B-Movies Extended: Bad Movies Make the Most Money

Yup, it's true. Bibbs and Witney try to explain this horrible phenomenon, and what part - if any - film critics have to play in it.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

 

Greeting to you once again, gentle film fans, to another installation of B-Movies Extended, our weekly retread of important material we talked about on The B-Movies Podcast. But then, if you've been following us with any amount of stringency, you know that already. In that case, welcome back. Thanks for listening.

On the last episode (we've now lasted all the way to show number 44, if you can believe it), rather than review any new releases (which were a bit thin on the ground this week), we spent our time recapping the best and most notable films of 1987 (which was indeed selected somewhat arbitrarily). I talked about Full Metal Jacket, Wings of Desire, and Alex Cox's Walker. Bibbs had some important words on Evil Dead 2, House of Games and The Untouchables. Each of these is a fine film, and, should you ask any critic, they would probably agree with us. Neither of us mentioned the film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, The Last Emperor, but it was still a fine film that was worthy of awards.

To match the highfalutin prestige pictures, we also talked about how 1987 was a banner year for horror movies; in addition to Evil Dead 2, one of my favorite horror films Hellraiser, was released that year. We rattled off several titles, from the great to the silly, all of them important and notable in the horror circles where we typically run: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Creepshow 2, House II, The Stepfather. All 1987.
 


 

But here's the curious thing: The top-grossing film of 1987, Three Men and a Baby (which we mentioned), was not on our lists. For those of you who don't know the film (both of you) the rundown is this: it was a remake of a French hit, and featured a trio of swinging bachelors (Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and Steve Gutenberg) living in the big city and enjoying caustic and casual sex, who are suddenly presented with the human offspring of one of said hookups. They must trade in their bachelor lifestyle to become the triple-father of the infant. Comedy ensues. It was directed by Leonard Nimoy. According to the website Box Office Mojo, it has grossed nearly 167 million dollars, which was a clear margin ahead of the second place film, Fatal Attraction.

Critically, the film was met with (and is still often met with) a tepid response. The film was bright and funny enough I guess, but it didn't exactly break new cinematic ground, and many found the premise to be far too ‘boilerplate sitcom’ to be taken seriously. It was nominated for no awards that I could find, and, these days, is considered one in a long string of hacky, crowd-pleasing comedies that Hollywood so often cleaves to. Of course, when set next to recent garbage like Jack and Jill, it comes across as a lost masterpiece.

I'm hardly the first critic, blogger, or film fan to point out the gaping disconnect between what is granted awards, and what mainstream audiences see. Occasionally a film will be a huge financial success in addition to earning massive critical acclaim (Titanic springs to mind, as does The Dark Knight), but a quick glance over the top-grossing films from 1980 to the present reveals very few films that were critical and awards darlings. In 1986, the top-grossing film was Top Gun, a bland and stultifying romance about jet pilots, beloved by thousands. In 1990, Home Alone made millions, and won no awards. In 1996, Independence Day dragged in people by the busload, but is largely considered a really dumb action flick to this day. And I don't think I need to say too much about 1999's Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. The very next year, the number-one grossing film would be Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I saw that one too. What the Hell was wrong with us?
 


 

I'm a film critic. So are many of my friends. It's our job to see movies and write about them. Do film critics know a lot about movies? Some critics are unfathomably impressive stores of cinematic knowledge. Some know the ins-and-outs of film production better than some filmmakers. Many, though, especially in this age of 'bloggers and unpaid online criticism, are not necessarily experts. They just know what they like, and express their opinions in the best way they can. Have all critics gone to film school? No, not all of them have. Is their opinion valid? Isn't everyone's? Here's the only thing you can say for sure about film critics: They have seen more movies than you.

In the case of Bibbs and I, we're also smarter than you.

But from that simple fact – that film critics watch many, many movies – you can at least kind of glean that they have an eye for what film is like. That they perhaps know what the cinematic form is capable of. As a result, they tend to award accolades to film that attempt something different, intelligent, and off the beaten path. Anything that tries to tell a new story, or tell a familiar tale in a new way, often gets critical attention. Critics (if they're doing their job right) are allowing each and every film a chance to take them to a new place. If the film goes to a new place, the critic will often respond accordingly positive. If it's somewhere the critic has been, well, they have to say that in their review.
 


