The release of Inception is cause for celebration. Not just because it’s Christopher Nolan’s new film, but because an original science-fiction concept has made it to the screen with big stars, a bigger budget, and a major publicity campaign backing it, despite the prevailing wisdom that films with such attributes must now be based on known properties. If a major success, it may prove to executives that Avatar was no fluke, that audiences will flock to a film without brand awareness if they are sufficiently intrigued. Avatar also went against the norm in delivering a modest opening weekend but then remaining atop the box office for weeks, with strong word of mouth powering it on to become the highest-grossing film of all time. This is the opposite of the sadly-entrenched economic model of a massive opening weekend powered by buzz and marketing followed by a massive drop in sales when word gets out that the film is mediocre (Titanic managed this too. There’s something about Cameron…). If Inception powers onward at the box office, could it be a game-changer?
It sadly feels a little naive to even wonder, but there’s no question that studios will try to replicate any massive hit by any means. The drawback of Avatar‘s success is that they are trying to emulate it in the most superficial ways, most notably 3D. A backlash is already beginning, with audiences disappointed with Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender‘s poor post-converted 3D. This method pales in comparison to Avatar‘s immersive production-sourced 3D, especially when ticket holders are paying a premium. The next live-action film actually filmed in 3D can’t come soon enough if studios hope to turn the tide and prove that the form can endure.
Other lessons from Avatar may take too long to eventuate, as films following the lead of its original SF story – I use original in the technical, marketing sense, as I know many decry Cameron’s cribbing of established texts – will take some time to arrive. Like fantasy films post-Lord of the Rings, the wait may mean none can hope to come close to its level of success, coming too late to join it within the zeitgeist.
But fantasy is a genre and is perhaps not analogous because original ideas prospering at the multiplex is relevant to more than mere content, in that it defies the notion that a film needs in-built product awareness to make money. If this kind of freedom can be maintained, it applies to all genres. Comedy has largely been immune from the trend, as original high-concepts can be easily marketed with a simple hook and often without well-known stars. But as we’ve all seen, dramatic blockbusters have increasingly relied upon TV shows, comics, games, and even theme park rides to form their basis. Despite these precedents, I refuse to believe that as a culture we will plummet so low that movies based on Viewmaster and Monopoly – these are actually in development, the latter with Ridley Scott! – will ever go beyond development hell, let alone make money and capture the imagination, when their stories are fabricated from whole cloth for a toy store brand to be grafted to. I just can’t accept it.
But once again, this may be naive. I think Avatar and Inception may stem the tide a little, but we’re in an unfortunate position on the outside where we can’t possibly know for sure. I’m far from a business expert, but I wonder if a studio determines that its slew of lower-budgeted films with brand awareness collectively produced a bigger profit margin and a greater return on the investment, then Cameron and Nolan’s films will be viewed as happy accidents where the director managed to sell a massively-budgeted film on their own. Executives will believe they dodged a bullet and turn to Facebook applications for movie ideas (after all, a Twitter account is the basis for a new CBS sitcom starring William Shatner…).
It’s easy to be pessimistic about major movie-making these days, but it’s also too easy to tar everything with the same brush. Yes, superhero movies are widely prevalent, but the majority are actually well-written, acted, and produced. Marvel Studios are being highly ambitious in creating an interconnected movie universe, and the brand awareness of Batman enabled Nolan to make the smart and challenging The Dark Knight.
But the drawback in even these cases is that to a large degree we know what to expect. Films like Avatar and Inception restore the mystery to movie anticipation because we have no pre-packaged frame of reference, which worked marvellously for blockbusters past from Star Wars to The Matrix. That kind of movie fandom is hard to experience now, except with lower and moderate-budgeted pictures like Moon and District 9. The increased affordability of credible CGI is a boon to the production values of these films and in many ways they can absolutely compete with their big-budget rivals. But for the mystery to return to massive, event cinema that unites us in intrigue? Wouldn’t that be something…
That’s why Inception is worth your time and your excitement. Avoid plot summaries and walk in with wonder.