The Endless Return of Spider-Man

Peter Norbot (L) and Kris Hamilton, dressed up as fictional comic book superhero Spider-Man, wait for their turn to audition to be a part of a promotional campaign for the upcoming release of the new movie "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" in Chicago March 19, 2014. Jim Young/Reuters

The Cannes Film Festival has reached its diamond-wreathed finale. The lucky winner of this year’s Palme d’Or (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director of the Turkish drama Winter Sleep) was one of thousands of dreamers who storm Cannes’s sea-front Croisette each year, searching for the perfect star, the perfect role, script, producer, director, backer for their movie, and even at three-plus hours his film is heading for the kind of exposure filmmakers dream of. But, for the past few years, the dreamers have been stalked by a menacing, red-latex clad figure: Spider-Man, crushing the independent film-makers beneath his blue stocking-clad feet.

“The statistics don’t lie,” says Barnaby Thompson, the head of the iconic British Ealing Studios, makers of Shaun of the Dead (2004) and I Give It a Year (2013). “A greater proportion of the box office is taken up by fewer films. It’s just harder and harder to get oxygen to smaller films.” Hollywood studios used to release about 250 films a year. Last year it was around 120—but those 120 tended to have enormous budgets.

At cinemas worldwide, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is battling evil—again. This is Peter Parker’s fifth big screen outing since 2002, when Spider-Man was first made for the big screen by Sony Pictures. Then Toby Maguire’s geek-turned-superhero struggled to defeat Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and win the hand of Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson over the movie and its two sequels, Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007). The Maguire Spider-Man movies set box office records—made for a total budget of $597 million they have grossed more than $2.5 billion so far.

Sony was about to make Spider-Man 4, when suddenly they thought, “Why not start the whole story again for the next load of kids?” So The Amazing Spider-Man was born, featuring Andrew Garfield in scarlet spandex, in love with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, and fighting Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors, a.k.a. the Lizard.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), released simultaneously on IMAX and 3-D, grossed more than $752 million worldwide, the highest grossing reboot of all time. It cost $230 million to make. Amazing Spider-Man 2 (which cost $255 million) was released this month and has taken more than $500 million already. Batman, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Superman, are all simultaneously being reincarnated.

Over the past decade, these superhero movies, with their attendant computer games and plastic toys, seem to have eclipsed human stories. The vast Hollywood blockbuster franchises have almost destroyed what was once the standard fare of most Hollywood studios—the $15 million-to-$50 million medium-budget films. “Hollywood seems to have vacated the midrange film,” says Geoffrey Macnab, a writer for Screen International.

Lauren Shuler Donner is the producer behind the X-Men franchise. She spoke for a generation with the Brat Pack dramas St Elmo’s Fire (1985) and Pretty in Pink (1986). She made You’ve Got Mail (with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, 1998), Dave (with Kevin Kline, 1993) and the Free Willy, free-the-whale series—all great successes. And then in 2000 she made the fantastically successful X-Men, with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Since then she has made seven X-Men movies, and has another four in the pipeline, according to IMDB.

“It was one of the many projects I was developing," says Donner, talking with great fondness of her superheroes. “I found the theme of tolerance interesting. They are mutants, outsiders; everyone feels like that at some points in life. There are powerful women as part of the franchise. I loved the challenge of the visual effects, I love the cast. We are like a family.” 

Over the past 14 years, the X-Men films have reportedly taken over $2.5 billion at the box office.

"It’s a bit of a cycle," Donner explains. "About six years ago, the studios made some mid-range dramas and thrillers that did not do well. So they decided they would not do them anymore. The studios are now owned by conglomerates, so they answer to corporations and they have to show a bottom line. When they have a tent pole movie, the chances are higher.”

“It’s exponentially harder to make independent movies,” says Diana Phillips, a London-based American independent film producer (Death at a Funeral, 2007). “There is no theatrical space. The distribution world needs to bring in the audience who buy Coke and giant popcorn. They need Spider-Man 4 and Captain America.”

I also have some firsthand knowledge of this. Four years ago my husband William Stirling and I co-wrote and co-produced a short rom-com, Scooterman, for £10,000. Rather to our amazement, it got into Cannes, and then won audience-rated best of the fest at the L.A. Comedy Festival. And of course, Hollywood came calling and optioned our feature version. Sadly for us, Scooterman is not a superhero, but a guy on a monkey-bike in love with a girl he can’t get. We had written a cheapie, quirky British feature-length version with a £500,000 budget, but the independent producer who picked us up wanted to make a $15 million version—in 2010, that was standard Hollywood fare. And yet, four years later, that mid-range feature film has not been made. And it’s the same story with our four other, all respectably optioned, mid-range budget scripts.

Globalization is a factor in this stopped-pipeline scenario. Comedies—and some love stories—tend to be nation-specific, but whiz-bang, crash stuff plays as effectively in the remote mountains of China as it does in Chicago.