 

Meanwhile, the vast majority of filmgoers are lining up to see the latest Hollywood hit, regardless. There's an old saying in Hollywood: “Audiences like to be surprised, so long as they are surprised in the exact same way as last time.” Most audiences tend to (as evidenced through box office numbers) cleave toward “safe” fare that is well-marketed, features actors they recognize, and situations that are not entirely too off-the-wall. So far this year the top-five grossing films have been Harry Potter 8, Transformers 3, The Hangover II, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, and Twilight 4. Talk about going with the safe bet; they're all sequels. It's rare that a smaller film with unknown stars and a deep look at adult issues will breakout to be the highest-grossing film of the year.  Imagine, for instance if something moody, gorgeous and philosophical like Into the Wild was the top-grossing film of 2007 instead of Spider-Man 3.

Does this mean that critics and award-givers are hopelessly out of touch? Well, I'm certainly not the first to ask that question, and I will certainly not be the last. I'm also not the first to make this observation: Critics tend to have different agendas when it comes to watching movies. Critics are, as I have said above, looking for something new, rather than something familiar. To explode a myth: Critics do look forward to big action blockbuster movies as much as you do. But it's our job to be honest and to point out how we felt about the movies. We have to let the film do the talking. We can look forward to it all we like, but we ultimately have to judge the film on its own merits and its own merits alone. If it has cultural context, we'll try to point that out as well. As a result, a big-grossing action blockbuster may be panned by critics (Transformers: Dark of the Moon has been pretty widely reviled) who see the film as usual, sloppy, and lacking the panache of better action films. The millions who saw the film read the review, and will accuse the critic of being snotty, or elitist. “Out-of-touch” is used a lot. Some have even accused critics of outright hating movies because they tend to (and this is a vague prejudice) write against high-grossing movies.

It's not the critic's job to match popular opinion. It's the critic's job to analyze film. Often, you'll find, a critic's opinion will match yours. Sometimes not. If they're a good critic, though, they will make their opinions, reasons, arguments, and analyses as clear as they can. If they like a film, they may be moved to ecstatic passion, intellectual insight, and glorious emotional movement. They like to see a film do something amazing. Here's another thing you can say for sure about critics: They love movies.
 


 

If they don't match the popular opinion of filmgoers, though, what function do critics serve? Well, we offer our opinions, keep a dialogue about film open, and, if we're any good, will guide you toward films we feel are worthwhile. The trick is to find a critic you trust (not necessarily agree with, mind you, but trust), and listen to what they have to say. Let them introduce you to new films, or offer their slant on a big-budget one you're planning on seeing anyway. We're not trying to rain on anyone's parade here. We're trying to point you to the good stuff.

Anyway, this little argument has mushroomed into a screen defending the critic, and I apologize if I sound defensive. Just know that when the bulk of critics hate a film, there might be something to that. If you don't trust  critics as a unit (and I've heard many people claim that they “don't trust/read/like critics”), choose only one to read. They'll talk to you about their favorite movies.

Where to find some critics? I hear there are some around here worth looking at…


NEXT: Bibbs talks Apple Jacks, transexuals, "Hershey Squirties" and the difference between when film critics say a movie is "good" and when everyone else does…


 

FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:


I promise you this: Hollywood thinks you’re stupid. Oh yes. They won’t say it to your face, but actions speak louder than words, and they made Jack and Jill. I think that should be evidence enough. But can you blame them? Americans have paid upwards of $64 million just for the privilege of seeing Jack and Jill. Some of them even laughed at the “Hershey Squirties” scene. Yes, it’s insulting to all of us, and we’re paying them to do it. Which brings us back to the seemingly harmless 1987 blockbuster Three Men and a Baby.

