'G.I. Joe: Retaliation,' above, was supposed to open this weekend until the studio decided to push it back at the last minute.
It’s worth taking a step back and remember that "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" was slated to open this week, before instead of being sent to the bush leagues of next winter. When we take that step back, we see reality for the horror it is: Toy and game manufacturer Hasbro has become a major Hollywood player. Hasbro
. You may have thought at one point or another that the Hollywood bar couldn’t get any lower. Then this
Maybe it’s just a phase, right? After all, "Battleship" disappointed at the box office, and the "G.I. Joe" sequel seems destined to do the same. But together, the "Transformers" movies, "G.I. Joe" and "Battleship" have earned well over $3 billion. (That's more than the GNP of France. Just saying). In Hollywood they call this "we’re just getting started."
"Stretch Armstrong" and "Candy Land" are in inauspicious pre-production, with "Monopoly," "Ouija," "Clue," "Risk" and a Tonka Truck movie in development. Add in the theatrical diaper rash of the "Dungeons & Dragons" and "Pokemon" franchises, and we're faced, at best, with far more toy-derived cinema than could be healthy or sensible, and at worst with the beginnings of an age when the commercial medium will be entirely devoted to cross-selling products intended for eight-year-olds.
This scans just like a satiric dystopia’s idea of how idiotic and craven Hollywood could become in some terrifying future world. After all, basing nine-figure-budgeted movies on a G.I. Joe doll or the 2-D Battleship game is kinda like basing a $100 million opera on a Playskool xylophone. It's not impossible, but it should be illegal. But with fewer and fewer movies being produced, and the ones that do get greenlit vacuuming up more and more money, the Hasbro stake is not a phenomenon to be taken lightly.
"Big, stupid and pandering can thrive up to a tipping point, and then the grownups take over."
When these things demand Nero-like sums, they also demand that a huge percentage of the country's dwindling screens play them. Naturally, that means fewer real films get produced and shown instead. In many ways the theatrical industry is a zero-sum game, with a set amount of resources, screens and paying ticket buyers. Seeking out alternative films and alternative modes of consumption is a natural reaction to this dynamic, and will be only more so in the days to come. If Hollywood history has taught us anything -- with the rise of expensive, ballooning epics in the '30s and the late '50s-early '60s answered swiftly by the savvier, leaner, films of the '40s and the late '60s-early '70s -- it's that big, stupid and pandering can thrive up to a tipping point, and then the grownups take over. If it wasn't for the budget-busting popularist ambitions behind the Golden Age Hollywood-studio epic, we might not have film noir or the American New Wave, at least not as the full-on Zeitgeists they became.
But in those eras the biggest, most expensive movies were not about toys. Honestly, there will always be an alternative to "Battleship," even if it's fishtanks and vengeance daydreams. (Or playing Battleship itself, which is still not unfun - and if you can find its '70s four-level, three-dimensional extrapolative spinoff SubSearch, which I found pretty immersive as a kid, jump on it.)
Viewers already seemed to have figured out that there are options to "Battleship," and not just "The Avengers" or "Madagascar 3." The top 20 for 2012 so far include "Moonrise Kingdom," "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Crooked Arrows," "Polisse" and "God Bless America," none of which could be mistaken for a hollow-skull franchise cash-in.
We can only hope the wrecking ball will swing in the right direction, but the kind of thinking that translates "bendable action figure" into "massive franchise-herd of cash cows" doesn't dissipate easily in Santa Monica. Besides, Hasbro has a preposterously deep shelf of products.
Nobody should be surprised if we hear about story meetings on "Operation: The Movie" (it's too early to cast, but can we think about Seth Rogen as the patient?) or the $100 million "Don't Break the Ice," complete with "green" messaging and obligatory CGI polar bears. "Stratego" seems such a natural; the Napoleonic Wars are ripe for rebranding. Once we're there, "Hungry Hungry Hippos" - maybe with DreamWorks Animation and the Madagascar script team? - can't be far behind.
Michael Atkinson is a film critic for The Village Voice and Sight & Sound. He is also the author of several books, most recently "Hemingway Cutthroat," and blogs at zeroforconduct.com.