The year of 2014 has once again been a memorable one for Hollywood. The ups, downs, the pleasant surprises, the harsh disappointments, the underdogs, there have been all sorts of stories that the year has seen. I have picked out five stories though that have been impactful and eventful and are likely to have a bearing on the direction Hollywood moves forward from now on.
Transformers conquering China
Releasing a fourth film of a franchise is a tricky thing, no matter how popular the franchise has been. It is all the more difficult to give the audience something new for a series like the Transformers franchise which largely relies on the lavishness of its visual effects to enthrall the audience, at the expense of flimsy plots. When director Michael Bay decided to return for a fourth Transformers film, the biggest question would have been, what would he deliver that the Americans have not already seen in the previous three films. The answer was, nothing. Michael Bay pulled off the greatest marketing move of the year, when instead of focusing on the Americans, he chose to attract the Chinese. Rather than changing the story, you change the audience! Transformers: Age of Extinction had a new set of human characters led by Mark Wahlberg, but brought back the Autobots of the old led by Optimus Prime, and once again had astounding visuals with large scale action that was as much fun to watch as meaningless. But in the midst of all this, Michael Bay did this — he set much of the movie in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, he cast Chinese actress Li Bingbing, he shamelessly had Chinese product placements in the movie, he held the movie’s global premiere in Hong Kong, and he had the movie release in China on the same day as in America thus reducing the market opportunity for the pirated copies to flourish. The end result? The movie earned $245 million in North America, but slightly over $300 million in China! The fact that the movie was the lowest earning one in the Transformers franchise in the USA did little to dampen its total worldwide earnings which crossed $1 billion, as it became the biggest Hollywood movie in China… ever! Michael Bay showed the true power of the Chinese market; whether it came at the cost of the artistic output is another debate altogether, but it did make a whole lot of money, and almost guarantees a fifth instalment soon.
The rise of Marvel in the world of Hollywood has been there for all to see. From 2008’s The Iron Man to 2012’s The Avengers, we saw Marvel’s grand plan of creating such a large cinematic universe, which one movie in itself cannot contain, come to life. This journey has been truly beautiful! But Marvel’s litmus test came this year, deep into Phase II, and so close to the next adventure of the Avengers. Marvel began the year with the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and that too for the first time, in the month of April. The sheer confidence of Marvel to not choose a slot in the summer period is astonishing. And if you were thinking that Captain America: The Winter Soldier would be one of those movies that are meant to be fillers, just to bring the audience closer to the upcoming Avengers flick, then how wrong were you! Directed by the Russo brothers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier raised the bar for superhero movies. It was carved out like a political thriller with a superhero in the midst of it; a 89% score on Rottentomatoes and a 7.8 score on Imdb tells you how much it was appreciated, and if that doesn’t matter much, then the $714 million worldwide earnings certainly does.
Marvel then had the tough task of introducing a whole new bunch of superheroes to the audience; a group of four intergalactic beings in one movie. Until now, the superheroes had been the ones we had seen in The Avengers, and so it was time to learn how good Marvel would be with a new group. As it turns out, Guardians of the Galaxy was another smash hit for Marvel. The movie was the one thing that superhero movies had stopped being — all-out fun! It was humourous, action-packed, crazy, and an adventure you would want to be in. Director James Gunn brought together some of the craziest creatures and turned them into one of the most loved lots of the year. The movie has earned $772 million worldwide so far, and in the Marvel cinematic universe it stands behind only The Avengers and Iron Man 3 in terms of earnings. With both these movies, Marvel has proved that it ain’t ready to rest on its laurels yet, but will continue to give the audience something fresh, something different, something worth remembering each time they step into the theatres. The excitement of next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is not unfounded!
