(CNN) — What did Leonard Maltin think of the 2013 summer movie season?
“I’m glad it’s almost over,” the longtime reviewer and “Movie Guide” author tells CNN in a phone interview. “The movies get bigger and dumber every year, and we’re subjected to more remakes and sequels. None of which means that they can’t be good — and occasionally they are — but this has not been a very fortuitous season.”
He wasn’t alone in this belief. Audiences felt the same way: Many of this summer’s big-budget franchise flicks — the so-called “tentpoles” — fell like redwood trees toppling in a forest, earning generally poor reviews and equally mediocre box office despite their blockbuster costs and wall-to-wall marketing efforts.
You know the list: “After Earth,” “Pacific Rim,” “White House Down,” “Elysium,” “R.I.P.D.” and, particularly, “The Lone Ranger,” which grossed $88 million domestically (through August 25) on its $200 million-plus budget and could cost Disney a $190 million writedown.
But wait a minute.
This summer wasn’t actually so bad, says Keith Simanton, managing editor of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com). Domestic box office was actually up by a double-digit percentage over last summer, and thanks to the strength of such films as “Iron Man 3,” “Despicable Me 2,” the divisive but successful “Man of Steel” and “Fast & Furious 6,” 2013 as a whole is now even with last year.
IMDb’s editors say that 2013 could be better, domestically, than 2012, which was the biggest box-office year in movie history.
“Every year we complain about the same thing,” says Simanton. “We were complaining about this back in the ’80s, when there was ‘Ghostbusters 2’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ — my God, there are no new ideas in Hollywood. No, and there never have been. Everyone looks at their own era and thinks they’re going to hell in a handbasket.”
Can Maltin and Simanton both be right? Was the summer of 2013 both the best of times and the worst of times?
Perhaps, suggests producer Lynda Obst, it was indeed a tale of two summers. It started out well, with both good reviews and good business for the May and June releases, and then quickly fell apart under the weight of all those wannabe blockbusters.
Obst, the author of the recently published industry chronicle “Sleepless in Hollywood,” has a term for it: “tentpole fatigue.”
“Movies that come out in May and June are hotly anticipated because people look forward to the summer movies in the very beginning,” she says.
And then, well, the wreckage starts piling up.
The best-laid plans …
On paper, summer 2013 looked rather well-balanced. There were the fanboy favorites, including “Iron Man 3,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel.” There were a few family films, such as “Despicable Me 2” and “Monsters University.”
Throw in comedies such as “The Heat” and “Hangover Part III,” a high-octane Western in “Lone Ranger,” another of the ubiquitous “Fast & Furious” crime-and-car adventures and even a new version of “Great Gatsby,” and there appeared to be something for everyone.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. What ended up being laid in 2013 were a lot of eggs.
Take “After Earth,” a Will Smith movie that grossed just $60 million domestically. “It sold Will Smith but it was really his son, and his son doesn’t have a following,” says Obst.
Or take “White House Down,” which — despite an allegedly surefire cast led by Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx — had the misfortune of coming out just three months after “Olympus Has Fallen,” another story about an attack on the White House. “Olympus” made almost $100 million; “White House Down,” with a much bigger budget, made just $70 million.
“We’ve just seen the White House blow up too many times,” says Obst. “It just felt incredibly familiar.”
Indeed, that explosive repetition may be playing a role in the fatigue audiences felt as the summer wore on. CGI is an amazing technology, but there’s only so much destruction audiences can watch before it all starts to blend together. “Man of Steel” destroyed New York — OK, Metropolis — yet again, right down to the fancy filigree on the sides of its skyscrapers. “Star Trek” ripped up San Francisco. “World War Z,” “Pacific Rim,” “After Earth,” “Elysium” — all featured massive, dystopian chaos.
“I think that this is a big problem with the whole summer and with the tentpoles that were made for this summer,” says Obst. “There was a sense that we’ve seen it all before. How many times can you see the same cities being blown up? They all seem to mirror the same sensibility.”
It’s not a sensibility that’s going away anytime soon, however.
For one thing, points out IMDb’s Simanton, audiences like seeing things blow up: in a video-game society, it’s a way to attract the loyal teenage boy demographic. For another, it’s expected. Screenwriter and producer Damon Lindelof (“Prometheus,” “World War Z”) gave an interview to New York magazine in which he confessed being “slightly turned off” by what he called “destruction porn.”
At the same time, he cautioned, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world.”
And then there’s the overseas market, which has become a huge player in the box office game.
It’s not just action movies, which are supposed to travel well. Simanton points out that “Despicable Me 2” has done better overseas than in the United States. So has “Now You See Me” and “The Great Gatsby.” The international box office, he says, “will continue to grow as a multiplier.”
In the overseas success of those unlikely films may be a sign that Hollywood’s current blow-’em-up summer strategy may change. Right now international audiences still love the action films — as Obst notes in her book, China and Russia built all these movie theaters, and they like to fill them with the latest 3-D bells and whistles — but even non-U.S. audiences may be growing weary of so much destruction, she says.
“If you look at the Chinese market since the time I wrote the book, they’ve made three blockbusters of their own, none of which rely on these special effects. They’re romantic comedies (and) movies with nuance,” she says. “The market in China wants of their own filmmakers the same kind of movies we love from our best filmmakers.”
Maltin agrees. “It’s always story and character that wins out,” says the critic. “Even in an action movie. Witness ‘The Avengers.’ “
And it wasn’t as if character was completely ignored this summer, he adds. Maltin enjoyed “World War Z,” which faced down gossipy vultures and emerged a success with both critics and audiences. He liked “The Heat,” another demonstration of Melissa McCarthy’s comedic skills. Obst credits “Fast & Furious 6’s” success to the camaraderie between the film’s crew.
So will summer 2013 have any impact on future summer seasons, which (hello, Ben Affleck!) already have their own tentpoles in development? Much was made of Steven Spielberg’s pronouncement that the failure of a few tentpoles could change the American movie business, but it’s still a long way down. Besides, the August releases that have succeeded, including “The Butler” and “We’re the Millers,” indicate that playing small(-budget) ball can still pay off handsomely.
Simanton suspects that, in fact, late August and Labor Day — traditionally the dregs of the movie season — might start proving viable for certain kinds of films. The One Direction concert film, which opens August 30, will test his theory about redefining the bounds of the summer season, he says.
And if not? Well, there’s always revisionist history. Already the French are praising “Lone Ranger” and the Chinese are boosting “Pacific Rim.” Meanwhile, “Star Trek” fans named “Into Darkness” the worst of the “Trek” films at a Las Vegas convention — despite its standing as one of a handful of summer films to top $200 million at the box office.
As screenwriter William Goldman put it in the truest words ever written about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.”
So, when you think about summer 2013 — for all the CGI destruction, for all the sequels, for all the superheroes and space visitors and foolproof studio strategies — the past may be no guide to what will work in the future.
“The lessons are,” says Maltin, “there are no lessons.”