In 1975, Steven Spielberg ushered in the modern blockbuster era when “Jaws” terrified audiences and smashed box office records.
It was a time when American directors were offering up smaller, more intimate looks at crime, politics and society, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” two of the year’s other big hits. But Spielberg went in the opposite direction. He was a maximalist. His work promised spectacle, of the kind that needed to be enjoyed on the big screen.
Over the ensuing decades, no director has maintained a firmer grasp of popular tastes. “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Jurassic Park” were popcorn movie totems for a generation of film lovers and Spielberg became synonymous with summer blockbuster season.
“If you ask anyone across the country or around the world to name a director, he’s at the top of the list,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “The Spielberg brand is that strong.”
But tastes shift and the failure of “The BFG” this weekend hints that Spielberg may be a different kind of filmmaker, one who’s no longer attuned to the zeitgeist. The $140 million children’s fantasy echoes “E.T.” in its construction — there’s a lonely child, a visitor from another world and an underlying current of gentle uplift. It’s easy to see why Walden Media and Disney would think they had a hit on their hands. Not only were they getting Spielberg returning to the family film genre, but “The BFG” was based on a beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl and boasted a script by “E.T.’s” Melissa Mathison.
Without a major star, however, it would fall to Spielberg to sell tickets. The director, who can be press averse, proved game, sitting for interviews with Wired and the New York Times, and taking an Entertainment Weekly reporter on a tour of Universal’s backlot (a curious choice given that “The BFG” is a Disney release).
Unfortunately for the studios and backers now staring at a write down, Spielberg isn’t the draw he once was. “The BFG,” which opened to an anemic $19.6 million, is shaping up to be one of the biggest flops of Spielberg’s career, rivaling “1941,” his bloated World War II comedy.
Some of the failure of “The BFG” has to do with Spielberg’s evolving artistic sensibility. Through the early aughts, his name above the title announced a film as an event, while his imprimatur helped lift the likes of “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds” above the summer movie fray.
Yet Spielberg seemed to turn away from these types of films over the last decade, offering up a steady diet of historical dramas such as “War Horse,” “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies.” As he aged, so did his audience. These cinematic civics lessons were primarily geared at adults — many of the same people who grew up watching “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” His only real forays into overtly commercial terrain were “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” a financially successful, but much loathed sequel, and “The Adventures of Tintin,” a motion-capture oddity that failed to fully ignite at the box office.
At DreamWorks, his production company, Spielberg’s selection of films was erratic. For every “Lincoln,” there was a costly dud such as “Need for Speed” or “The Fifth Estate.” His biggest success was producing “Jurassic World,” a return to Isla Nublar that Universal backed and Colin Trevorrow directed.
All the while, the ground was shifting beneath Spielberg’s feet. Comic-book movies are the rage now, not science-fiction spectacles or B-movie throwbacks of the kind that made his name. And when it comes to children’s movies, Pixar is the new gold standard — the company’s “Finding Dory” overshadowed “The BFG” this weekend, racking up $41.9 million in its third week of release. The box office is dominated by fewer, bigger movies, leaving little left over for the rest. In the past, Spielberg hedged against his own appeal, partnering with stars like Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, but in modern Hollywood, those actors’ appeal is wobbly. It’s superheroes who sell tickets, not the men and women behind the mask.
Even the era of the big director has faded. With the possible exceptions of Christopher Nolan or James Cameron, there are very few filmmakers whose presence behind the camera is enough to send fanboys flocking. In a sign of the generational schism when it comes to Spielberg’s appeal, 15% of audiences over 25 cited the director as the reason for buying tickets to “The BFG” compared to 8% of those under 25, according to a survey by comScore.
Though films like “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies” rank among Spielberg’s most acclaimed works and were profitable, they may not be enough to sustain him. After all, Spielberg has always been more than just a director. His reputation means that he gets the first pick of projects, a taste of theme park revenues and the backing of high profile investors. He’s more a corporation than a filmmaker, in charge of a major business apparatus, and to justify that overhead he needs more globe-spanning smashes. Amblin Entertainment, his newly relaunched production company, scored backing from the likes of Participant Media, Entertainment One and Reliance because there is a belief that Spielberg still represents good business.
From John Ford to Billy Wilder to Alfred Hitchcock, at some point every great filmmaker finds themselves at odds with the times. Spielberg will try to prove that “The BFG” is just a momentary blip on his resume, not a sign that he’s become an anachronism, when “Ready Player One” hits theaters in 2018. The adaptation of the best-selling novel unfolds in a virtual reality universe, and is a clear play for younger audiences more interested in gaming than friendly giants.
If it works, Spielberg will be back on top and freshly relevant to a younger generation. If it doesn’t, it could signal that the unthinkable has happened. Spielberg, the most commercially successful director of all time, is out of touch.
By Brent Lang