Nerd Rant: Summer 2011 Wrap Up and the Demise of "New" Fantasy, Horror and Sci-Fi

With August coming to a close, now is a good time to look back at the last three months of movie releases aimed at the fantasy, horror and sci-fi audiences. The way I see it, the summer of 2011 was largely divided into two halves: the first half consisted of superhero movies and the second half of remakes/reboots, with the release of the final Harry Potter movie, the adaptation of the seventh book in a best-selling novel series, unintentionally marking the halfway point between these two halves. Most of the other films that don't fit into these categories--namely, Cowboys and Aliens, the third Transformers movie, and Final Destination 5--are also based on some pre-existing material (Cowboys on a comic book, Transformers on a toy line and its tie-in cartoons, and Final Destination 5 on four previous films in a series). For as much as I have enjoyed many of these movies, they left me asking this question: Where did all the new stuff go?

When I say "new stuff" here, I'm talking about movies that tell stories that haven't been seen before in any other medium (novels, comic books, TV, video games, etc.). Take Super 8, for example: It may have been a tribute to Steven Spielberg's work from the '80s, but it wasn't a direct adaptation of a story that originated from another source. There were other films like this, such as Another Earth and Attack the Block, but neither of these titles were widely promoted and distributed.

To be sure, new horror titles will be arriving in movie theaters soon--Apollo 18, Creature and Shark Night 3D--but those are fall releases, not summer releases. (I'm somewhat baffled by the fall release of Shark Night 3D, because its over-the-top plot and presentation format are ideally suited for the summer season.) There were also the sci-fi/fantasy titles of Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau, but they were released well before the summer movie season started. This leads me to another question: Have the big studios completely abandoned the release of franchise-less, no-brand-name fantasy, horror and sci-fi movies during the summer? It would appear that way, and that this is the new status quo with no change in sight.

Read on for more thoughts about this change in movie releases during the summer and what it could mean for present and future fantasy, horror and sci-fi movie fans.

Many would argue that Hollywood's current preference of superhero movies and remakes are indicative of its lack of new ideas. I would argue otherwise: It’s not that there aren't any new stories out there, it's just that Hollywood refuses to invest in them. It appears to me that the larger the media conglomerates get, the more likely they are to release new content based on pre-existing creative properties they already own instead of actively encouraging the development of new creative properties. There are a number of reasons for this, the most obvious one being that pre-existing titles have a built-in audience and more opportunities for spin-offs and ancillary merchandising, thus reducing the financial risk of their development and release.

Take this year's Green Lantern, for example. Even though it under-performed at the box office, Time Warner has plenty of chances to make its money back through Green Lantern merchandising such as toys, t-shirts, video games, straight-to-DVD content and other tie-ins. Throw in the upcoming animated Green Lantern TV series and the additional merchandising opportunities that it will create and the Green Lantern character will likely remain a profitable property even if its first foray into live-action film wasn't a blockbuster hit. (Heck, even if live-action superhero movies in general become less profitable over the next few summers, the mega-media corporations will always be interested in DC and Marvel superhero titles as long as they continue to maintain large and devoted fan bases that have large amounts of disposable income.)

For some additional perspective on this issue, I've decided to put on my old man pants and use The Numbers site to assemble a list of fantasy, horror and sci-fi films that were released during the summer movie seasons (from May to August) of the 1980s. The media corporations then weren't what they are now, and I think it shows in terms of what they were willing to develop, distribute and release during that decade. To further emphasize my point, the list below does not include sequels, remakes, or movies based comic books, toys or bestselling novels.

1980: Friday the 13th, Galaxina, Prom Night, He Knows You're Alone

1981: Graduation Day, Happy Birthday To Me, Outland, Clash of the Titans, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dragonslayer, Escape from New York, Student Bodies, Hell Night, Condorman, Deadly Blessing, An American Werewolf in London

1982: The House Where Evil Dwells, Visiting Hours, Poltergeist, E.T., Megaforce, Tron, The Beastmaster

1983: Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, War Games, The Man with Two Brains, Krull, Yor: Hunter From the Future, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, Fire and Ice

1984: Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Last Starfigher, Electric Dreams, The NeverEnding Story, The Philadelphia Experiment, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Dreamscape, C.H.U.D.

1985: The Goonies, D.A.R.Y.L., Cocoon, Lifeforce, Back to the Future, Explorers, Fright Night, My Science Project, Warning Sign

1986: Space Camp, Labyrinth, Big Trouble in Little China, Vamp, Maximum Overdrive, Flight of the Navigator, Night of the Creeps

1987: The Gate, The Believers, Predator, Innerspace, RoboCop, The Lost Boys, The Monster Squad, The Rosary Murders

1988: Dead Heat, Willow, Waxwork, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

1989: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Abyss, Millennium, Little Monsters

Only a few of these titles could be considered classics and many of them are low-budget rip-offs of better films; nevertheless, they are fantasy, horror and sci-fi movies that made it to the big screen (some longer than others). This meant that they got at least some attention from the public, including trailers on TV and in front of other movies, as well as posters displayed at local movie theaters and ads posted in local newspapers. This is why I chose not survey the '90s, largely because that decade saw the rise of more direct-to-video releases of fantasy, horror and sci-fi than theatrical releases, a trend that has continued to this day.

This is not to say that the media corporations have completely given up on making fantasy, horror and sci-fi movies that are not based on pre-existing properties, it's just that such films are no longer considered by the corporations to be guaranteed revenue generators and are thus given a much lower priority. Thus, they're more likely to be found in the theaters during the fall and spring months, usually when younger, budding fantasy, horror and sci-fi film fans are in school. With such curtailed distribution of new films, what could this mean for future generations of fans?

For starters, home video--DVDs, Blu-rays, and downloadable video--will be the future method of distribution for many fantasy, horror and sci-fi movies that feature unique, groundbreaking stories. I've heard for some time now that with the arrival of hi-definition home video systems that include large, flatscreen TVs and surround sound audio, the future of movie theaters could be in jeopardy. If that is so, then one of the conclusions of this analysis is that fantasy, horror and sci-fi movie fans will be among the first audiences to leave the theaters to find new releases in their preferred film franchises elsewhere.

Another shift will be on the importance of other forms of media (such as magazines, books, and Web sites) and fan-focused events (such as local conventions and film festivals), which will have to pick up the slack in promoting new fantasy, horror and sci-fi movies. This also includes the community of local horror hosts, a trend that started back in the late '50s to promote horror and sci-fi films on syndicated television. For example, in the Washington DC area alone, Count Gore De Vol still hosts his Creature Feature show on his own site, which features news about both old and new(er) horror films, while Dr. Sarcofiguy and his co-host Boo dePest are involved in the annual Washington DC International Horror Festival, which is held every October in Arlington, VA. That's right: Even though the entertainment industry is cranking out more movies per month than any previous time in Hollywood history, it could very well be up to a form of local movie promotion that dates back to the '50s to keep new generations of fantasy, horror and sci-fi film fans informed of new releases.

So there you have it. It's not that there weren't any good fantasy, horror or sci-fi films released during the summer of 2011, it's just that a certain kind of fantasy, horror or sci-fi film was conspicuously absent from theaters during those months. The patterns of distribution of new fantasy, horror and sci-fi film films have changed significantly over the last few years, and their fans will have to adjust their expectations whenever the summer season comes around. Nevertheless, as someone who grew up during a time when fans like me could look forward to the lazy, hazy days of summer to see the latest movies made by the likes of John Carpenter, John Landis, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Tom Holland and Robert Zemeckis on the big screen, this still feels like some kind of loss.


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