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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Joss Whedon

'The Avengers': Seven lessons of Marvel's box-office success

May 7, 2012 |  6:00 am

'The Avengers': Seven lessons of Marvel's box-office success

With a huge opening overseas, Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" was poised for a smashing weekend in the U.S. But no one knew just how big the Marvel film would be. Distributor Disney's estimate of $200.3 million (even taking into account potential slight revisions when official figures hit Monday) shatters the previous opening-weekend record of $169.2 million, held by "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2" last summer.

What are some inferences to be made from the massive haul of the film starring Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth? Here's our handy rundown.

The branding/superhero era isn’t ending anytime soon. In the last year or two, a drumbeat has slowly started that maybe moviedom's comic book era was winding down. Look at the critical and even commercial sag of several of last summer's movies, said skeptics. "The Avengers" may be sui generis, but expect a reversal of that trend now. Every studio with a superhero license is, as of Monday morning, doubtless checking into how they can wring more out of it--or, if they have several such licenses, perhaps even rolling several characters into one movie.

Television creators can rock too. Coming into this weekend, Whedon had hardly been a force in the movie world, having helmed just one tepidly received  film (“Serenity”), spun off a canceled television series. In fact, as a breed, few TV creators have made a quick, successful leap to the big screen. But "Avengers" changes that. If you have the fan base (Whedon was of course a geek god after cultural events like “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” and the Internet sensation “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along”) you can have a massive blockbuster at the multiplex too.

PHOTOS: 'The Avengers' Hollywood premiere

Geek-speak isn't a turn-off. "The Avengers" didn't shy away from the geek. In fact, the movie embraced it, filling the screen with in-references and dense language about comic book items like the Tesseract. And the Marvel movie was directed by Whedon, the ultimate insider.  Yet that didn't put a cap on its numbers—in fact, it only seemed to inflate them. Which may be connected to...

Critics do matter. Fan sites often like to say that the critics don't have much to say about whether a film will succeed. That may be true for a certain kind of generic action movie. But the strong critical support for "The Avengers" (there were some voices of dissent, like the New York Times' A.O. Scott and this eloquent protest, but they were few and far between) helped extend the movie far beyond the  base.  Telling stat: The two superhero movies with the biggest opening weekends, “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight,” are also, with Rotten Tomatoes scores hovering around 93%, also far and away the best-reviewed.

The villain isn't necessarily the thing. Every great movies needs a memorable villain, a bravura performance by a known actor, like Jack Nicholson’s Joker--or Heath Ledger’s Joker, for that matter. Except perhaps to his most ardent supporters, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki won’t, it's safe to say, go down as one of the iconic villain performances of all time. Yet that was hardly a hindrance to the movie's runaway success.

Art house stars can cross over. Just two years ago, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner were collecting Oscar nominations for small, independently-made movies (“The Kids Are All Right” and “The Hurt Locker,” respectively). Cut to 2012, where the actors were linchpins of "The Avengers" (as the Hulk and Hawkeye, respectively).

Sometimes Hollywood logic is actually logical. It's easy to laugh at the unwritten rules of Hollywood, which say things like 'an unlikable character never works' or 'pre-awareness works every time." But sometimes the saws are saws for a reason. Like, say, "The Avengers," which is based on the supposition that if you combine more than six known characters from a  bundle of previous comics and films, you'll get pretty much six times the box office.


Movie review: 'The Avengers'

PHOTOS: All-time box-office leaders

''The Avengers' as top U.S. debut ever with $200.3 million

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Chris Hemsworth, left, and Chris Evans in "The Avengers." Credit: Disney

'The Avengers': Superhero fun for many critics, and Fury for one

May 3, 2012 |  6:18 pm

The Avengers
You'd think a tough guy like super-spy Nick Fury, the ringleader of the titular all-star superhero team in "The Avengers," would have pretty thick skin. But it turns out Fury, or at least the actor who plays him, Samuel L. Jackson, took exception to the New York Times' mixed review of the Marvel comic adaptation, in which A.O. Scott wrote that the film's "failures are significant and dispiriting." Scott added that the film is dragged down by "grinding, hectic emptiness" and "bloated cynicism."

In response, Jackson wrote the following tweet: "#Avengers fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let's help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!"

