Hollywood 2008: Popular Movies–Good, Enjoyable, Commercial


Top-Grossing Movies (Worldwide in $)


The Dark Knight            996.8

Indiana Jones                786.6

Kung Fu Panda              631.9

Hancock                       624.4

Iron Man                        581.4

Mamma Mia!                 572.1

Quantum of Solace 534.5

Wall-E                          507.3

Chronicles of Narnia   419.6

Sex and the City                  415.1


Though movies have lost their dominant status, they continue to serve as one primary source of entertainment—globally.  Indeed, films are still the major American cultural exports. Nonetheless, the nature of popular taste in movies is one of the most misunderstood and least studied issues–despite its social, political and pragmatic implications.  The field is replete with assumptions about audiences’ motivations and preferences for particular genres and forms, though, with the exception of some TV explorations, movie audiences have seldom been studied empirically. 


Hollywood,and the rest of the country, is obsessed with box-office grosses, taken to be a valid indication of movies’ commercial appeal or audiences movie taste.  The turning point for this trend might have been when the New York Times began to report these figures, about a decade ago.


But what do box-office grosses reveal about taste and preference, joy a
nd pleasure, influence and impact of the movies.  Not much. 

All that measures of box-office receipts do is to indicate how many people saw a particular film, or rather how much money each film made (In some European countries, the unit of analysis is the number of admissions, not dollars from tickets sold).


The top-grossing films worldwide just tell us that The Dark Knight was the most attended picture, grossing close to one billion dollar.  But the figure doesn’t tell us, how many people thought it was good, or entertaining, or thought-provoking, or a  nice, functional way to escape from the surrounding harsh reality, grim economy, and social depression?




In a previous column, I documented that film critics and their formal reviews had little or no impact on the global blockbusters. Thus, half of which had received mixed or negative reviews, per Rotten Tomatoes. 

Nonetheless, the list of top-grossing films reveals at least three trends.


Date of Release


With a few exceptions, most of the blockbusters were released in late spring and summer, the best season for such fare.  The exception is the new James Bond picture, “Quantum of Solace,” was released in late fall (October in the U.K. and November in the U.S. and other countries).   




Most of the films on the list are either sequels, such as “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which is the number four of the franchise that began in 1981, or “Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” which is a (disappointing) follow-up to the 2005 film, “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe.”   


Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” may be one of the few sequels to have improved on the first feature, “Batman Begins,” in every way: plot, characterization, acting, tone, and special effects.


Though it features a new star as 007, “Quantum of Solace” is the 22nd Bond picture in what is the longest running series in film history, begun in the early 1960s with “Dr No” and “From Russia With Love.”


Literary and Cultural Sources


The third trend I could detect is that most of the movies are based on previously published popular books, stage hits such as “Mamma Mia!” which is still running in many countries, including our very own Broadway theater, and popular TV series, such as “Sex and City,” which enjoyed a lengthy play of six seasons and had become a cult show.  “Iron Man
” delivers the good of popcorn summer fare, with a bravura performance from Robert Downey Jr., but it, too, was an adaptation of an old popular comic book (as was “The Incredible Hulk” and several others)


New Rules of the Game


The rules of the game are recycling and cross-fertilization, that is, reinvention, reimagining, or simply repetition of ideas, characters, and symbols, as well as synergy or cultural co-dependency.  Witness the history of “Hairspray,” the 1988 John Waters subversive indie, which then became a big, splashy mainstream Broadway musical, which in turn became a big, quite entertaining movie musical, directed by Adam Shenkman.

What’s your opinion about our obsession with the box-office?  Where would new, fresh ideas for movies come from?