merchant/Ivory stuff.
The moral: When the going gets tough, we go to the movies and forget about everything. Pass the popcorn.