Wanna know why movies suck today? Well, audiences just gave Hollywood $40 million beautiful reasons why. That’s right. Over the 1 April weekend (and we wish it were all a prank), supposedly fed up film fans, lovers of legitimate cinema and smart, satisfying movies, made Hop the number one box office draw. Argue all they may about appeasing their wee ones, or seeing something innocuous and cute this close to Easter. No matter the message or motivation, people sent Tinseltown an important mandate, at least in their eyes. Clearly, they want more of Hop, and less of anything else. Also-openers Insidious and Source Code—two much better movies—opened to a combined total $10 million less than this ridiculous rabbit test.
Taking a step back, for a moment, there is a real rationale for the otherwise unreasonable returns. Parents have long since given up on guiding their children in the proper direction, and instead respond like Pavlov’s pooch whenever something comes along that can silence the brat for a good 80 to 90 minutes. There’s no questioning the content or creativity—if it looks adorable and more or less inoffensive, it’s on everyone’s Saturday shopping agenda. Look at the average suburban DVD shelf and see the proof. If Mom or Dad can con an older kid into gathering up the neighborhood brood, plunking down the reduced priced tickets, and experiencing a bit of offspring-less freedom for a small smattering of the weekend, they will line up in droves/drones. Quality is of little or no concern. Word of mouth is often a legitimate litmus test (right, Mars Needs Moms???), but for the most part, almost anything will suffice.
Such a lack of consideration means nothing to the major studios, however. They aren’t looking at Rotten Tomatoes and gauging the response. Like many in the business called show, they understand that most moviegoers—and in the case of family films, little or none—look to reviews as the cinematic suggestion box. After all, what do the 73 negatives against the film really mean? Critics are paid (hopefully) to express their own opinion, meaning they are just one voice out of a potential audience of many. If a theater of 300 people all roll up to Hop, and only 50 percent of them like the movie, that’s 150 winners. Now multiple that by 2,000 screens, several shows a day, and you can see the potential ATM in place. Now if the movie has any redeeming factors whatsoever, or more importantly, can pander to a specific reactionary demographic, all the better—and in the world of kid vid idiocy, it is richly rewarded.
It’s why the Twilight movies have been so successful, and in return, why every studio is bending over backwards trying to find the next supernatural teen romance franchise. Similarly, the next few months will offer more single digital IQ CG cartooning, whether its Rio or Kung Fu Panda 2, or even Pixar’s upcoming (and wholly unnecessary) Cars sequel. Hollywood knows what sell—read: animation—and it knows how to sell it to you. It also understands the bottom line. If you can get away with making your money on the cheap, without having to invest in anything remotely resembling intelligence or innovation, all the better. Thus you retrofit an already establish entity—in this case, the Easter Bunny—into a typical adventure tale, you give him a bumbling human component to grin goofily at the camera, add a song or two, and load up the rest with as much literal eye candy as possible.
If it all sounds cold and calculated, you’re right. No one is even remotely suggesting that Hop—or anything else in director Tim Hill’s hackneyed resume—is being made for the very love of film. No, just like any other freelance job, the creative forces behind many motion pictures are always looking for that next gig, that next opening that will keep them in paychecks until the subsequent opportunity comes along. It’s the journeyman ideal: bring the project in on budget, deliver the predetermined entertainment expectations, and start counting the potential weekend returns. Universal already knew when this film hit theaters that it would bring in about $20 to $30 million over the weekend. The eventual haul surpassed expectations, and when you consider it’s relatively small budget ($63 million), it’s bound to be profitable.
So, in essence, you’ve told Hollywood that this is the kind of movie you want to see, and they are more than willing to continue accommodating. Indeed, if you consistently lined up similarly for something like Sucker Punch, we’d have many more adolescent male gamer fantasies waiting in the wings. Yes, there is a question of reliability. Viewers reward Hop, and Shrek, and Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Planet 51 and the signal comes in loud and clear. It’s the Summer Movie ideal extrapolated out over the entire year. For the warm popcorn fare of May through August, producers pick up on the financial wavelengths viewers send out. More Transformers? Got it? Another dose of The Hangover? No problem. How about a Jonah Hex sequel. Ummm… Indeed, if M. Night Shyamalan walks in the door hoping for a slot between Memorial and Labor Day, it doesn’t take a brainiac to deny his Lady in the Water/The Happening/ Last Airbender request.
We have to remember something else: it’s not just about money. Coin is indeed the chief concern, but it’s also about what you can get away with and still make bank. For example, if Hollywood released a horrifically inexpensive film revolving around a dog scratching itself for 80-minutes, and viewers lined up in droves, and then did so again and again, the very next cycle, a dozen itching mongrel movies would be in the works. It happened with the found footage film ala The Blair Witch Project. Even some 12 years after that influential film’s premiere, we have efforts like The Last Exorcism and Apollo 18 trading on its thrifty cinematic designs. It’s been known for a long time but never begrudges a repeating—the media is no longer about art. It’s all about artifice.
Remember this the next time you walk out of an unsatisfying film and question why it was made in the first place. Recall this when you’re bombarded by ads for movies you can’t imagine being remotely near the concept of good. There are the rare birds getting away with making personal visionary statements for the Cineplex, but it’s almost always as a trade-off for something else (Inception for The Dark Knight Rises, right?). In Hop, the main rodent character actually shits jellybeans, a way of making feces fun for the kiddies (as well as the set-up for the inevitable “Oh look! Yummy candy” joke). As with almost everything the hairy/harey hero does, it’s accepted as part of the story’s sunny delights. The parallel between the scene and the film it’s featured in couldn’t be more clear. Hollywood just keeps putting out the crap, and sadly, audiences just keep eating it up.