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Summer Splendor

Summer means trips to the beach, county fairs, outdoor cookin' and 16 weeks of movies so utterly predictable that there's almost no point in heading to the multiplex--at least for film critics.

It's always one Julia Roberts comedy, one Eddie Murphy remake, one film with an inflated sense of self-importance (Gladiator Harbor), a few mindless explosion or speed flicks that usually involve Nicholas Cage (Face/Off in 60 Seconds on The Rock), the animated movie that wishes it were The Lion King (Pocahontas: the Lost Hunchback of Notre Dame), the disaster/dinosaur movie (The Perfect Jurassic Armageddon Impact Storm) and a few movies that can be considered comedy or drama depending how funny you find models trying to act serious (The Fast and the 54) or how seriously frightened you are about Hollywood's inability to deliver an intelligent comedy (There's Something About Maverick).

There is an occasional ray of light. It's usually something Spielbergian--but not A.I.--or a newer director shocks us a la The Sixth Sense or The Blair Witch Project. But lately, summer films have become as predictable as--well--summer. But is there a method to this badness?

Studios are understandably reluctant to admit they are producing the same crap they made the year before. But they will admit that they are making summer crowd pleasers and films guaranteed to score a $100 million. What's wrong with that? If you consider that consumer choices do change the movie industry from year to year (Note the absence of Batman flicks since the disastrous fourth installment tanked), there is nothing inherently reprehensible about the studios' behavior. Judging by the past, the American public needs--no, desires--a few safe summer movies that they can depend on each year to show them a good time and let them mentally detach. Film studios use the same market forces that the rest of the economy runs on--from the automobile industry to the cereal aisle. People like certain types of products every year and often shrink away from change. Summer movies are the studios' way of meeting a simple human demand: comfort. Just like a Honda Accord.

Summer movies serve a much larger purpose: making ridiculous amounts of money. While the costs of marketing and producing a summer movie are high, some expensive films often offset the costs of hordes of less successful (but critically better films) in the fall/winter season.

Executives correctly assert that for a studio to take a gamble on a You Can Count on Me or a Requiem for a Dream, they need to have some big-time summer successes.

The ability to experiment is important in the natural movie quality cycle (similar to the economic cycle). Look at 1997 and 1998, when the box office exploded (especially at Fox and Paramount, who shared a Titanic success). What followed? 1999--arguably the best year for film innovation since the late 1970s. What happened in 2000? After an increase in production in 1999, funded by the previous two years of boom (which were ho-hum themselves, with Titanic and Shakespeare in Love winning best picture honors), 2000 was the worst year for movies since 1995--when movies were so bad that Braveheart won Oscars. Before 1995? There were three years of critical success (Schindler's List, The Remains of the Day, Pulp Fiction) preceded by the mostly lousy films of 1991. This cycle can be followed back to the mid O70s, when the summer movie cycle was born.

It is worth noting that the good-vs.-bad-year cycle has been shrinking, down to just a one-year swing. If the cycle continues in this direction, then in all likelihood, Hollywood will have to change things around, as it's unlikely that audiences will hunger for that much comfort food. (We do eventually trade in our Honda Accords for Toyota Camrys.)

Film critics often get in a tizzy thinking about the repetitive nature of summer movies. Our inability to look objectively at summer films is starting to show, as all kinds of really bad films are becoming critic proof. Instead of panning almost everything that opens from May to August, critics should try to be more objective about the quality of summer movie compared to its contemporaries and predecessors--not to the movies that they are hoping for in the fall. You'll never get film critics to admit mistakes in the way they graded a film (present company included), but with a little encouragement, and some sharp letters to the editor, audiences can make a strong statement, and help these abused summer films get the ounce of respect they deserve.

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