Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Heath Holland On...Exploitation Nation IV: The Future

Junesploitation is almost over. What have I learned?

The carnival is leaving town.

The sky is grey and cloudy. There’s a slight drizzle, causing a damp chill in the air. The workers are breaking down the rides and the crowds have all dispersed, leaving the distinct quiet that always, inevitably, follows the madness of the night before. It’s back to reality.

Junesploitation had impeccable timing. During the busiest part of the summer movie season when studios were releasing some of their biggest, most bloated movies into theaters, we’ve spent the month of June watching modestly budgeted exploitation films. Thank God for them.

Meanwhile, outside of our Junesploitation bubble, entire economies were being bought and sold. The combined budgets of just three of June’s major theatrical releases total over half a billion dollars: Man of Steel with a budget of 225 million, World War Z at 200 million, and Monsters University being estimated at near, or possibly over, 200 million.
A couple of weeks ago, there was a panel at the University of Southern California that featured Don Mattrick, the head of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Department. But the real draw was the attendance of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (or was it Spieven Steelberg?).

The discussion that day made for some big headlines. Spielberg and Lucas, two men who KNOW what they’re talking about, basically pronounced that we’re in a period in which things are only going to get worse and worse at the box office. They both feel we’re at the end of a cycle in which movie studios have killed small movies and set the investment/return bar so high that it’s all about to implode.

Spielberg talked about how studios are currently only interested in making 200+ million dollar movies with the hopes that those projects then will become blockbusters and return many times that investment. No one, he says, is interested in the less expensive, more personal movies of the past. He talked about how his film Lincoln was almost a cable movie project for HBO because it wasn’t current blockbuster material. He also lamented that his movies used to stay in theaters for a year or more, but now they’re in hotels two weeks after they are released.

Lucas seemed to paint an even darker picture. In his view, a night at the movies is soon to be akin to a night seeing a Broadway play or a sporting event, where the evening will cost 100 or 150 dollars. His thoughts are that theaters are going to make going to the movies more of an experience and more of a luxury in order to increase revenues. Cable television and the rise of internet content, he feels, has almost entirely killed the traditional theatrical experience.
It’s easy to think that this all seems a little bit like Chicken Little proclaiming that the sky is falling, but these guys are right. I wonder if they had some inside information (probably), because just a few days later it was announced that certain theaters in five major markets (Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston, San Diego) were selling $50 tickets for World War Z. For that hefty sum, you got a ticket to see the movie two days earlier than the rest of America, plus other incentives: a movie poster, a pair of 3D glasses, a small popcorn and a digital copy of the film upon its eventual home video release. Since that move, there’s already been discussion about selling similar packages for $100 or more. The bottom line is that movie studios are experimenting with how much they can get away with charging for tickets so that they can continue to make more and more expensive, “must see” movies.

Why am I bringing all this up in this week’s Exploitation Nation? Two reasons: first, we’re actually witnessing, in real time, the death of the kinds of movies we’ve been watching all month. Independent studios will always make smaller personal movies that give people what they want to see, but in a market of 200 and 300 million dollar movies, they’re going to be harder than ever to find. They will probably never make it to a theater.

The second reason I bring this up is because now these major movie studios are no longer exploiting things like gratuitous violence or gore, they’re exploiting YOU AND ME and seeing how much we will let them get away with.

There are fewer and fewer movies being released each year. The money that used to be allocated for financing, say, 25 movies in a year is now being used to finance about 5 absolutely gigantic movies. I have huge problems with this for several reasons. These movies are generic and disposable and MOST of them do not work. Of the movies that we watch each year, few of them end up being memorable. I think we can agree to being disappointed with a large portion of each year’s releases. We either get a) terrible failures, or b) forgettable, cookie cutter movies.
The other reason is that our entertainment is costing billions of dollars every single year. I have a problem knowing that a movie like Man of Steel cost more to make than some of the economies of third world countries produce in a year. Is our entertainment worth so much that we can justify such gross (in both definitions of the word) expense? At what point does this become irresponsible and wasteful?

But all is not lost! I’ve been watching exploitation movies for a long time, but I’ve never watched so many so quickly and of such a variety as I have during Junesplotation. It’s taught me something. It’s proved to me how much I love and value so many of these films and how wonderful they still are. I’ve come to believe that these movies are not only the past, but also the future. The stars that we’ve focused on this month (Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Sid Haig, Charles Bronson) and the genres of exploitation that we’ve covered (Italian horror, spaghetti westerns, 80s horror, kung fu and samurai/ninja movies) have been a revelation. They’ve proven to me that this is where I belong.

Almost every single one of the movies I’ve watched this last month has had an impact on me. I’ve already forgotten much of Star Trek: Into Darkness, but I can’t shake the image of ninjas on kites, floating silently above their prey, from Duel to The Death. Nor can I stop thinking about the killer in The House By The Cemetery, who spilled maggots from his guts when he was stabbed, or of Jim Kelly throwing an entire gang of bad guys through every window of a train car, one after another.
These images and experiences will stick with me. These are the movies I want to see, and this is the place I want to be. Things look pretty dark for the future of mainstream cinema, and it sounds like it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. Dozens of superhero movies, uninspired CGI fests with interchangeable plots, and ill-conceived remakes of classics all no doubt lie before us like a never-ending sea of sameness. What better time and opportunity to keep the spirit of exploitation alive for future generations? I don’t want to live in that cookie cutter world. I want to be the rebel voice drawing attention to the largely unseen corners of modern movies.