Jackson needn't get too worked up, as many critics are finding "The Avengers" to be an entertaining comic book romp. The Times' own Kenneth Turan writes that "this film just might make a believer of you" — even if you've been frustrated by previous Marvel adaptations or generally uninterested in them. Turan says writer-director Joss Whedon "is the key reason why this $220-million behemoth of a movie is smartly thought out and executed with verve and precision. It may be overly long at two hours, 23 minutes, but so much is going on you might not even notice." The action scenes are "crisply done," the dialogue is often "genuinely funny," and the chemistry is "pleasantly convincing."

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SXSW 2012: Two sides of opening night with 'Cabin' and 'Babymakers'

March 10, 2012 |  4:11 pm


On the first night of South by Southwest, there were plenty of films playing around Austin on Friday, including the psychedelic-tinged Mormon pregnancy movie "Electrick Children" and the age-inappropriate rage-rampage of Bobcat Goldthwait's  "God Bless America." But the film festival's official opening night selection was the world premiere of "The Cabin in the Woods." The film, originally with MGM, will be released in April by Lionsgate after being held up for some two years due to MGM's bankruptcy proceedings.

The film's story holds many surprises that will not be spoiled here -- needless to say there is a cabin, it is in the woods and the attractive young people who make their way to it find more than they expected.  With its knowingly subversive storytelling,  "Cabin" in many ways was built for the excited, whooping horde at Austin's Paramount Theater.

"I'm about to cry onstage," director and co-writer Drew Goddard said after the screening. "That was a dream come true. Thank you."

Goddard was joined onstage by co-writer and producer Joss Whedon, actors Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins and actresses Kristen Connolly and Anna Hutchison. The audience's enthusiasm for the the movie was palpable. Goddard and Whedon talked earnestly about the process of writing and making the film, Whitford and Jenkins provided comic relief and Connolly and Hutchison added a bit of fizzy, leggy charm.

"I think this came from a place of love; we just love horror," Goddard said of the inspiration for the story, which he and Whedon wrote over three days staying together (in separate rooms) at a hotel. "It came from a place of 'all right ... it.' If we could do whatever we wanted to, let's just do that and if nothing comes of it that's fine because we just enjoyed writing it."

Perhaps revealing Austin as the college town it is, amid the questions from the audience regarding the film's references to "The Evil Dead" and "Scooby-Doo" were a number of inquiries regarding the way the film handled storytelling archetypes.

"It's not that we don't like that," Whedon responded, "it's that we feel they need to be honored, and then killed."

Whedon was asked about the film's portrayal of its female characters and why (given the film's interest in subverting stereotypes) the girls were still sexy objects of desire in tiny tops and short shorts. He responded: "We did want to be making that movie at the same time we were talking about that movie. And making images that were sexual and on occasion sexy, even if they were exploitative."

When his response garnered a smattering of applause, Whedon added: "I have never been applauded for exploitation before. This is a great festival."

The Paramount was cleared out and anther audience brought in for the world premiere of "The Babymakers," directed by Jay Chandrasekhar. Best known for his work as part of the comedy team Broken Lizard, with rowdy comedies such as "Super Troopers" and "Beerfest," Chandrasekhar seemed here to be reaching partly for something like maturity. But he's not emulating the emotionally sensitive raunch of the recent Judd Apatow school of filmmaking.

Before the screening, Chandrasekhar and his collaborator Kevin Heffernan worked the crowd a bit from onstage, including a contest to chug a couple of beers that was met with wild cheers.

The film stars Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn as a couple trying to conceive a baby. When they discover that their problem may be "confused sperm," a plan is hatched to steal back a healthy dose from an insemination clinic.  The film's greatest strength may simply be Schneider and Munn. Each has as winning a screen presence as one could ask for, and there's an unusual chemistry between Schneider's earthy authenticity and Munn's upbeat perkiness.

The movie played unevenly to the usually friendly Paramount crowd and after the film the audience thinned substantially for the Q&A. Munn wasn't present -- perhaps not surprising, given that just days ago some racy photos apparently from her cellphone appeared online.  Actor Johnny Knoxville, who starred in Chandrasekhar's big-screen version of "The Dukes of Hazzard," shouted a few joking questions from the audience to pump things up, but the energy seemed to have left the room before the credits rolled.


