Top Ten

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The New York Times’s roundup of the top box-office earners from 2007 mentions something that I found interesting: with the exception of The Bourne Ultimatum, “nine of the Top 10 grossing films were science fiction, fantasy or animation.” Within that techno-generic triangulation, it’s not entirely clear where something like Zack Snyder and Frank Miller’s 300 (at #7) would fall; the film isn’t SF or fantasy – the Times labels it “mock-historical” – and its mise-en-scene is almost entirely digital, bringing 300 as close to animation as live action can become without imploding into absolute Pixarity. Below are the rankings; more thorough information can be found here.

  1. Spider-Man 3: $336,530,303
  2. Shrek the Third: $322,719,944
  3. Transformers: $319,246,193
  4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: $309,420,425
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: $292,004,738
  6. The Bourne Ultimatum: $227,471,070
  7. 300: $210,614,939
  8. I Am Legend: $209,506,903
  9. Ratatouille: $206,445,654
  10. The Simpsons Movie: $183,135,014

As a student and fan of special effects and new media, I’m struck by the completeness with which the top 10 encapsulate an evolving mode of high-tech production in serial media. While some might see as obvious the correlation of huge budgets, high-volume special and visual effects, and the SF/fantasy/animation triad, to me their confluence at this moment in history deserves some attention. A few observations:

  • Most of the movies on the list are of a type I’d call “culturally suspect”; even if releases like Ratatouille (#9) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (#5) won praise from critics, the accolades often seemed qualified, even grudging; Ratatouille was not “just” a cute-animal movie, Order of the Phoenix was “comparatively dark and mature” for a film aimed at children. The air of disreputability echoes the low standing of science fiction and fantasy as genres, and of animation as a form. The films’ enormous profitability stands in striking contrast to their devalued cultural status.
  • Four of the movies were entries in a sequel chain, and one (Transformers, at #3) is, as the Times points out, a likely launchpad for a new franchise. I point this out not to repeat the lame lament that “no one makes original movies anymore,” but to highlight the degree to which serialization and adaptation are increasingly evident in LSMPs (Large-Scale Media Productions). There is enormous profit in transmedia systems.
  • A majority of the titles are marked by state-of-the-art visual effects; they are, in short, special-effects films. Again, the standard complaint here is that flashy FX are responsible for the metastasis of production and marketing budgets in recent decades or that FX have crowded out good storytelling; but I find those objections rather reactionary and pointless. It’s more interesting to consider how these megabudget productions serve as R&D labs for visual effects methodologies – here understood not simply in terms of resultant onscreen spectacles, but the whole offstage infrastructure of previsualization and pipelining that subtends and coordinates the production of those spectacles. I speculate that methods of manufacturing spectacle (and of faking less “marked” elements of filmic realism) trickle down from the megaproductions, becoming available to films that are smaller in scale and arguably more subtle and sophisticated in their employment of FX.

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