Of sequels and Apatow: the movies of summer ’07

By Ethan Stanislawski

Summer ’07 was a smash success for Hollywood. Propelled by a perfect storm of franchise trilogies; one giant, robotic blockbuster; and a surprisingly strong August, Hollywood grossed more than $4 billion for the first time in its history. Hollywood also learned from its mistakes in year two of web 2.0; 2006 showed that Internet hype can build a solid audience (Borat) or create unrealistic expectations (Snakes on a Plane). The studios used Facebook, exclusive trailers and clips, and relations with powerful blogs to promote their films. I spent the summer at Moviefone, monitoring the trends of web hype and Hollywood news, giving me the perfect vantage point from which to note the biggest trends, surprises, and disappointments.

Biggest trends:

The flexible release date. The rule that reviews were not to be published until the Friday release date has been pretty much abolished at this point due to the fact that the major papers have to compete with bloggers and online critics who have published reviews weeks in advance. It got so out of hand that Fox considered suing aintitcoolnews.com for publishing a review by a projectionist who worked on a press screening of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Of course, Hollywood did its part to make the release date ambiguous, as films like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Transformers were released around the world over the course of a week.

Trilogy mania. Spider-Man 3, Pirates 3, Rush Hour 3, Ocean’s 13, Bourne 3—no wonder audiences were complaining of “sequel fatigue” before July. That being said, when only 20 percent of movie franchise revenue comes from the movie itself, brand recognition is a must. As much as fans want to see something new, apparently they like Captain Jack and Peter Parker more. Oh, and there’ll certainly be a Transformers 2 (and 3) coming soon.

Comic Con rules. Once a forum for comic geeks to go wild, the annual San Diego Comic Convention has become an essential part of the movie-going season, right up there with the Oscars and Cannes. The studios were actually fairly conservative with Comic Con ’07, but the media coverage and crowds were unprecedented. We did learn a bit more about J.J. Abrams’s web sensation Project Cloverfield), and we got to see Robert Downey Jr. try on his Iron Man suit. There was also a screenshot of Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and even a frame of the new Batman movie caused comic geeks worldwide to cry out for joy.

Biggest suprises:

Judd Apatow’s magical year. To make both the definitive romantic comedy of a generation and the funniest movie of the decade would be a tremendous career for virtually any filmmaker. Judd Apatow accomplished that over the course of two months. First it was Knocked Up, a raunchy but heartfelt comedy that gets the intricacies of the sexual dynamics of Generation X/Y like Tootsie did for the ’80s and The Graduate for the ’60s. Th–en there was Superbad, co-written by Knocked Up star Seth Rogan, a hilarious teen sex comedy where the laughs stem from the dialogue more than the gags and gross-outs. Superbad is arguably the best-written comedy since The Big Lebowski, and while Apatow was only the producer, he established himself as the leader of the Frat Pack and as a household name.

The Simpsons Movie’s surprise success. No one dismissed the power of the Simpsons franchise, but 18 years of overexposure led some Hollywood moguls to make modest estimates for the movie’s success. Fortunately, ingenious marketing campaigns like turning 7-11s into Kwik-E-Marts and “Simpsonizing” fans caused The Simpsons Movie to kick a football in those moguls’ collective groin, grossing an astounding $74 million its opening weekend and succeeding even more internationally, on its way to over $400 million worldwide. We may not be able to raise a Duff to the fortunes, but now we can legitimately raise a Buzz Cola.

Rats in the kitchen are a good thing. If Judd Apatow was the breakthrough filmmaker of the summer, Brad Bird came in a close second. The veteran of The Simpsons and The Critic turned heads with 2004’s The Incredibles, but with Ratatouille he simply made jaws drop. Ratatouille is not only the best Pixar movie ever, but it’s also the best animated movie since Aladdin, and is by no means limited in appeal to the under-10 crowd. It’s not like Bird didn’t provide challenges to audiences—no one likes rats in kitchens, and it’s set in the hated land of France. But Bird turns Ratatouille into a story of creativity coming from the unlikeliest of places, and cooked up Rotten Tomatoes’ spot of the best reviewed movie of 2007 (did I mention it also made $300 million?)

Biggest Disappointments:

Evan (Not So) Almighty. Apparently, Dumb and Dumberer and Son of the Mask didn’t teach Hollywood that sequels to Jim Carrey movies without Jim Carrey just don’t work. To be fair, there’s no way Steve Carell could have saved this hackneyed flick with no word-of-mouth value. Bruce Almighty was itself a surprise success, but that certainly didn’t justify spending a record amount on a comedy that no one really wanted to see. Fortunately, with Get Smart and another season of The Office on the horizon, Carell will recover more than Universal from the biggest flop of the summer. Universal still hasn’t learned: Expect another Ace Ventura movie in fall 2008.

A Mighty Heart fails. The best movie of the summer you didn’t see is without a doubt Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, retelling the devastating story of reporter Daniel Pearl’s abduction and eventual beheading in Pakistan in 2002. Despite major star power (an Oscar-worthy Angelina Jolie), the film made a paltry $4 million its opening weekend. When people could choose between fake bad guys with huge explosions in Live Free or Die Hard or Transformers or real bad guys with no explosions in A Mighty Heart, the fake proved mightier.

Celebrity gossip gets out of control. First Paris Hilton got into her car. Then Wired reported that even with the Internet, Americans are less informed than they were 20 years ago. Then Lindsay Lohan was, well, Lindsay Lohan. While Jon Stewart may mock CNN cutting from an interview with the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Paris Hilton, CNN would be foolish not to, given the demand. This summer was a massive success for TMZ.com and Perez Hilton, but for just about everyone else, it was a constant barrage of useless information. It may sound like a joke that most of the country complains about over-saturation of celebrity gossip while simultaneously craving it, but it’s true. Next time you complain about it, look in the mirror.