January 24, 2017 - 80's Throwback (Now with real cane Sugar!)
Normally, the opening of "Monster Trucks" these past weeks would not particularly seem like the stuff of blog fodder. (And as it turns out, it wasn't.)
But piggybacking onto one of the other current fan-crazes--the Netflix binge-following for Season 1 of "Stranger Things"--it's brought a certain phenomenon to the front of the stage.
It's been around for years; it was the reason fans became artificially excited for JJ Abrams' 2011 "Super 8", and became a rallying cry against last summer's "Ghostbusters" remake, but now it officially has a name: A lost public is searching for "80's Throwback!"
(Or, occasionally, "90's Throwback" if you find childhood-sentimental fans of Jumanji, Jurassic Park, or the Goosebumps books, and even that decade didn't last long...But that's another post.)
It's become the centerpiece of Stranger Things' marketing, to conjure up a genre of kids up against unworldly forces, evil psychic tots and sinister plots "reminiscent of Stephen King". (Who was also a cottage-industry of mid-80's movies, as ten bestsellers were dumped on the decade between "Cujo" and "Pet Semetary" alone.)
Fan sites now use Stranger Things as a "gateway" for leading on new-generation fans, offering reading-list syllabi of other core 80's escapist scifi/horror classics, like a library's children's-book section recommending other books to their readers besides Harry Potter:
"10 Films You Need to Watch If You Love Stranger Things", Daily Dot, 7/25/16
"Monster Trucks", and its kid-friendly Nickelodeon Pictures story of lovable CGI octopi and the teens racing them to safety, seemed a little TOO familiar for its audience, and was dumped into January by Paramount with the understandable hopes of being ignored. But trying to rescue their dignity for an empty early-'17 weekend, the producers thought their CGI critters had tapped into an 80's/90's "retro" ethic--the kind that conjured up the cheaper Amblin' productions of the late 80's like "Batteries Not Included" and "Harry and the Hendersons", and the post-Jurassic CGI fests of the Jumanji 90's--and that the movie was actually a labor of Retro love.
Trucks even tried an alternate movie poster deliberately homaging the style of Richard Amsel, the iconic 80's movie-poster artist who gave us Indiana Jones, Willow, and every big-budget Lucasfilm of the decade. A generation knew, if Amsel painted the poster, you knew what to expect.
And just like our Stranger Things kids on the run from evil firestarters, some loyal diehard Monster Trucks defenders also tried to rally around the Retro Childhood flag, for a generation that was never there and needed to learn the Old Days...Or at least other overlooked 80's movies besides Princess Bride quotes:
"Ten Awesome Movies to Show Your Kids If They Dig Monster Trucks", CinemaBlend, 1/13/17
(Yes, "Batteries" is on the list, as is '99's "The Iron Giant".)
The craze even attracted B-video company Mill Creek, which had the licenses to a number of discarded Columbia catalog titles, to sell many of their 80's fantasy/scifi Columbia classics in a bulk box under a Stranger-knockoff banner.
And while it's a stretch to think that 1983's gorgeous old-school fantasy "Krull" or cheesy low-rent space-opera "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone" would be the first things to watch after a grim 10's-streaming series of nasty genetic experiments, it's clearly tapping into the audience's reawakened search for the same question: "Where did they GO?"
If you today hear anyone talking about "Great movies of the 80's", it's a safe bet they're NOT talking about "Amadeus", "Out of Africa" or "Terms of Endearment".
What they're most likely talking about is summer movies of the mid-80's, usually involving neighborhood kids taking their bicycles and flashlights out to investigate the monster or friendly alien in the woods nearby their whitebread California suburban neighborhood...And in general, going on an adventure, as the MST3K-ism has it, "just like The Goonies". (Which, btw, we hated in 1985--There's a difference between a movie for 10-yo.'s, and one that reads like it was written by 10-yo's.)
In other words, they're talking about Elliott and E.T., or any of his many imitators, back in the days When Steven Spielberg Roamed The Earth.
So, what footprints are we tracking when we go in search of the rare and elusive 80's Movie? What historical factors caused the generational break to stick out in our mind when we turned "80's" from a box-office-statistic year-date or childhood memory into an artistic Film Genre? Whadda they got back then that WE ain't got?
Appropriately enough, part of the answer would seem to be "...Courage." (Buh-huh, you said it.)
1. It was easier to go to movies - In fact, we had to: VCR saturation in the home didn't really catch on at popular prices until the mid-80's, and even then not all of your favorite movies came out for retail sale. More theaters were locally mom-and-pop owned, and might be charging upwards of $3.50 by the mid-80's, although the big chains had already ballooned up to $5 for an adult ticket. (Assuming you were over twelve, the year WarGames or Superman III came out.) If you couldn't wait to see it again, hey, you had an afternoon or a weekday night, and three or five bucks in your pocket, why not?
Today, we have what you might call a trade-off: Now you can see EVERY movie in your own hometown area the week it opens...but you can probably only afford to see it once, before waiting for the disk. And heaven help you if you want popcorn with it.
2. Theaters weren't so big - Chain cineplexes, huge 7-8 screen ones, were beginning to appear, but most towns still had a 1-3 screen left over on Main Street from the old days. If you had an older town, you probably had two or three of them scattered about the downtown back streets, or some new ones built into an unused office building. You found where your movie was playing, that was part of the fun of going to see it, and if it wasn't in town, you ventured forth to the town where you could get your experience...Otherwise, you might never get it at all!
