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Then and now: The 1997 and 2017 summer movie seasons back to back

POSTED: September 7, 2017 9:09 a.m.
Jeff Peterson/

Disney's "Hercules" was released in 1997.

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Now that the last few summer movies have finally crawled into theaters and people are stopping to assess the past four months, at least one thing is clear: 2017 has been divisive outside of just politics. While sites like Slash Film and IndieWire are hailing this summer as one of the best in decades, others have described it as “disastrous” or, in the case of one Variety article, “the movie business’ summer of hell.”

As Dave Holmes recently wrote for Esquire in a piece titled “It’s Not Your Imagination. The Big Hollywood Movies Were Worse This Year”: “When we think of creatively and commercially successful summer movie seasons, we think of the mid-1990s."

But just how does a single movie season from decades ago (specifically two of them) fare when stacked up against this summer?

Comparing 2017's summer movie season to the summer of 1997, a year in which, according to Complex, "the popcorn flick — brainless but artistically executed — was in full force," some interesting and telling trends begin to emerge — some bad, some good — that may shed a different light on 2017 and the current state of the movie industry.

Superhero movies

Then: Three superhero movies were released in 1997. All three were disastrous to varying degrees.

In the ’90s, not only were comic book adaptations not a staple of Hollywood’s yearly release calendar, but the ones that did come out were generally bad verging on awful. This was particularly true during the summer of 1997, a year which came very close to destroying superhero movies as a genre forever — beginning with Joel Schumacher’s infamous “Batman and Robin.”

The fourth installment in the original rubber-suit Batman series that was kickstarted by Tim Burton in 1989, “Batman and Robin” barely cracked $100 million domestically (on a budget of $125 million — the second most expensive movie that year), according to Box Office Mojo. By comparison, “Batman Forever” earned $184 million two years earlier. Critics skewered the campy, Day-Glo aesthetics and anatomically correct bat-suit. This led Warner Bros. to scrap the entire series and start over, eventually handing the reins to a young writer-director named Christopher Nolan.

But “Batman and Robin” wasn’t alone. The summer of ’97 closed out with a pair of less memorable — but not necessarily any less terrible — superhero duds: “Spawn,” based on the grim Image Comics character, and “Steel,” a DC movie starring Shaquille O'Neal that earned just $1.7 million on a $16 million budget.

Now: Three superhero movies were released this summer. All three were both critically acclaimed and massive box office hits.

At this point, superhero movies aren’t the biggest thing since sliced bread; they’re bigger.

Propelled forward by Marvel’s unrelenting series of back-to-back-to-back successes, comic book adaptations have become vital to the Hollywood machine in a way that few could have predicted 20 years ago. This summer is evidence of that. According to Box Office Mojo, domestically, the top three earners by a healthy margin were all superhero movies: “Wonder Woman” ($406 million), “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” ($389 million) and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” ($319 million). Combined, their international box office earnings come to a staggering $2.5 billion.

Comparing this trio of superhero movies to 1997’s offerings, though, it’s not just a difference in box office. The quality has improved by light-years, as well. Just look at their Rotten Tomatoes scores: “Wonder Woman” (92 percent), “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (82 percent) and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (92 percent) versus “Batman and Robin” (10 percent), “Spawn” (18 percent) and “Steel” (12 percent).

To put it mildly, Hollywood has gotten better at making cinematic superheroes.

Sequels, etc.

Then: Of the top 20 releases, three of them were sequels. Two of those grossly underperformed: “Batman and Robin” and the even costlier, even less successful “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” which made just $48 million domestically on a $160 million budget.

But 1997 also saw the release of a movie that became a template for the kind of effects-driven blockbuster that would come to dominate Hollywood over the next two decades: “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” Steven Spielberg’s dino sequel was bigger (and dumber) than its predecessor in just about every way. Even though it didn’t end up having the box office legs of the first movie, it scored a record-setting opening weekend haul of $73 million that wouldn’t be toppled for four more years.

Now: Of the top 20 releases this summer, seven of them were sequels. That includes a fifth Transformers, a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean, an eighth Planet of the Apes, a sixth Alien, a third Cars and a third Despicable Me. Additionally, of the 13 nonsequels, three were reboots (“Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “The Mummy” and “Baywatch”), one was a spinoff (“Wonder Woman”) and one was a prequel (“Annabelle: The Creation”), leaving just eight “original” movies that were able to break through and become mainstream hits.

Budget

Then: In 1997, the average studio film cost $60 million.

Only two movies released that summer (“Batman and Robin” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control”) cost more than $100 million.

Now: The MPAA stopped compiling studio budgets after 2007. That year, the average cost to produce a movie had skyrocketed to $106.6 million.

This summer, only two of the top 10 movies (“Despicable Me 3” and “Girls Trip”) cost less than $100 million. However, three films (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” and “Transformers: The Last Knight”) cost more than $200 million.

