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Why Successful Films From Cannes Or Sundance Aren't As Popular As Blockbuster Hits

Matthew Leung |
September 30, 2014 | 4:46 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

The Avengers is the third highest grossing film ever worldwide. (flickr/MarvelousRoland)
The Avengers is the third highest grossing film ever worldwide. (flickr/MarvelousRoland)
This sounds pretty straightforward -- of course "The Avengers" made more money than "Pulp Fiction" did. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" beat "Apocalypse Now" at the box office? Not surprised at all. In fact, let's look at the figures: the highest grossing independent film ever, "The Passion of the Christ" (2004), was ranked no. 89 on the list of all time box office hits worldwide. This means that the top 88 films at the all-time box office were all produced by major production studios. Needless to say, the difference between the grosses of the most commercially successful blockbuster, "Avatar," and "The Passion of the Christ," is astounding: $2.79 billion versus $611 million. Both are the most commercially successful films in their own categories, but the blockbuster made more than four times as much money as the indie did. 

Despite the popularity of blockbusters, we often say that successful films from Cannes, the most prestigious international film festival, and Sundance, one of the largest film festivals for independent films in the U.S., are "better" than most blockbusters. These films are more "critically acclaimed," "artistic," or "socially influential." On the other hand, we can never imagine a movie like "The Avengers" or "Harry Potter" winning any awards at Cannes or Sundance. So -- why do we prefer "worse" films when we go to the theatre?

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First of all, let's not conclude that blockbuster films are necessarily "worse" than independent arthouses. Their special effects and production designs are often the most amazing spectacles that viewers see on a movie screen. Their much higher budgets also allow them to employ computer-generated graphics, a feature that is less prevalent among indie films. Often, blockbusters feature the biggest stars on screens, like Robert Downey Jr. for "Iron Man" or Tom Cruise for "Mission Impossible," which is arguably the most effective selling element of a movie.  On the contrary, the independent arthouses mainly excel in artisitic talent, which means they have better directors, better screenwriters, better actors (Yes! better actors, not bigger names!) and so on. They have less production value, but they are more capable of creating "art" in their films, which is what Sundance and Cannes care about. 

The determining factor of big-budget films' commercial success lies in advertising, Assistant Film Professor Jennifer Peterson argues. She explains that these films "even have marketers help shape films in the writing stage, where they have like four quadrants of audience that they are trying to appeal to." And it's not just commercials that we see on TV or the streets; blockbusters are all about high concept. High concept is a work that can be easily pitched using a concise premise; usually, this means one sentence. For example, "Transformers" is about cars' transforming into intelligent robots; "Spiderman" is about a guy gaining superpower from a spider bite. As consumers, we are irrevocably hooked by just that one sentence -- that's the appeal of high concept. When you think about it, how can you not be curious about a fatal machine that looks and behaves like a human being ("Terminator")? Or how 24 innocent "tributes" are forced to kill one another in "The Hunger Games?" 

On the other hand, I'd bet that you couldn't sell "Slumdog Millionaire" with one sentence. "A contester of an Indian game show draws on his eventful life through the years to answer all the questions"? It sounds like an award-winning film, which it is, but definitely not as exciting or nearly as mindblowing as its blockbuster counterparts. There are strong reasons that this movie can turn you off if you have only heard one sentence about it. 

Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1994 and made $213 million worldwide. (flickr/ Roman Soto)
Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1994 and made $213 million worldwide. (flickr/ Roman Soto)

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Besides advertising and marketing, there is a significant underlying factor that shapes this trend. To an average viewer, movies are visual and audio entertainment more than anything else. He sees movies as an escape from real life, a place where he can immerse himself in unrealistic worlds. As Stan Lee, the legendary writer and former CEO of MARVEL, told students in his most recent talk at USC, human beings are inherently attracted to fairy tales and fantasies. He explained that this is one of the reasons why MARVEL superhero comics and movies have been consistently popular over the years -- because superheroes are the extensions of our favorite childhood fantasies. On one hand, they live a normal life like we do; on the other hand, they possess super powers that we all wish to possess. If we apply this theory to blockbuster movies that don't involve superheroes, we can still see the effect of visualizing fantastic worlds. "Avatar," "Harry Potter," "Frozen," "Transformers" and "The Lord of the Rings" are all in the top ten of all time higest grossing films; the worlds in these movies are all constructed around fantastical subjects and parameters. These movies show the worlds that we wish we could be in; characters we wish we could be; things we wish we could do...

Now, consider "Pulp Fiction" or "Slumdog Millionaire," who would want to be in the worlds in these movies? One is a world full of gangsters, blood and crime; one is characterized by injustice, poverty and pain. Don't get me wrong, these are still incredibly entertaining movies, it's just that they require patience and critical thinking in order for the viewer to enjoy their viewing experiences. Wait, am I calling the average movie viewer stupid? No! Think about it, even those who study films need their down time or vacations, a time to shut our brains off. Some people exercise, others cook, travel, play video games...whatever, but we have to remember some people WATCH MOVIES in their down time. In this case, why would anyone want to pay attention to the lengthy and sophisticated dialogue in "Pulp Fiction" or engage in the dark realities in the slums of India? Therefore, the reason why the average movie viewer has a harder time enjoying indies is not because he or she lacks critical thinking or artistic appreciation, is because movies serve as pure entertainment for him or her.

Is there a need for movies to be viewed more as an art form than just entertainment? Not necessarily; after all, motion pictures were made first to entertain, not to win film festivals. The monumental indie films that have the potential to impact society and inspire millions will continue to do so, because there are enough critical movie viewers -- both amateurs and professionals out there. There is, however, a need for a hybridization of "good" filmmaking and entertainment value. To quote USC's very own Dr. Drew Casper, even the "Master of Suspense," Alfred Hitchcock, who is deemed as one of the most skilled filmmakers we've seen in film history, made films as entertainment first, last and always. His best works are often both commercial and critical successes. Of course, there is a compromise between the two -- you can't always make the highest grossing films ever and win the film awards at the same time; unless your name is James Cameron. (On a side note, Mr. Cameron is one in a million: he not only wrote and directed the top two highest grossing films of all time, "Avatar" and "Titanic," but they both won major Academy awards.) My point is, in the most rapidly changing age of visual entertainment, we are in need of more filmmakers who are capable of appealing to both the average viewer and the film scholar. We need to be able to have fun watching a movie but also take something valuable away from the theatre. We're longing for the Nolan, Tarantino and Coen Brothers of the future. Are they here yet? 

Contact Staff Reporter Matthew Leung here.



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