And if your theater was playing in town, you didn't need Mom to take you, or at the very worst, all you needed was for her to drop you off with your friends, and pick you up after her 2-hour vacation from you. On a Friday night, the local theater was the gathering place for your school friends; if there wasn't anything you wanted to see, you saw it anyway, and if you did want to, so much the better.
3. TV still mattered - It doesn't now, you know, we pride ourselves on being able to stuff our face with an entire season on Hulu over a weekend, and flip a bird to the cable companies with our mouths full. But while watching TV was looked down on in the 70's, and movies gave you spectacle and bestsellers, TV became popular again in the 80's; you counted your weekdays by show title, and when you went out of your house on the weekend, you went out for fun.
Movies weren't designed to be more than one, they were movies because they only had one wild story to tell you, and if you liked it, then they might reward your love with a sequel, if they could figure out one to tell. That's why they'd decided not to be TV, because they'd put everything into whatever little isolated bit of imagination they had.
4. Movies were made for YOU, not anybody else - There was one good thing about having little cheap-priced theaters nearby in your local area, within walking or bus distance, and not five miles out of town by the highway strip malls: You could go to your own movies.
And because tickets didn't have to be sold to parents, they could be sold to the people who DID want to see the neat stuff--Kids' movies could be sold to kids, escapist tween-boy adventures could be sold to 9-12 yo. boys, and teens could get rock musicals, rebel dramas and--you know it--teen-babysitter horror films pitched all to themselves on Friday night and nobody else had to care. But then, everyone knew grownups didn't understand anyway.
We don't see that nowadays: Studios have too much at stake pitching a megadeal, they can't put themselves in the position of letting just some people buy a ticket at the risk that other people might not. As a result, most mainstream movies calculate themselves to be all things to all audiences, male, female, ethnic and overseas alike, and are carefully assembled not to leave anything out..."Your" movie just isn't YOUR movie anymore, unless you happen to have $200M to pay a studio personally to make back their net.
Some niche movies, like female-audience or frat/weed-pack comedies, might still target "their" audiences without a hope of finding any other, but they tend to be the product of producers who don't know how to make any other kind of movie. It's harder to make one that's supposed to be what the audience wants.
But there's a deeper answer here, and just why it DID end with the mid-90's may have to be the stuff of another column:
5. Studios still bought SCRIPTS - Yes, we've all heard the whine: "It's all comic books, sequels, remakes and teen novels nowadays...There's nothing original in Hollywood anymore!" And the minute you say that, everyone immediately rolls their eyes and groans, because by "original", they think you're being a pretentious jackass talking about La La Land, or whatever just came out of the indie Sundance fests. But back in the 80's, studios did EXACTLY what Hollywood studios had been doing for the past fifty years, since the days of Louis B. Mayer: They let a poor, struggling screenwriter pitch his neat original idea, to see if it sounded like a surefire winner. And it might be an idea he made up all by himself!--Which meant the audience would be taken by surprise, and seeing it for the first time!
Like the old songwriter musicals of the 40's, call it the "Tin Pan Alley" days--"Chief, got a boffo idea for ya: An 80's kid goes back to the 50's and meets his parents! A romance-novel heroine finds herself on a real adventure, straight out of one of her books! Or, wait, I got it--Bill Murray, Paranormal Exterminator!"
Of course, you know the risk of that: For every Back to the Future or Ghostbusters, there could be a My Stepmother Is an Alien. And studios don't want that. ("But it had Dan Aykroyd in it!")
Studios can't do that anymore. After a bad experience with getting big-name writers to write original action blockbusters in the 90's [more on that later], and negotiation salaries ballooned after actors stopped asking for profits and became smart enough to ask for cash up front, studios decided that a $150-200M movie just wasn't worth the risk of an audience seeing a movie they didn't know. If you could audition an "accepted" property ahead of time, like a TV show, long-awaited live-action form of a cartoon or comic, or a "franchise" sequel that one need only show the logo symbol to promote, well, that was half the battle won right there.
The answer's not a complicated idea: We don't miss aliens, and kids with bicycles and flashlights. It's not that we miss old-school mechanical creature effects, soundstage-sets or 80's fashions. (Although we do.) We miss IMAGINATION.
We look for a "throwback" to someone telling us a story we've never heard before, and letting our neato tapped-into emotions go along for the ride.
Are Disney, Pixar and Marvel becoming the new dominant forces at the box office?--Think what they give us: Dory and Cars 3 aside, Pixar and WDFA gave us new stories of island girls, spunky rabbit cops and personified emotions, while Marvel Studios, for their group initiative, were forced to bring us a few solo heroes who were once forgotten B-stringers in print--Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther. Did you ever read their print books growing up?...Er, didn't think so. Well, guess you're hearing their stories for the first time, then. Not so bad, aren't they?
With a few exceptions--who are in the accidental good luck of being exceptions--studios in the 10's are ruled by fear, and like most people who let their lives be ruled by fear, don't like to take chances.
Not like the characters in really good movies, who have to take chances all the time, and sometimes discover that really neat things happen to them in the end if they do.