We can’t let it die; as long as movies have existed there’s been exploitation. This has been, and will always be, an Exploitation Nation. I hope you join me in preserving the cinema of cool, the films of the fantastic, and the world of weird that exists out there, just below the surface.

And I hope I see you at the Grindhouse.


  1. Great article but had a couple thoughts. I don’t think things are as bad as you (and Steelberg) are making them out to be.

    I think more movies are getting released now than ever before. It just makes it harder for real movie fans like us to dig through the trash (soulless and otherwise) and find the real gems.

    Here are a few movies that were not giant tentpole blockbusters that I loved from just the past couple years that could fit into Junesploitation:

    Hobo with a Shotgun,
    Beyond the Black Rainbow,
    The Comedy,
    Hit and Run,
    Sushi Girl,
    The Raid,
    The Woman,
    Four Lions,
    Piranha 3D.

    1. Your list emphasizes the point that I am making in this column. Very few of the movies you named above came from the major studio system. They were imports, indies, and lower budget passion projects. Champion those! That's what I'm saying. In a time of 200 to 300 million dollar CGI fests, the movies like the ones you listed above need our support more than ever. Keep these movies in your heart (with Christmas!). Man of Steel does not need your support. Hit and Run does.

      I do not state in this column that there aren't any good movies being released anymore. I'm not sure if it's my tone, or if it's just easy to extrapolate from what I HAVE said and take it to the next level.

      I'm championing exploitation film and low budget film making. They NEED us. That's where the future lies. The major studios will go bankrupt at the rate they're going, and the industry cannot sustain a perpetual blockbuster mentality. THESE movies shown above are where I want to spend my time. That's what I'm sayin'.

  2. Heath, let me disagree with you slightly. I've enjoyed these exploitation movies as much as you and look forward to seeing more, in my own free time and whenever Patrick decides to bring 'Junesploitation' back (next August, maybe? :-P). But I'm not ready to part with my "John Carter's" or my "Iron Man 3's" or my big tentpole big-money summer/holiday/Oscar bait blockbusters. Yes, too much of Hollywood's product is now geared toward these gigantic global markets, with variety and potential mold-breaking types of narratives being jettisoned to lowest-common denominator or "safe" stuff. When Steven freaking Spielberg has trouble getting something like "Lincoln" off the ground theatrically (or George Lucas struggles to get "Red Tails" made, let alone released) you know the tide of the blockbuster is here to stay and only an eventual financial crash (budgets so expensive not even a blockbuster box office return would suffice) will reset things.

    But Heath, do you honestly want to live on a steady diet of just cheaply-made and constantly-struggling-to=find-the-good-one's low-budget cinema? I don't. Any extreme that excludes the other is not a healthy way to live and experiment cinema. I want my steady dose of grindhouse and exploitation to go hand-in-hand with my steady dose of classic B&W, my dose of foreign cinema, my dose of indie cinema, my dose of animation (Pixar's as well as Miyazaki's and everything in-between), my dose of cult/avant garde cinema and, yes, my dose of brain-dead-but-awesome Hollywood blockbusters. I love "The Inglorious Bastards," but I also want "Inglorious Basterds" and "The Dirty Dozen" next to them on my shelf.

    1. Well said JM, I agree with every word.

    2. I would and could never subsist SOLELY on low budget movies. There are a couple of major releases that I'm looking forward to later in the summer. But we do have to be careful, because the success of these big movies does directly affect the success of little movies. If you can even find them at the movies. When Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem was released earlier this year, it didn't even show where I live. AT ALL. That's where we're at, and that's the spirit I'm writing this week's column with. Keep a fire for the small film.

  3. Heath! Friend, brother, secret lover, I must join the slowly growing chorus of commentors who see where you're coming from but aren't fully on board with where you're going.

    I too have greatly enjoyed this month and all the cool movies I've watched for the first time - I look forward to referring back to the posts from this month to check out even more (some sort of Superlist of everyone's recco's would be greatly appreciated...) - I agree with everything you have to say about how wonderful this dark and sticky-floored corner of the cinematic world is.

    However, and this might have something to do with my rediscovery of going to the theatre and the old "I'm at the Movies!!!" effect, I've also really been enjoying what the mainstream has to offer. e.g. Man of Steel, for all its flaws, is still a good time out at the movies and I want more of that.

    Bottom-line is that I appreciate both the passion and innovation that goes into great Grindhouse fare AND the technical mastery and polish of mainstream cinema and hope there's always room for both.

    Time will tell, but you'd think with how cheap the equipment required to shoot a movie is getting, that we'll only see more and more passion projects exploring this world of weird (and getting weirder) that we live in!

    1. I do think we'll see more and more passion projects in the future. I hope to have a hand in making a few of them myself. The problem will be finding those movies, because they probably won't be in theaters. Which is too bad. It will probably be something you run across on cable one night, or that you saw on Youtube. That's why we need the F This Movie Grindhouse.

    2. With your comments adding some additional context to your article, I think I see how we all kind of missed your point and got hung up on the idea that you wanted to see nothing but low-budget exploitation films from now on. I'm seeing now that you were more talking about these kinds of movies not getting much of a theatrical release, if any. e.g. Some of the great movies Matt S. mentions in his list certainly never saw a big screen in my hometown (nor did The Lords of Salem for that matter).

      I used to be almost exclusively a DVD/Blu-ray guy so I didn't notice that gems like The Woman couldn't get the time of day from my local multiplex - now that I've become a regular theatre-goer again (probably the first New Years Resolution I've ever kept, albeit an easy one) I'm going to be more aware of the absence of cool Indy flicks, and you're right, that sucks big time. Bring on the F This Movie Grindhouse indeed!