Our discussion of Three Men and a Baby, probably the longest on record since 1987, has veered quite neatly into something a little more relevant: the (often vast) chasm between what’s good and what makes money. When film critics discuss a film’s quality, they’re not talking about what you simply enjoy. Those old “Apple Jacks” commercials make the argument pretty neatly: Apple Jacks, the parents notice, are an inferior product. They correctly observe that the cereal doesn’t even taste like apples, so they ask their kids a reasonable, straightforward question: Why do they eat the stupid things? The children have no cogent argument whatsoever, and finally fall back on the most simplistic, pathetic defense imaginable: “We eat what we like.” And yes, you have every right to eat what you like, but that doesn’t make it “good.” When I talk to people who claim to have loved Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, for example, they use the word “good” like I use the word “edible.”
 


Film critics are responsible for seeing every movie and warning you against the horrors they find. The world is flooded with entertainment these days, and most of us don’t have the time to see everything. But all of us seek entertainment, and we don’t want absolute crap… usually. So yes, we have film critics. I prefer the Anton Ego defense, which states that the true job of a critic isn’t to complain about the bad art but to locate and champion the good, but it usually doesn’t matter. The Smurfs made $561 million this year, and I promise you that the critics had nothing to do with that. I would be surprised to learn that anyone who decided to see The Smurfs consulted Glenn Kenny about their decision. Did anyone who actually paid to see that… thing… think that they were going to enjoy the experience? Of course not, but it was mainstream and “safe” and suitable for children. Oh, it’s the worst possible thing for your children’s brains, but at least there aren’t any naughty words or questionable themes or anything else that could potentially give the little scallywags an identifiable personality somewhere down the line.

I digress. I’m not going to defend or vilify critics for being “out of touch.” Film critics are in a unique position to absorb so many movies that they have higher standards than the average filmgoer. Sometimes unreasonably high, if I’m being honest. A lot of filmgoers don’t watch enough movies to acknowledge the difference between competent and pedestrian entertainments and genuinely excellent ones, and of course they’re okay with that. I wouldn’t know a bottle of 2011 Charles Shaw from a 1947 Cheval Blanc (hell, I had to do a Google search just to come up with that second example), but I don’t particularly care, because I’m just out to get drunk. And when it comes to movies, most people just want to be entertained. Not enlightened, not intellectually stimulated, just amused by a halfway competent narrative, breezy jokes (often about breaking wind, appropriately enough) and explosions. This is fine. Really. Again, we eat what we like.
 


But… That doesn’t make it good, either in taste or nutritional value. I hate vegetables as much as the next guy, but if I don’t eat them once in a while my body will shut down. It’s the same thing with intellectual stimulus: if you don’t exercise your brain, you get stupid. Most people see movies as an escape from mental exercise, and that’s okay. That’s why we have a lot of different kinds of movies. There’s a place for simplistic entertainment and there’s a place for excellent stuff as well. And any critic worth their salt will be able to put aside their standards once in a while to appreciate a genuinely entertaining piece of crap, even if the other critics get on them for it. I still take heat for liking Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and as well I should. I have no defense, aside from the fact that it was better than the last Transformers movie, and… well, and that I ate it and liked it. All I ask is that if you like crap, don’t say that it’s “good.” It’s okay if Oreos are your favorite cookie, but don’t deny that they’re made with hooves.

Time, really, is the greatest film critic of all. Audiences were initially kind to Three Men and a Baby, but time has higher standards. It’s still a mildly entertaining pap of a movie, but it didn’t stay in the public consciousness the way that genuinely good films from 1987 did, like Robocop, Predator and The Princess Bride. But time takes its sweet time writing its reviews, so that’s why we film critics are here, to try – usually to no avail – to knock some sense into you before you do something you regret. Again, like parents. I wish I’d listened to my parents and learned to play the damned piano instead of watching Tiny Toons all day. If I had, I’d have developed an impressive skill that I could use to pick up chicks years later. Similarly, if you’d spent your hard-earned money to see The Tree of Life instead of The Hangover Part II, you’d have some interesting insight into the nature of the universe in your memory banks, instead of a throng of transsexual penises taking up the same valuable space. If you really want transsexual penises, you can find them for free on the internet anyway. Eat what you like, I say. But don’t blame us for liking the good stuff.