Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The Summer Movie Spillover of the American Blockbuster [Film]

Captain America

PREFACE (2014)

Years ago summer began late in June with the sounding of 11 am public school bell ringing. For me now, the idea of summer has long been shattered by adulthood, although I still romanticized that period feeling an echo of Americana for what has become known as the summer movie blockbuster. The 90s were pivotal in defining this season with the crowning of Will Smith as the summer’s first king of blockbusters with his Fourth of July releases of Independence Day (1996), Men In Black (1997) and Wild Wild West (1999). At that time, for both the studios and the audience, the Fourth of July was the most important weekend of the summer season fueled by the returns of those previously mentioned freshly-out-of-school teenagers buying tickets with their parent’s money. Smith’s Fourth of July returns equaling over 1.6 billion dollars from three films. By the late 2000s summer movies had expanded beyond late June  bell ringing overtaking Memorial Day weekend as the season’s new official beginning, and for a time, connecting the starting and ending of summer blockbusters with huge appliance day sales.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a summer movie by all definitions of size, budget, gravitas and scope – but curiously had an April 4th, 2012 release date. Captain America will not be alone this summer with the releases of The Amazing Spider Man 2 on May 2nd, Godzilla May 16th and X-Men: Days of Future Past on May 23rd – all weeks earlier than Memorial Day weekend. Only two years ago on April 3rd, 2012 Universal released Battleship as its own summer movie proxy blockbuster. Battleship would go on to gross only a return of 65 million dollar domestically with a 209 million dollar production budget while Captain America has made over 600 million dollars after its initial two-and-a-half weeks run in theaters on a 170 million dollar budget. Battleship and Captain America both exist within a new summer paradigm were inflated budgets represent an immense risk to the success of blockbusters through studio competition.

Over the last ten years the scope of the blockbuster budget has grown with nearly no restrictions to the point where a once 50 million dollar budget was consider a large amount of money for a movie has morphed into the current 200 million dollar standard. Budgets are not the only issue. The summer movie season is also over saturated with studio releases potentially forcing opening weekend slit-returns via a limited amount of ticket buying moviegoers. These budgets typically do not take into account marketing and distributions costs meaning a film sometimes needs to make double its production budget in order to just break even. These ultra-budgets have created an all-or-nothing mentality for the season – a film will live or die by its opening weekend return so competition is a very bad thing. Substantial sized studio investments with mass saturation releases between Memorial and Labor Day has led the blockbuster season no longer able to support ultra-budgets films competing directly against one another and thus we have summer blockbuster premieres in rainy April.

Blockbuster BombThe origins of the word blockbuster has a significantly different context then we use today. In 1941 Nazi occupied Europe pressed the knife against England’s neck to paraphrase Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort portrayed by actor John Wayne from the World War II epic, The Longest Day (1962). The RAF (Royal Air Force) was the only offensive option against a German Army dug in across the English Channel. Blockbuster had a very literal meaning describing the deployment of 4000 lb and larger HC bombs dropped on German military targets. The Mark I or “Cookie” was a a single bomb capable of obliterating an entire city block. One of earliest recorded uses of the word was printed in the Guardian Newspaper – “Quantities of some additional military supplies that have been or are being furnished by the British to our troops as reciprocal aid by Britain include 15,000 bombs, from 250lb. incendiaries to one-ton ‘blockbusters’…”(Manchester Guardian, 25 January 1943, 5). Prior to the coining of the word blockbuster in movie terms alternatives such as “spectacular” (Wall Street Journal), “super-grosser” (New York Times), and “super-blockbuster” (Variety) were highly used. Today, blockbuster is a slang expression for a successful film speaking to the works’ spectacle, scope of story and size of budget, or rather the line of moviegoers wrapping down the block.

Old Hollywood had existed for 50 years until eventually fracturing by financial failure culminating with 20th Century Fox’s release of Cleopatra (1963). The once proven star system of old Hollywood epics had faltered as privately owned studios were being sold to corporations. American audience turned to lower-budget genre alternatives. Bob Rafelson, a founding B in BBC, produced Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). Rafelson is a key figure of the New Hollywood Movement inspired by the films of European and Asian New Wave Form. These low-budgets genre movies took in enormous amounts of returns for producers who risked little actual capital on productions. By 1975, audiences had returned to the theater coalesced around Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Without a home video market, audiences frequented the theater over and over again creating a cultural impact around, at the time, a very new style of fast paced action entertainment. Audiences were once again talking about the movies.

