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At big screens, summer business has been brisk

Carrie Rickey
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

With box office up 10 percent this summer over last, the Debbie Downers who were wringing their hands two years ago about moviegoers abandoning multiplexes for home theaters have changed their tune.

"It was a record-breaking summer in terms of revenue," says Paul Dergarabedian of Media by Numbers, which tracks the box office. The analyst projects a $4.15 billion take between May Day and Labor Day, with overall attendance up 5 percent over last year.

"Threequels" such as "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" each reeled in more than $300 million. "Transformers," "Knocked Up" and "Hairspray" (each over $100 million) and "Superbad" all proved irresistible audience bait.

While attendance did not smash records, it was the first time in two years that ticket sales topped the 600 million mark. Dergarabedian estimates that 605 million tickets will be sold this summer, falling short of the 650 million in 2002. Then, the average ticket price was $5.80. Today it is $6.85, which accounts for the boost in revenue. (If that sounds low, understand that the average factors in lower-priced kid, senior and daytime tickets.)

Why is this summer different from all other summers? No World Cup or Olympics to compete for viewer time, for starters. But overall, it looks to be a case of familiarity breeding content.

Movie ticket buyers knew what they were getting with "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" ($283 million at the domestic box office) and "Live Free or Die Hard" ($132 million). Pop phenoms such as "Transformers" ($308 million), "The Simpsons Movie" ($173 million) and "Hairspray" ($107 million and counting) likewise arrived in theaters with high brand recognition.

Perhaps habituated by television, moviegoers enjoyed familiar characters in new contexts. During the summer of `07 Spider-Man contemplated marriage, Shrek impending fatherhood, and Capt. Jack Sparrow his navel.

If audiences liked what Dergarabedian calls the "comfort factor" of the summer's movie fare, they also liked the coming-of-age recipes cooked up by Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed "Knocked Up" ($147 million) and produced "Superbad" ($68 million and counting), two surprise hits. And while we're working the food metaphor, "Ratatouille," the original about the rat who becomes a chef, is closing in on $200 million.

In at least one important way, the summer of 2007 is like all others of the last two decades. Women and girls were marginal figures in the many adventure, action and coming-of-age films. In the few movies with women, they tended to be girlfriends-of (Kirsten Dunst in "Spider-Man," Katherine Heigl in "Knocked Up") or sidekicks (Keira Knightley in "Pirates," Emma Watson in "Harry Potter," Joan Allen in "The Bourne Ultimatum").

Similarly, once you got past Don Cheadle in "Ocean's 13," Queen Latifah in "Hairspray," Chow Yun-Fat in "Pirates" and Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in "Rush Hour 3," there were surprisingly few people of color in major roles on the multiplex screen. Exceptions were Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the excellent "Talk to Me," which failed to find an audience.

But just because it was a great summer, warns veteran Hollywood reporter Len Klady of moviecitynews.com, "doesn't mean the trend away from movies in theaters isn't happening." It only means that those preoccupied with writing the movie theater's obituary may be a few years, or even a generation, early.

Studios make about 16 percent of their revenues from showing films in theaters, about 47 percent from DVD sales and rentals, and the remainder from on-demand and television.

"Movies in theaters are loss leaders, much like hardback books in publishing," Klady explains. In other words, many movies don't make their costs back in theaters but the attendant publicity and buzz stimulate later sales (DVD and pay cable) that will make them profitable. Yet in this summer of the threequel, the summer when "four movies made $300 million-plus, many titles have gone into profit during their theatrical runs.

So for the moment, Hollywood is Jollywood and looking forward to breaking more records, including last year's $9.5 billion box office.

"Now that we've had a $4 billion summer," says Dergarabedian, "it may very well mean that we could have a $10 billion year."

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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