SXSW 2012: '21 Jump St.,' 'Cabin In The Woods' eye Bridesmaids bouquet

SXSW 2012: 'Gimme The Loot' a freewheeling inner-city adventure

SXSW 2012: 'Jeff' explores Dahmer's effect on Milwaukee

-- Mark Olsen, reporting from Austin, Texas


Photo from "The Cabin In The Woods" courtesy of the South By Southwest Film Festival.

SXSW: '21 Jump St.,' 'Cabin in the Woods' eye 'Bridesmaids' bouquet

March 8, 2012 |  3:41 pm

21 Jump Street

At one point while putting together the program for this year’s South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, the event’s producer, Janet Pierson, almost had to stop inviting films because she was concerned there wouldn’t be anywhere for the writers, director and actors to stay. Hotel bookings were up in 2011 from the year before, and finding rooms in Austin, Texas, for this year has been even tougher.

One might think becoming too popular is just the kind of problem the organizer of any event would want.

“People say they are good problems to have,” said Pierson during a recent phone call from Austin. “It’s certainly a problem of success, but it’s not a problem you want, to be clear.”

The festival, commonly known as SXSW, starts Friday with the opening night world premiere of the inside-out genre film “The Cabin in the Woods,” the directorial debut of Drew Goddard, who cowrote the film with Joss Whedon. The festival will show 130 features over its nine-day run in 10 venues ranging from the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater to a 39-seat room at the festival’s newest venue, the local arthouse Violet Crown Cinema.

This year’s edition opens to heightened expectations because of its steadily rising profile and attendance, and the success of last year’s festival, which featured the premiere of “Bridesmaids” before it became a cultural talking-point, box-office sensation and double-Oscar nominee. Last year also had “Undefeated,” which became the first film to world premiere at SXSW and go on to win an Oscar, for documentary.

“Those aren’t the markers,” said Pierson of living up to such successes. “For me, while that stuff is great and I’m super happy about it, to me the success of a film like ‘Weekend’” — filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s gay-themed romance that was an unexpected festival hit — “that’s life-changing in a way. That’s the thing you keep in the back of your head when you’re programming: How can we help completely undiscovered, unknown talent connect with the rest of the world?”

Among the films looking to break-out this year are “Jeff,” a hybrid documentary by Chris James Thompson that explores the effect of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer on the people of Milwaukee, and “Tchoupitoulas,” the vivid exploration of nighttime New Orleans by documentarians Bill and Turner Ross.

On the narrative side, there is the freewheeling graffiti-culture comedy “Gimme the Loot,” the first feature from Adam Leon; “Leave Me Like You Found Me,” the directing debut of indie producer Adele Romanski; and Austin-based filmmaker Bob Byington’s oddball fable “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”

Although SXSW may be known for its extremely indie fare, having a key role in launching the micro-budget “mumblecore” movement, organizers also have carefully cultivated a relationship to Hollywood. This year will feature the premiere of the movie adaptation/update of the television show “21 Jump Street,” with the film likely benefiting as much from the imprint of SXSW as the festival does from having stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum on its red carpet.

“It just says there might be more to this than what you expect,” said Chris Miller, codirector with Phil Lord, of premiering their roughhouse comedy at a film festival. “A ‘21 Jump Street’ movie should be met with some healthy skepticism, but I think that we’ve made something that is smarter than what you would expect and funnier than you might expect, and that South by Southwest wanted to incorporate it as part of its festival speaks to that.”

With its mix of outsider indies and smartly chosen studio films, South by Southwest has carved out a unique space in the festival landscape, with a bigger presence than smaller regional fests yet still apart from the industry-driven markets at the film festivals in Cannes, Toronto or even Sundance.

For Arianna Bocco, senior vice president of acquisitions and productions at Sundance Selects/IFC Films, the distributor who has picked up films such as “Tiny Furniture” and “Weekend” out of SXSW, it was losing out on the opportunity to distribute a low-budget genre film to a competitor that made her realize the fest had come into its own.

“I didn’t go for a couple of years,” said Bocco, who first attended more than 15 years ago, “and then I remember the year that Magnolia bought ‘Monsters’ right after the screening and I was like, ‘I can’t not be there.’ It’s reached that point where it’s competitive on all fronts.”


