The golden age of dross

Audiences have shown time and again that they have an amazing appetite for drivel

AGAINST THE odds, Hollywood is having a grand old summer. This was supposed to be the year in which The Phantom Menace, the new Star Wars episode, would obliterate everything else in sight. This was supposed to be a year of downsizing, in which the spiralling costs of production and the ever more unbearable risk of a major flop would cause the big studios to slash their budgets, their staff and their output - if they hadn't done so already.

Most uncomfortably, with the entertainment industry taking the heat for an escalating series of school shootings committed by deranged, media- saturated teenagers, this was supposed to be the year in which Hollywood's blockbuster recipe of big explosions and grandiose special effects would go seriously out of fashion.

It hasn't happened that way. Instead, the hits have just kept rolling out, week after week. For sure, The Phantom Menace made a big impact - after 11 weeks in cinemas its US box-office takings have passed $400m, making it either the second- or the third-highest-grossing film of all time, depending how you calculate it.

But the success of George Lucas's much-hyped space opera has hardly eclipsed the rest of the field. Notting Hill, the new Austin Powers movie, Disney's animated version of Tarzan, various teenage sex comedies and even Stanley Kubrick's brooding swan-song Eyes Wide Shut - all of them have either turned a healthy profit already or are well on their way to doing so. Overall movie receipts for the year so far are markedly up on 1998 - quite an achievement, considering that the first half of last year was dominated by the all-time box-office champion, Titanic.

There is something faintly unsettling about this success story, however, for the awkward reason that many of this summer's hit films are - not to put too fine a point on it - crap. Of course, there's nothing new about films surviving the indignity of a critical drubbing to hit it big. Audiences have shown time and again that they have an amazing appetite for drivel, as long as it is drivel that appeals to them on some mysterious, strangely inscrutable level. Remember The Bodyguard, the one where Kevin Costner sported an even sillier haircut than usual and got into a bad-acting contest with Whitney Houston? A monster hit. Or Legends of the Fall? Or Sleeping With the Enemy?

This year, though, there is a curious new phenomenon emerging, and that is the terrible film that makes pots of money even though the audience hates it too.

Most salient case in point: the pseudo-historical fantasy advent-ure Wild Wild West, which dominated the Independence Day weekend and has been cashing in very nicely ever since. The film is based on an old, Sixties- era television series, in which two contrasting heroes armed with modern technological paraphernalia do battle against the baddies of the Old West circa 1870. Will Smith and Kevin Kline take the leads, with help from Kenneth Branagh as a wheelchair-bound evil genius and Selma Hayek as the obligatory whore with a heart of gold.

Unfortunately, though, there is no script to speak of, a hopelessly lame plot, far too many fancy gadgets and - in a film that relies on generating plenty of hip banter between the principals - about the same level of on-screen chemistry that you'd expect between a large rock and a slide rule. The critics trashed it, Internet forum participants trashed it, sample groups of cinema-goers all trashed it, yet the film took a breathtaking $50m in its first five days. It has now moved past the $100m mark - not enough to recoup an initial outlay estimated at about $160m, but still a respectable salvage operation on an unspeakably shoddy piece of work.

What do these bizarre box-office figures tell us? In the case of Wild Wild West, Will Smith is clearly a big enough star - after his previous 4 July hits, Independence Day and Men in Black - to lure his fans out to just about anything. He is popular enough to be able to afford the odd dud. But sheer star power is not enough to explain the broader phenomenon. Over the past two weeks, for example, two films without any obvious big- name draw have achieved hit status despite being roundly condemned by both critics and ordinary cinema-goers.

The first of these was The Haunting, a lavish remake of the old Sixties horror movie starring Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta Jones. In the hands of the director Jan De Bont, of Speed and Twister fame, the performances are wooden and the inevitable special effects serve only to weigh the film down. The entertainment journal Variety said the film "stands as yet another illustration of the fact that all the money in Hollywood can't necessarily buy imagination, resourcefulness, wit or, apparently, a decent script".

Poor word of mouth ahead of the opening suggested that DreamWorks, the fledgling studio co-founded by Steven Spielberg, was going to have an $80m flop on its hands. But then The Haunting took $33m in its first three days, beating the box-office opening of Spielberg's own prizewinning Saving Private Ryan this time last year. The second recent surprise hit was Disney's Inspector Gadget, a live-action version of the television cartoon series starring Matthew Broderick. Once again, a studio had looked nostalgically to TV to generate a movie idea. Once again, special effects got in the way of telling a decent story - or so trial audiences thought. The film has taken $55m in two weeks, largely thanks to flocks of pre-teens dragging their parents behind them.

If critics and audiences aren't liking these films, why on earth are they doing so well? One inescapable conclusion is that the ever more powerful marketing departments of the major studios are simply buying their opening weekends by means of relentless promotion. Who cares if Wild Wild West is no good, when there's the Will Smith hip-hop theme song and the tie- in video to look forward to? Why worry that Inspector Gadget is a disappointment, if it has slotted itself into a hole in the summer schedule when there are no other films for younger children around?

For sure, this has been the year of canny salesmanship, whether we are talking about Stanley Kubrick's meticulously planned advertising campaign for Eyes Wide Shut, which misled audiences into thinking it to be a hot- blooded erotic thriller, or the clever niche marketing for The Haunting and its early summer predecessor in horror, The Mummy. In a sign of the times, The Los Angeles Times recently wrote a piece about a cult low-budget horror film packing cinemas across the country, called The Blair Witch Project. It did not focus on the director or the actors, but rather paid tribute to the "marketing wizard" who had made it so popular.

Imagine a newspaper writing a generation ago about The Godfather, or Taxi Driver, or The Sting, in terms of marketing strategies, and the absurdity of it makes you realise how much movies have changed. In Hollywood, people are divided on what the rise of marketing means. There are those who see it as a genuinely black art, in which sheer spending-power can buy box-office success, much as politicians can win elective office by outspending their opponents; it's the exposure that counts, with content a secondary consideration.

Then there are those who subscribe to the famous line in William Goldman's book about Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade: "Nobody knows anything." In other words, the marketeers can spend and spend, but ultimately even they have no idea which films will take off and which won't. Why did audiences punish themselves by seeing Wild Wild West when they knew they wouldn't like it? Who knows?

If we audiences really have abdicated responsibility for our own judgement, though, it can't be good news. If intelligent criticism and audience discernment die, it can't be long before cinema itself becomes a truly sick form of entertainment.

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