Variety

Then: In terms of genres, the summer release calendar in 1997 was enviously diverse (one point for Dave Holmes). Along with typical summer fare, including hits like “Men in Black” and “The Lost World,” there were action movies (“Air Force One,” “Face/Off,” “Con Air”), romantic comedies (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), family movies (Disney’s “Hercules,” “George of the Jungle”), serious sci-fi (“Contact”), zany French sci-fi (“The Fifth Element”), dramas (“Cop Land,” “Shall We Dance?”) and everything in between.

Now: While it would be a mistake to say that there was no variety in a summer that saw a World War II epic become one of the highest-grossing movies at the same time a music-centric heist flick became one of the most profitable, it’s hard not to notice that in general, prestige summer releases have become a lot more similar — not to mention easier to classify.

For the last several years in a row, the breakdown of each summer’s top 10 movies has been bizarrely consistent: two to three superhero movies, three to four other effects-driven blockbusters (e.g., a Transformers movie or a Pirates of the Caribbean movie), two 3-D animated movies and one comedy. (The last year that broke from that pattern was 2013, but only because it had three animated flicks instead of two.)

As a result, it’s becoming increasingly necessary to look beyond the top 10 (and maybe even the top 20) to find the kind of diversity that was standard 20 years ago. At which point, things actually start to look a lot better — just like 1997, there are action movies (“Atomic Blonde”), romantic comedies (“The Big Sick”), family movies (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul”), serious sci-fi (“Alien: Covenant”), zany French sci-fi (“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”), dramas (“Everything, Everything”) and pretty much everything in between.

In fact, in spite of what the major earners might indicate, the overall variety this year has been one of the main reasons some have called it the best summer movie season in decades. And the fact that many of the less conventional releases have managed to find niche audiences bodes well for future summers, too.

Home video

Then: DVDs were brand new, having just been released in March. Taking advantage of the more compact, less breakable format, the summer of 1997 saw the creation of a new kind of rental service. Instead of a brick and mortar store a la Blockbuster, a company called Netflix began shipping DVDs in paper envelopes.

Now: DVDs are rapidly becoming obsolete, but Netflix — the little California-based rental service turned online streaming giant — has expanded in a way that has fundamentally disrupted the way both movies and TV are made and distributed. This summer, for instance, the company released Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s family friendly animal rights story “Okja” after a rocky premier at the Cannes Film Festival in which it was loudly booed during one screening and then received a four-minute standing ovation in another.

Netflix has also played host to a corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, producing a series of superhero shows set within the MCU that culminated this summer with an Avengers-style mash-up called “The Defenders.”

In both cases, Netflix is targeting a lot of the programming that major studios are being criticized for ignoring. While some see this as a decidedly negative trend (hence the booing in France), others applaud it for democratizing film, reducing the pressure for movies to have huge opening weekends and giving artists such as Joon-ho more creative freedom than they would typically get working in a more conventional system.

Diversity

Then: For the second year in a row (and only the third time ever since 1982), a movie featuring a nonwhite lead owned the summer box office with “Men in Black.” Sharing the screen with a cantankerous Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith established himself as a bona fide star with his role as Agent Jay after previously having rocketed to fame in “Independence Day” the year before.

Otherwise, featured roles for African-American actors were few and far between.

Women didn’t fare any better. Jodie Foster’s role as a scientist searching for proof of extraterrestrial life in “Contact” and Demi Moore’s fictional portrayal of a female soldier’s struggle to overcome rampant misogyny within the military in “G.I. Jane” are the two lone examples of lead roles for women in anything other than romantic comedies and horror movies.

Now: “Wonder Woman” topped the box office this summer, shattering all kinds of records along the way, including becoming the highest-grossing live-action movie ever directed by a woman, according to Vanity Fair. At the same time, it proved — hopefully once and for all — that one of Hollywood’s longest held notions, namely that people don't want to watch female-led action movies, is utter nonsense.

As if to back that up, one of the other big hits less than two months later was the Charlize Theron spy thriller “Atomic Blonde” in which the former South African model gave Keanu Reeves’ John Wick a serious run for his butt-kicking action blockbuster money.

And Ridley Scott returned with yet another gritty female heroine (Katherine Waterston) in “Alien: Covenant.”

Thankfully, lead roles for women weren’t limited just to action movies, either. One of the biggest surprises of the summer was “Girls Trip,” an R-rated comedy featuring a mostly nonwhite cast that managed to crack the top 10, earning $108 million on a $19 million budget.

Otherwise, though, representation for racial minorities has not seen as marked an improvement after 20 years (and considerably more dialogue about it) as one might hope. After “Girls Trip,” only a handful of movies featured minority characters in lead roles — among them, the Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me,” the Kumail Nanjiani romantic dramedy “The Big Sick” and “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the 1967 Detroit Rebellion (which one recent article in The Huffington Post calls “the most irresponsible and dangerous movie of the year”).

And the same could be said of female-driven movies, as well. Without detracting from the remarkable successes seen this year, there's still plenty of room for improvement.
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