Summer film: Batman saves the season, a little Sex doesn't hurt

Independent films went south, but thank the Knight for the blockbuster

And so another summer movie season comes to an end, not with a bang but a whimper. What else to call four new releases (Babylon A.D. , Bangkok Dangerous, College, and Disaster Movie) in the past 10 days that their distributors didn't even bother to pre-screen for critics? These are, literally and figuratively, the annual dog days, when the mercury rises and studios satisfy contractual obligations to their unloved stepchildren—movies they made (or bought), then thought twice about and decided to dispose of as quietly as possible during those two weeks of the year when most in the industry (like their shrinks) are on vacation. Besides, by the time Labor Day rolled around, Hollywood had already had plenty of bang for its summer box-office buck, with cumulative ticket sales on track to meet or exceed last summer's $4.16 billion record. Never mind the usual fine print that ticket prices were higher than ever, actual attendance numbers down, and the value of a greenback so diminished that Variety might as well start reporting weekly grosses in pesos. How do you say The Dark Knight en español?

It was, of course, Gotham City's resident man in black who almost singlewingedly accounted for those third-quarter earnings. As the box-office soothsayers have already pointed out, The Dark Knight never really posed that much of a threat to Titanic's longstanding box-office crown, neither domestically (where The Dark Knight is still more than $100 million behind the sinking ship's $600 million purse) nor internationally (where it's about $1 billion short of the high-water mark). But did any industry analyst seriously think that an explicitly violent, R-rated superhero movie could unseat James Cameron's new-millennium Gone with the Wind?

What is significant about The Dark Knight is that it is a much better movie than most of its superhero type—cast with real actors; handsomely, atmospherically directed by Christopher Nolan; and generally more interested in matters of human psychology than in the nuances of product placement. We all know you can make a shitty franchise movie and still make out like a bandit (or a Caribbean pirate). But with any luck, The Dark Knight has served to remind the Hollywood suits that, sometimes, there are extra rewards in store if a popular audience movie also takes the audience seriously.

Batman has major B.O.: Box office for Knight, with Christian Bale, has topped $500 million
Stephen Vaughan
Batman has major B.O.: Box office for Knight, with Christian Bale, has topped $500 million

Not that the past three months have been happy ones for everyone in Tinseltown. While the executives at Warner Brothers (which produced and released The Dark Knight) and Paramount (responsible for Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) were feeling secure about their Christmas bonuses, those same studios were scaling back or altogether dismantling their pseudo-independent "specialty" divisions—those must-have accessories that every studio in town went out to get after Disney bought Miramax, but which have since come to be seen as costly luxury items, like the gas-guzzling SUVs drivers have been unloading ever since the price of oil began to look like the budget of a Michael Bay movie.

In May, Warner president Alan Horn announced that the studio would be shutting down not only its four-year-old Warner Independent Pictures (Good Night and Good Luck) but also Picturehouse (Pan's Labyrinth), another mini-major inherited by Warner during its acquisition of New Line. Barely a month later, Paramount announced that it was consolidating the production, marketing, and distribution arms of its own Paramount Vantage (There Will Be Blood) with those responsible for handling its regular Paramount-branded product. And by summer's end, the blogosphere was abuzz with rumors that financial problems at the Weinstein Company were partly responsible for prompting Quentin Tarantino to seek major-studio backing for his forthcoming Inglorious Bastards (albeit with Harvey still attached as a producer).

In all these cases, a tough economy was blamed, but there was also grousing that the American independent sector wasn't what it once was, as evidenced by the failure-to-launch of several costly Sundance pickups, including Vantage's Son of Rambow and American Teen and WIP's Clubland. Indeed, the biggest surprise of the 2008 summer movie season may have been that, while the big studios seemed to be taking some genuine artistic risks—not just The Dark Knight but Iron Man and especially Wall-E—the so-called indies seemed to be following an outmoded playbook. Or, put another way, when a company with "vantage" in its name follows up There Will Be Blood with the saccharine Rambow and a sub-MTV cliché fest like Teen, there's significant cause for alarm. No wonder filmmakers like Nolan and Iron Man's Jon Favreau, who cut their teeth on ambitious, low-budget indies, are now queuing up for the biggest of the big-studio movies and—lo and behold—doing a much better job at them than the dime-a-dozen music-video wunderkinder who proliferated in those jobs throughout the 1990s.

Last but certainly not least, there was the curious case of the proverbial chick flick, which roared back with a vengeance this summer in the form of Sex and the City and Mamma Mia!.

Actually, it's not so curious when you pause to consider that women—like many other minorities—are so chronically underserved and underrepresented by Hollywood (even in an era that has seen many studios and production companies run by women) that when a movie finally comes along unapologetically targeted at them, it almost doesn't matter whether it's any good or not. The mere fact that it's there is enough.

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