The runaway success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is an ill portent, a sign that something has gone terribly wrong.
By the time you read this, Pirates will have amassed roughly $350 million in grosses at the domestic box office. It had the biggest opening weekend in movie history, was the fastest movie ever to cross the $200 million and $300 million marks, was the first summer movie in four years to remain number one at the box office for three consecutive weeks, and seems destined to finish its run above $400 million. Pirates is more than a film. It is a cultural event despite the fact that, near as I can tell, nobody actually likes the movie.
William Goldman, the great screenwriter of our time, used to lament that the output from Hollywood grows worse annually, making each passing year the worst in the history of movies. I dare you to prove him wrong. As Goldman notes in his book The Big Picture, consider 1946, which was considered at the time a pedestrian year for movies. It saw the release of Notorious, The Killers, The Big Sleep, The Stranger and The Postman Always Rings Twice each of which would have been the Best Picture winner in 2005. None of them was even nominated for Best Picture.
(The Yearling, The Razor's Edge, Henry V and It's a Wonderful Life were nominated; The Best Years of Our Lives won.)
Today we're lucky to have 10 good movies a year; getting two great ones would be like winning the lottery.
It's nobody's fault, really or rather, it's everyone's fault. The names of the studios are the same, but the companies making pictures today are different creatures. They have corporate parents and a different business model. They live in a different economic environment, and they're making a different product.
And the audiences have changed, too.
As Edward Jay Epstein explains in a book also titled The Big Picture, 90 million Americans (out of a population of 151 million) went to the movies during an average week in 1947; 4.7 billion movie tickets were sold that year. Attendance has been steadily declining. In 2003, 34.8 million Americans (out of 290 million) went to the movies during an average week; only 1.57 billion tickets were sold.
Bad for the studios, of course, but what often gets overlooked is the human cost. If ticket sales keep falling, little Suri Cruise might be the only girl in her class without a third private jet.
Yet amid this Hollywood tragedy, one thing has remained constant: the blockbuster. Every once in a while, a movie does so much business that it becomes part of the culture. There's no formula for this sort of thing. A cynical studio executive can manufacture a movie that will make $150 million or so with a reasonable degree of success. A team of scientists working in Burbank have approximated the formula to read: plot = $$$.
But the biggest hits are completely unpredictable. Look at the list of all-time blockbusters adjusted for inflation and there's no pattern at all. The number one movie of all time is Gone with the Wind (1939), which made $1.293 billion in today's dollars. Number two is Star Wars. Number three is The Sound of Music. E.T. clocks in at number four, followed by The Ten Commandments. The rest of the top 20 is filled with pictures ranging from The Exorcist to Snow White, from Jaws to Doctor Zhivago, from The Graduate to The Sting to Raiders of the Lost Ark. On paper, not a single one of them looks like a surefire hit.
But these movies all have one thing in common: They were adored by audiences. They became cultural reference points, touchstones. Phrases, scenes, scores and characters have stayed with us. We loved those movies. We still do.
Contrast that list with the biggest movies from the last decade or so: Titanic, The Phantom Menace, Shrek 2, Spider-Man and now Pirates.
What's remarkable is that these movies aren't even well liked in their own time. With the exception of Titanic, passionately championed by teenage girls, these latter-day movie events have been met with indifference - if not outright revulsion by audiences. And they've left a microscopic cultural footprint. Did you even remember that there was a Shrek 2? Have you been able to forget The Phantom Menace?
Every generation gets the blockbusters it deserves. Our grandparents, the Greatest Generation, got Gone with the Wind, based on a classic novel. The Boomers got The Godfather, based on a work of popular fiction. We get Pirates of the Caribbean, which is based on a theme-park ride.
I'm not sure what, but it certainly be sayin' somethin' savvy?