Yesterday my 2 1/2-year-old son approached me while I was reading the newspaper and pointed to a full-page ad for a forthcoming summer blockbuster. He grinned and said, "Spider Man!" Flabbergasted, I asked him, "How do you know who Spider Man is?" He replied, "He flies."
Every so often he surprises us with some new development that seems to come from nowhere. Last week it was a fear of ants. The week before it was the lyrics to the Queen song "We Will Rock You." We try to protect him from the more pernicious aspects of contemporary culture, like American Idol and Racheal Ray, but somehow his toddler antennae pick up scraps of culture from the ether. This may explain why Sony sunk a reported $250 million into Spider-Man 3: even two-year-olds are familiar with the story of a hapless photographer who turns into an arachnid so he can take pictures of himself but can't get his object of desire to see him as he truly is. The last thing a two-year-old needs is more reinforcement of a solipsistic circuit of desire. If he asks to see Spider-Man 3, we'll simply tell him it has "too much scary on it."
According to reports, Sony is worried that its leading movie franchise may not have enough interest on it, especially after Paramount's Next tanked at the box office last weekend. If you don't have a two-year-old around to explain this to you, Next is a Nicholas Cage vehicle and the first of the summer blockbusters. Hollywood has a whole train of sequels coming out this summer, including the third installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, all of them obscenely expensive even by blockbuster standards. Everyone is nervous that the (relatively) small film Disturbia, itself a remake of Rear Window, continues to take the biggest piece of a startlingly smaller pie.
Studio execs are worried, but they probably shouldn't be. The fate of Next is probably an isolated phenomenon. The sci fi audience is notoriously fickle and unpredictable. Plus, weekly theatrical grosses give a distorted picture of a film's economic condition. Still, the entire production and distribution system of American cinema is in a perilous state, as David Denby recently reported. It can't withstand too much of a shock. But skittish Hollywood executives should take comfort in the success of Disturbia. The film's under-24 audience has been a bedrock of American cinema for decades, and the film's soothing invocation of familiar generic tropes would seem to disavow high-concept CGI extravaganzas like Spider-Man 3, with its comic strip hero and high recognition factor in the Thomas the Tank Engine crowd. As Disturbia shows, all people want to see are movies, even retreads of earlier masterpieces.