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Final Thoughts on 2011 Movies, Scifi and Otherwise

This will be the last column of the year! You’ll have to wait until next year for the next one! Fortunately, “next year” is just a few days away, so there’s no reason to panic. But as this is the last column of this year, allow me to make a few observations about film and the film industry, some only tangentially related to science fiction in particular but useful nonetheless for context.

To begin: 2011 will not go down in history as a particularly stellar year for the film industry. The total gross of the domestic market will click in at about $10 billion, which is below last year, meaning that the number of tickets sold (accounting for the small bit of inflation from last year’s ticket prices) is significantly down — around 5%. This despite the fact that about 50 more movies made it to theaters this year. It’s also the first year since 2007 that no film cracked the $400 million box office barrier; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 came close at $381 million (which, you know, is still good), but it’s indicative of a year where no monster movie like The Dark Knight or Avatar has captured the public and offered a financial or psychological “halo effect” to the general box office.

Is this cause for panic in the sunny climes of Los Angeles? Not necessarily.

One reason: Some years are just mediocre years at the box office, and
this is one of them, in no small part because it was a mediocre year for
the tentpoles of the industry. With the exception of the final Harry Potter, which effectively stuck the dismount for the entire Potter series, the wide majority of attempted (and actual) blockbusters were, well, meh. That is to say that all of them, from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides to Transformers: Dark of the Moon to Cars 2
to the various Marvel comic book films, delivered in a way that offered
the minimum acceptable allowance of entertainment to the people who had
already bought in.

Another reason: Even a mediocre year can still be successful
when you remember the international market. No film topped $400 million
in domestic box office, but three (Potter, Transformers, and Pirates)
did more than a billion dollars in business worldwide. Each of these
films did about 70% of their business overseas, and don’t think
filmmakers aren’t aware of that percentage. As I’ve noted before, the
domestic box office is no longer the do-all and be-all of the film
industry. If you need more proof of that, look no further than The Adventures of Tintin,
the Steven Spielberg-directed animated film from Paramount that opened
in most major international markets before the U.S. and Canada, and
grossed over $200 million before it earned a single dollar here. The
domestic market is just a bonus for that film — and it’s likely it was
always intended to be.

The third reason Hollywood is probably not in full panic mode is that its 2012 schedule has The Avengers, the new Batman and Spider-Man films, Men in Black III, the final Twilight film and, of course, the first Hobbit flick. Yes, folks, Hollywood will probably do just fine with its big films in 2012. Don’t you worry about it. At all.

To move the conversation back to science fiction films in 2011, last week I noted that Rise of the Planet of the Apes
was to my mind the best major studio science fiction film, but this
left open the question of science fiction films outside the majors. And
in fact there are three 2011 independent films which should pop onto any
science fiction film lover’s radar: Another Earth, Attack the Block, and Melancholia.

I’ve talked about Attack the Block before; Another Earth was a critical hit on the festival circuit before being generally released, and Melancholia
already has some serious hardware in the form of a Best Actress award
for Kirsten Dunst at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s not entirely outside
the realm of possibility that Dunst may get an Academy Award nod for
the role, which would be a rare acting category nod for a film with a
major science fictional element in it (namely, the appearance of a
planet which threatens to collide with our own).

Melancholia is still in theaters (albeit mostly in major cities), but Another Earth and Attack the Block
are both out on home video. If you haven’t caught them yet, you still
have a couple of days to do so before you run out of 2011. Take the
time; when the new year comes, there will be a whole new batch of films.

Finally: Wherever you are, have a safe and happy New Year. I want to see you on the other side of 2012, all right? OK, then.

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