The return of Angelina Jolie
The star appeal of Angelina Jolie is limited not only to the USA but extends across the globe. She is the epitome of what it truly is to be a superstar. Having said that, Angelina Jolie had been last seen on the big screen way back in 2010 in The Tourist. In 2011, she did voice the character of Tigress for Kung Fu Panda 2, and worked on her directorial debut with In the Land of Blood and Honey which did not really take off. So even though for the subsequent period of more than two years, Jolie did not really fade away from the news (be it for her humanitarian activities or her double mastectomy), she had disappeared from the Hollywood landscape. Until 2014. This year saw Angelina Jolie’s return to the big screen playing the titular character in Disney’s Maleficent. It was a big budget film, based on the story of a villain, starring Angelina Jolie whose box-office appeal had to be re-gauged, and a debutant director in Robert Stromberg. The movie’s success was hardly a foregone conclusion. But trust Jolie to leave her mark! Despite the mixed reviews for the film (49% on Rottentomatoes), the audience and the critics were raving about Angelina Jolie and her display of the charming, vengeful and larger-than-life character of Maleficent. The movie was not just a hit, it was a smash hit! It has earned $758 million worldwide, which includes $516 million from foreign markets alone which is higher than the foreign earnings of the Disney / Marvel films of the year (Captain America: The Winter Soldier & Guardians of the Galaxy). Angelina Jolie was truly back, with horns and wings, and style and charisma! Maleficent was not the only high point of Jolie’s year. At Christmas, her second directed film Unbroken had a strong opening in North America. It has earned $46 million on its opening four days and has done admirably better than other WWII films released this year which had bigger stars on screen. She also tied the knot with Brad Pitt in the year, and has begun work on her next directorial feature By the Sea. 2014 may well mark the beginning of a new chapter for this superstar.
The unfortunate demises
The demise of a popular personality associated with the film industry always leaves a bit of a hollowness which is difficult to fill. It is devastating not only for the family members, but also for multitudes of fans who have been inspired by the works of such people. But more saddening is when the artist’s death is untimely, a jolting piece of news that you had never thought of. Something that seems unreal in the initial moments until reality hits you. On February 2, 2014, a news of such proportions broke out when Academy award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his Manhattan apartment. The reason of death was announced as acute mixed drug intoxication. Hoffman had struggled with drug and alcohol abuse from a very young age, and he was to eventually lose his battle to drugs at the age of only 46. Philip Seymour Hoffman was an extremely talented actor, anyone who has seen Capote would rave about him, and at the time of his demise he was in the midst of shooting for The Hunger Games films. One of those actors who could emote expressions by just his body language and the look in his eyes, Hoffman would be gravely missed.
On August 11, 2014, there was another shocking news awaiting Hollywood fans. 63-year old actor Robin Williams had died. A grim story indeed as the comedian who had brought warmth to so many lives, committed suicide at his home. He had been suffering from severe depression, a thing which many of us would find hard to fathom as all we can remember of him is the highly spirited and affable actor of great movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting amongst many more. Robin Williams was not only an immensely gifted comedian but also a very serious actor who could subtly change the mood of a scene and make a connection deep in your heart. A man who has inspired many more comedians, an actor who will never be forgotten, Robin Williams’ departure was one of the saddest moments of the year indeed.
The Interview and the hack
The Interview was a R-rated comedy film, a political parody, supposed to release in the final week of December 2014 and in all likelihood expected to do modest box-office business, without creating any earth-shattering news. It turned out to be much much more. The movie, which was the second directorial venture of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg after This Is The End, had a storyline revolving around the attempted assassination of the North Korean leader. This did not go well in North Korean political circles, for obvious reasons, and in June 2014, the North Korean Government announced action against the USA if the movie was released. While one would have expected nothing more than the further souring of relations between the two countries who are anyways not the best of pals, things took a much more dramatic turn in November. The computer systems of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the parent company of Columbia Pictures which is distributing The Interview, was hacked by a group called “Guardians of Peace”. This group is said to have ties with North Korea. The hackers then released a lot of sensitive information about Sony Pictures including unreleased films, slew of emails, and even salaries of the top executives. The Interview was pulled off from the theatres with Sony stating that the theatres were unwilling to run it. This was no longer about a war between a group of hackers and a movie studio. It became an escalated issue about the freedom of expression, in which even the US President Barack Obama had a few words to say (which were in the direction of getting Sony to release the movie). It became about cyber bullying which is so rampant in today’s world. It was the dress rehearsal of a new age of crime wave, already existent but probably being seen on such a scale now, that of demanding ransom through hacking. It was a warning to many corporates about the need to strengthen their IT systems. The Interview did subsequently have a limited theatrical release in the USA. It was also made available through online purchase and rentals where it has already become the biggest grossing movie for Sony. Nonetheless, Sony will have to work on seeking preventive measures against such future hacks, and the same would apply to many other firms. This has been indeed a one-of-a-kind story creating far reaching ripples!