Commentary: Studios tied to decade-old tentpole strategy

Weekend boxoffice may hit an all-time record

This weekend, older folks will fret about bank closures or home foreclosures. Younger folks, though, will fill up with $5 gas and $15 pizzas, then flock to the air-conditioned comfort of "The Dark Knight" -- or, if the whole "dark" thing seems too, well, dark, they'll check out Meryl Streep cavorting to ABBA in "Mamma Mia!"

The economic gloom (and another Hollywood labor standoff) aside, the U.S. domestic boxoffice might approach or hit an all-time weekend record.

Warner Bros. and Universal inevitably will have something to crow about as even conservative estimates suggest the tally for the three days will surpass $150 million. And the grosses will eloquently confirm, as though we needed any other proof, that the studios are ever more tightly tied up with their decade-long tentpole strategy.

Two years ago, another similar pair of movies debuted -- Warners' franchise installment "Superman Returns" and Fox's perfectly counterprogramd "The Devil Wears Prada" (also with Streep) -- that jointly grossed a combined $80 million in their opening weekend. The increase in the take of the two similar newcomers this go-round is going to be eye-popping.

Industrial giants that they are, the big studios need, we now know, to concentrate on making big movies. The in-house apparatus is in place to service them, the material being mined (think graphic novels first and foremost) lends itself to such treatment, screens are being overhauled to accommodate the latest high-tech visuals, and audiences are there to eat them up like popcorn.

It's amazing to contemplate that an entire generation of studio film execs, those in their 40s and 50s at least, were weaned on arty, indie, epic, edgy, foreign and/or story-led films and will say that they fell in love with the movies and moviemaking because of them.

Now, it's those very guys and gals who are greenlighting supersized movies aimed primarily at 14-year-old boys who've mostly never heard of Bergman or Bogdanovich.

Anyway, I get that there's a commercial imperative, and I suspect that some of these execs would argue that their personal tastes -- they variously claim to revere "Wild Strawberries," "Grand Illusion," "Rashomon," "Rosemary's Baby," "Citizen Kane," "Out of Africa," "The Last Picture Show" -- are assiduously put to one side in their decision-making. Others are adamant that the best of these tentpole movies bring something fresh, dynamic or just different to the big screen: Ever more acrobatic car chases, meticulously choreographed mayhem, marvels of makeup, androgynous females wielding ever-heavier weapons, deadpan delivery of one-liners, an obsession with gadgetry, occasional self-parody and so on.

To insist upon referencing or just remaining attached to those classic movies often is dismissed by these folks as an "elitist" attitude, even if in their day many of those movies were reasonably commercial. You could feel this changing of the guard at the recent AFI tribute to Warren Beatty: "Bonnie and Clyde" is about the oldest film reference any mainstream filmmaker makes these days, but jokes aside about his other distractions, Beatty himself probably couldn't get a movie made in today's film climate.

More worrying still, the studios are losing patience with their own specialty labels: Paramount Vantage is the latest to be retooled, even though it was behind this year's Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men"; Warners simply subsumed its. And don't even ask about the "indie" indies: Even Harvey and Bob Weinstein will admit that it's harder than they expected to make it as a nonaligned company.

More pertinently, there's been a shift in the tastes of young audiences that is as game-changing as the lines of youngsters that formed around the block in the 1970s to see "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Godfather" or -- at least in New York -- a marathon of Francois Truffaut titles. Superheroes in short bring in superdollars; the Woody Allens are a decidedly niche business.

Next week's Comic-Con in San Diego will plumb ever deeper veins of the ore that Hollywood is so obsessed with, and this year's parade of "Iron Man," "Hulk," "Hellboy II" and "Dark Knight" will keep on growing. Perhaps, let's hope, they're endowed with "backstories" and "Downey-ized" personalities, amusing sidekicks and intriguing plots. Or else these heroes might just kill each other off, and the studios have to look around a little harder.