Blockbuster Boom: Will It Ever End?

As Hollywood heads into its most expensive summer ever, filmmaker Roland Joffe and others ask if bigger is really better

"Let's open the lens a bit, that's good ... [art photographer] Helmut Newton would be proud," says film director Roland Joffe on the set of his new movie, "Goodbye, Lover."

With actors Patricia Arquette and Don Johnson in the back seat of a tan Infiniti, Mr. Joffe and crew are crafting a key scene for the post-modern-themed, black comedy to be released at summer's end. Artfully framed from below and at a slight tilt - to mimic the wonder of a gazing infant - the scene is painstakingly composed with regard to every curve from elbow to eyebrow.

Unlike directors of the majority of 105 films that will be released between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Joffe is trying to draw audiences the old-fashioned way: without heavy reliance on fast action or special effects.

Amid this summer's unprecedented number of films with production costs of $100 million or more (10 at last count) - with an average cost of $60 million - Joffe is trying to capture his cinematic vision for the bargain-basement price of about $22 million.

"This is precisely the kind and cost of film that is becoming an endangered species for Hollywood's six major studios," says Joffe, a director who has developed a reputation for maintaining an unusually high degree of artistic control over films targeted for the mainstream. His films include "The Killing Fields" (1984), "The Mission" (1986), "Fat Man and Little Boy" (1989), "City of Joy" (1992), and "The Scarlet Letter" (1995).

"[The studios] have become trapped in a form that is to appeal to a market that likes expensive movies ... a certain kind of action movie," says Joffe.

And the familiar trend is growing. The pattern goes like this: Follow the formula of the previous year's successes - blockbusters with special effects; hope that one success out of 10 will help pay for the other nine's red ink; recover investments overseas where audiences are growing, triggered by the building of air-conditioned multiplex theaters in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Last year's "Independence Day," for instance, pulled in $306 million in the United States and $494 million in other countries. Moral: Make more movies without complicated dialogue and, again, with the action/special effects that need no translation.

But as Hollywood's marketing machines gear up to recoup investments in the most expensive summer season in history, the questions being raised loudly from the back lots here are: "How much longer can Hollywood's blockbuster mentality go on?" "What is being elbowed aside in the process?"

Economically, "the query for this summer is pretty basic really," says Len Klady, movie industry analyst for Daily Variety. "How big is the marketplace? How much can it expand?" Last year's summer figures equaled the largest in history: $2.17 billion, up 4 percent from the previous year. But they came hand in glove with the parallel phenomenon of increased average production costs that may be even higher.

Chris Lanier, president of a motion-picture tracking firm known as Motion Picture Intelligencer, estimates this summer's film costs are up from 15 to 20 percent over last year. For those additional costs to be recovered, he says, two unlikely coincidences must follow: The entertainment value of the season's films has to be increased by 20 percent, and theaters must expand their existing headroom.

"Fifteen weeks and 30,000 theaters can't hold ... all [105 summer movies]," wrote Los Angeles Times critic Jack Matthews in a recent commentary.

Despite such observations, studios are as confident as ever, based on increased moviegoing early in the year. "Business this year has been through the roof," says Nikki Rocco, president of Universal Studios distribution. "And that will prevail through the summer."

But underneath a boastful and confident exterior, many here openly wonder what fatalities will ensue as big-money, big-effects pictures steamroll into theaters.

"The most competitive summer ever means the scariest one ever for marketing people," says Martin Grove, movie analyst for the Hollywood Reporter. He notes that Harrison Ford, star of "Air Force One," has publicly asked his producers to avoid the tentative release date of July 25, so as to miss being rammed by "Titanic" - Paramount's most expensive movie ever, at a reported $200 million.

"Because no one yet knows when 'Titanic' will be released," adds Grove, "it's causing a domino effect of concern."

Meanwhile, the long-term effects of such formulaic blockbusters are being openly debated as well. According to Joffe, no less than the future of the big studios themselves is at stake. Big hint No. 1 might be the outstanding critical success at this year's Oscars of movies made by smaller, independent studios - including 4 out of 5 best-picture nominees.

Taking this as their lead, producers, public, and press alike have to start asking pertinent questions of themselves and one another, such as, "How do you define a 'successful movie'?"

"No one has yet convinced me that a successful film is to be judged on the amount of money it made," Joffe says. A more enlightened criterion might be: "Is a movie successful on its own terms? Has it successfully fulfilled its role in meeting a smaller audience without bankrupting its makers? The intrinsic worth of a $100 million movie may be far less than an $800,000 movie."

But it's silly to blame Hollywood moguls, Joffe says, because they are merely agents of an economic structure that must answer to shareholders. Reorganizing such large entities may be irrelevant if it only rearranges people.

Nurturing great producers, independent of studios, is one answer, he says, freeing them from the constraints of merely raising money to pursue films they really want to make. "Producers are the backbone of the industry, but they are dying out because of the unbearable gamble of having to raise so much money," he says. "Some of the independent producers are showing great promise artistically, if they can survive financially."

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