Ang Lee’s controversial Brokeback Mountain (2005), the gay love story starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two cowboys, won three Oscars, cost just $19 million to make and market, and grossed over $178 million worldwide. But it was banned in much of the Arab world and never shown in China. And $178 million doesn’t compare to Spider-Man’s $752 million if you are a hungry shareholder or studio executive on a percentage of Spider-Man’s budget.

“Our audience is global and we have to be aware of that. It used to be American culture that sold—and it still sells—but now we are embracing a global culture,” said Donner.

The rising cost of marketing is another culprit. “It costs distributors so much to market movies these days, they are much happier marketing blockbusters than risk non-brand films,” says Thompson.

A 2013 article in Vanity Fair blamed the 2007 Hollywood writer’s strike, which held up the supply of independent screenplays, and thus film production, for more than six months. Until then, author Margaret Heidenry argued, Hollywood studio executives were too busy fire-fighting each production. Suddenly, the executives had time to go through the books. They realized they didn’t need the original product of writers’ imaginations; they could hire people to rewrite old movies instead. “Whole genres died overnight,” said the piece. “Bye-Bye, Meg Ryan!”

The satirical British magazine, Private Eye, ran a cartoon of a producer at his desk, with in-trays marked “sequel,” “prequel” and “reboot” before him. “Original screenplays?” he says. “We don’t even have an in tray for that anymore.”

“Of course, if the superhero films come unstuck, then it’s a total disaster for the studio,” says U.K. independent film distributor, Robert Beeson of New Wave Films. “But they are less of a financial gamble. Only one in 10 of the mid-range films made any money.”

Even the apparently impregnable European film industry, with its state subsidies and loyal homegrown audiences, is starting to suffer. “Every time we get Batman, it crushes the market,” says Francesca Riario, who lectures on screenplay writing in Florence. “Also our subsidies have been cut. They have the same problem in Spain. The only thing that really works now in Italy is a huge Italian comedy.” Beeson agrees, with one exception: “In France there’s still a bigger market for serious movies.”

There is still light coming from the silver screen, albeit in digitally mutated versions. Dramas like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey are capturing huge audiences and making fortunes for their creators. “The smart drama has migrated to TV,” says Thompson, who made the British TV series Burke and Hare with Simon Pegg, in 2010. “The Godfather would now be a TV series.”

“Even Jane Campion (director of The Piano, 1993) got fed up of trying to finance her features,” agrees independent film director, Dictynna Hood, who made the award-winning Wreckers, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy. “She’s happily making really high-end TV series with fantastic actors where she can extend her vision.” Top of the Lake, starring Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men and Holly Hunter, who worked with Campion on The Piano, was aired in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel, the TV offshoot of the Sundance festival, dedicated to showing indie feature films, documentaries, foreign language films and short films.

Donner herself is now developing two dramas for HBO as well producing the X-Men movies. “Just like everyone else, I’ve turned to cable to make drama. But it also really depends on the script. One day, you never know, studios may suddenly jump in and develop dramas again.”

She says, then adds: “I don’t know whether movies will ever be able to complete with TV for drama again. You have so much more space to explore the characters. But it’s too bad. In the '70s and '80s movies were so good!”

As well as giving the viewers time to savor a new world, TV’s huge technical advantage is that its screen is the same size and shape as a computer. This is the medium through which ever-increasing numbers receive their entertainment— something that the big studios have yet to come to terms with.

“Cinema has always been slow to respond to technology,” says Thompson. “They were terrified of TV, of video, DVD, downloading; but my son and daughter will watch certain movies at the cinema, but others they’ll watch on an iPad. The moment the business accepts that, everything will change, and the smaller and medium-sized can have profitable lives.”

“Increasingly, films are being distributed simultaneously online, video-on-demand and the cinema,” says Beeson, who is releasing the Palestinian drama, When I Saw You, through Curzon. “Films won’t be able to play at the multiplexes if you do that, but most of the indie films can’t do that anyway.”

“Eventually, we will be like iTunes,” said Donner. “It will be pay on demand, but I don’t know if one could afford to make a $10 million movie and distribute it that way. It is a business.”

Luckily, also thanks to digital technology, never been cheaper to make a film. So festivals like Cannes, Toronto and Sundance have become even more important. “They’re your chance of getting your film seen and heard,” says Thompson, who was at Cannes for five days this year.

Digital filmmaking has also opened up a whole new genre—the documentary feature. Sebastian Junger, writer of The Perfect Storm, directed the 2010 Oscar-winning Restrepo, which explores the year that Junger and late British-American journalist Tim Hetherington spent in Afghanistan embedded with the U.S. Army. Real people are much cheaper to film than actors. There are no sets and, because of the Internet again, there is a good chance of getting funding on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. 

Again, our experience has mirrored the industry: Scooterman producers now want our cheap £500,000 version of Scooterman; and we’re on track to shoot our super-indie £500,000 art-house modern adaption of Ancient Greek Euripides’s great anti-war tragedy, The Trojan Women, updated to a modern war. Euripides’s gods, however, may be flawed but they don’t save the day. There’s not much room for Spider-Man there.