Jaws changed the Hollywood format by beginning the summer trend of major studios planning marketing strategies around a Fourth of July summer release schedule. Producers, executives, and studios scrambled to create a feelings of “event” in their own film releases for stronger commercial appeal. The blockbuster was quickly coined as a marketing effort and the summer movie season had begun.

FILM COST (NOT MARKETING) RETURNS (OVERALL) RELEASE DATE
Cleopatra 44 Million 58 Million June 12, 1963
Easy Rider 360 Thousand 41 Million July 14, 1969
Jaws 9 Million 86 Million June 20, 1975
Independence Day 75 Million 817 Million July 02, 1996
Avatar 250 Million 2.8 Billion December 18, 2009
Battleship 209 Million 302 Million April 03, 2012
Paranormal Activity 15 Thousand 194 Million September 25, 2009
Captain America: The Winter Soldier 170 Million 600 Million (04/24/14) April 04, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a turning point for the Marvel Universe and the ninth overall installment of the Marvel venture. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely the film stars Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson. In the film, Captain America, Black Widow and Sam Wilson join forces as a conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D is revealed. The comic book superhero film is a new genre but the movie spends a great deal of time playing instead as an older gritty 1970s political thriller such as The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and Marathon Man (1976). Director of Photography Trent Opalock retains the overall clean look of the Marvel Universe’s past eight films but still manages to capture elements of the those previously stated inspirational films using classic framing and naturalistic light choices. It is this mixing of genres that pushes Captain America beyond other Marvel releases as a more memorable stand alone film. The actions sequence (which there are still many) retain a blurred hand-held style mixed with quick cutting. If Captain America: The Winter Soldier is to be the standard for the 2014 summer movie releases, 2014 began on a very positive note.

Captain America stillThe announced sequel will feature the return of Anthony and Joe Russo as directors and a May 6th, 2016 release which as of this posting will place Captain America 3 directly against Batman Vs. Superman. The financial demands of the summer movie blockbuster have risen such in the last decade that films must earn considerably more in returns than its budget would indicate in order to generate a profit. For this reason, films such as Superman Returns (2006), The Last Airbender (2010), Battleship (2012), Lone Ranger (2013), etc.. are considered failures despite each grossing over 300 million dollars worldwide. The built in audiences of Marvel and Superman combined with an assumed 200 million dollar plus marking costs for each film must guarantee a split-return on this future opening weekend. This is how a studio goes bankrupt, although my money would be on Captain America 3 because those past Marvel movies made an Uncle Scrooge Mcduck’s money bin worth of cash while the DC universe is still very young in the big screen format.

Some studios have returned to lower-budget genre filmmaking known as sleeper hits. These films are meant to create a larger percentage in returns on smaller investments over the all-or-nothing ultra-budgets high risk productions. Paranormal Activity (2009) is the most recent well known of these films costing 15 thousand dollars while making over 196 million dollars worldwide. Robert Rodriguez’s over-the-top action film Desperado (1995) made 25 million on a 7 million dollar budget for Columbia and Gareth Evans’s The Raid (2012) 1 million dollar budget made 15 million for Sony Picture Classics. Since Jaws and Easy Rider smaller films continue to have a place in summer releases.

The era of the ultra-budget summer movie blockbuster is not over but the current model of budget and release schedule cannot continue to be supported similar to the 1960s Cleopatra example.  Hollywood has always been slow to respond, so for the time being, I will continue to enjoy my 250 million dollar blockbusters movie going with a smile on my face, a big bag of popcorn in my lap, and beer in my hand (Because I live in a city with an uncountable number of beer theaters). But, we might find many more gems of filmmaking in the form of those low-budget sleeper hits in the future. Spielberg and Soderberg (The Bergs of Hollywood) have all spoken publicly on the inability for the industry to support blockbuster failures.  The 2016 season could represent that paradigm shift if indeed Captain America 3 and Batman Vs Superman actually *Face/Off (1997).

*Face/Off – Budget 80 million dollars with a return of 250 million. Now that was a summer blockbuster.

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About Christopher
I know some things. I wish I knew more things. There are a lot of things in the world. Pop culture is fun too. I live in the Northwest. I've had the opportunity to work with great people. Radiohead and Motorhead are two of my favorite bands. Good works are good works regardless of their genre. Good works are good works regardless of how popular or unpopular they may be. Dr. Strangelove is my favorite film. I find it hard to list after a number one spot. Be well.

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