'21 Jump Street,' Bob Marley documentary to premiere at SXSW

Jessica Biel, Nazis top SXSW midnight movies lineup

— Mark Olsen

Photo: Jonah Hill, left, and Channing Tatum in "21 Jump Street" Credit: Scott Garfield/Columbia TriStar

Joss Whedon's 'The Cabin in the Woods' to premiere at SXSW

January 12, 2012 | 12:00 pm

Cabininthe woods

"The Cabin in the Woods," a horror movie produced and co-written by Joss Whedon and directed by "Cloverfield" screenwriter Drew Goddard, will have its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival's opening night March 9, festival organizers announced Wednesday.

About a group of friends (Chris Hemsworth, Jessie Williams, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz and Kristen Connolly) who decamp to a remote cabin for a weekend of excess, "The Cabin in the Woods" continues SXSW's historic focus on genre movies. In addition to premiering the film, Whedon will participate in a conversation at the festival March 10.

SXSW also announced that it will premiere the first three episodes of Lena Dunham's new HBO series "Girls," and Dunham and executive producer Judd Apatow will participate in a panel March 13. For Dunham, it will be a return to the festival that launched her career -- Dunham's indie comedy "Tiny Furniture" premiered at SXSW in 2010.

Additional films announced include Kevin Macdonald's Bob Marley documentary, "Marley"; Jonas Akerlund's black comedy "Small Apartments"; "Beauty is Embarrassing," a documentary about artist Wayne White; "Citadel," a psychological horror film from Irish director Ciaran Foy; and a special presentation of the 1919 Ernst Lubitsch silent film "The Oyster Princess," with an original live score performed by the instrumental quintet Bee vs. Moth.

The complete festival lineup will be announced in early February. More information about the lineup so far is available at SXSW.com/film. The 19th annual South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival will take place from March 9-17 in Austin, Texas.



SXSW 2012: Cliff Martinez, Jeffrey Tambor announced

SXSW: Texas two-step

--Rebecca Keegan


Photo: Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Holden (Jesse Williams), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Marty (Fran Kranz) and Dana (Kristen Connolly) in "The Cabin in the Woods" Credit: Diyah Pera

Was Joss Whedon right in scoffing at the 'Buffy: The Vampire Slayer' reboot?

November 23, 2010 |  1:41 pm


When a Hollywood studio remakes "The Wizard of Oz," L. Frank Baum doesn’t have a chance to send out a press release. But the tricky thing about rebooting a property that’s only been gone seven years is that the creator is usually around to say something about it.

That’s just what Joss Whedon did after Monday’s news that a young writer named Whit Anderson, who grew up watching  “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” would now tackle the new movie.

It was largely a jokey missive that Whedon sent to E! online –- he alluded to his own pillaging of a childhood favorite with his current “Avengers” –- but he didn't exactly contain his annoyance, either.

Whedon sarcastically said he was hoping to remake Batman even as Chris Nolan, of course, is proceeding with his own version, and he said he wished the new "Buffy" didn't happen this soon or without him (though he pointedly avoided addressing whether he was given the opportunity to be involved, which a source familiar with the discussions tells us he was).

“I always hoped that Buffy would live on even after my death.  But, you know, AFTER.  I don't love the idea of my creation in other hands,” he wrote, then suggested that he had at least thought about getting lawyers involved, before deciding against it. “There is no legal grounds for doing anything other than sighing audibly.”

As much as Whedon seems justified in questioning the need for one more Hollywood reboot, the idea that a recently ended TV show would get a second life as a movie shouldn’t be entirely shocking to the creator. He did just that with “Serenity,” which picked up three years after his science-fiction series “Firefly” went off the air (though that one of course ended far more abruptly than "Buffy" did).

It’s also understandable why Whedon felt the need to react; certainly, it’s an emotional topic for him. But it also is a savvy bit of positioning. If the movie now doesn’t work or isn’t embraced by fans, Whedon now has put considerable distance between himself and the movie and can say he was dubious from the start. It could also backfire, making him seem bitter that it's going on without him.

Was it a smart move on his part? More to the point, will his statement poison the well for many fans and doom the movie before it's even written? Early skepticism has plagued beloved genre properties before but fans came around when the movie was eventually released (see under: the initial backlash to the “Twilight" casting).

Then again, the Whedon crowd is an ardent one, and this kind of statement means the deck could now be seriously stacked.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: 'Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Credit: 20th Century Fox


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