Tony Black on what the future holds for Steven Spielberg following the box office disappointment of The BFG…
This week, The BFG joined this year’s list of ‘illustrious’ flops, at least in the US where it tanked hard as it released off the back of Indepedence Day: Resurgence and the much more successful Finding Dory. That puts it in the same house as The Huntsman’s Winter War, Gods of Egypt & Zoolander 2. A Steven Spielberg movie. Based on a legendary children’s book by Roald Dahl. This can’t be right, surely? Well for whatever reason, nobody wanted to smell what The BFG was cooking, and almost immediately commentators and sites decried this box office failure as the metaphorical ‘death of Spielberg’, suggesting the master of modern cinema has lost his magic touch with the takings and, moreover, has lost that special ingredient which made him arguably the most in-touch Hollywood director with pop culture of certainly the late 20th century, and in the history of cinema in general. Such negative hyperbole is a mistake. This is not the first time a Spielberg film has been critically under appreciated, and at a time like this it’s worth glancing back at his seemingly glowing career and remind ourselves not everything Steven has given us had the Midas touch.
How will Spielberg be remembered? As one of the pioneers of the American New Wave that came out of the 70’s, alongside Francis Ford Coppola & Martin Scorsese & George Lucas arguably, but history will also record him as the father of the modern cinematic blockbuster. Lucas may have given us the biggest escapism franchise in history but Spielberg, with Jaws onwards in 1975, reinvented what an ‘event’ movie, often for all the family, essentially means. Jaws made $470 million off a $9 million budget, the kind of takings most filmmakers could only dream of. What people often forget though is how his career has been littered with as many dramas or experimental pieces than the titanic, box office chewing event pictures synonymous with his name. His first two films, before Jaws, were a tense Hitchockian chase thriller (Duel, in my mind still his greatest movie, but that’s another article in the making…) & a crime drama (The Sugarland Express), both shot cheaply and neither of which made any financial impact (Duel was originally made for TV, for starters).
Spielberg’s first major critical disaster came only two films after Jaws, with 1979’s 1941, meant as a comedic satire of Pearl Harbor but which has only gained praise in cult film circles. It made $95 million off a $35 million budget, putting it in the black, but only just, and such a profit margin these days would be considered not living up to standard. People could have suggested, and no doubt did, that the Spielberg bubble had burst. So what did he do next? Disappear into cinematic ignominy? Oh he just founded the globally successful Amblin Entertainment with Kathleen Kennedy & Frank Marshall and went off to make a little known picture called Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981. No biggie.
The 80’s belonged to Spielberg. Name a legendary film of that era and he was probably attached to it. The Indiana Jones trilogy, The Blues Brothers, Gremlins, Poltergeist, E.T., Back to the Future, The Goonies, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Every single one had Spielberg’s name on the door, even when he didn’t direct. He cemented his reputation as one of the magicians of the popular, exciting cinema the more technological, bright and colourful world that emerged from the dark & dour 70’s was embracing, but even during this decade he was experimenting. Take The Color Purple, his first true drama in over a decade, adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It was critically and financially well taken, but it could easily have been another misstep from a director who wasn’t known for period drama material.
What it did was prove Spielberg was more than one entity as a creative, capable of more than simply thrilling or chilling an audience, and moving into the 90’s he balanced those dual sensibilities with a range of movies that to some degree perhaps even eclipsed his 80’s triumphs; family darling Hook, legendary adventure Jurassic Park, and remarkably in the same year, 1993, Schindler’s List, perhaps after Shoah the most applauded examination of the Holocaust ever committed to celluloid. Sure, The Lost World: Jurassic Park was probably his least enjoyed film since 1989’s forgotten Always, but it still made $618 million off a $73 million budget, making it a monster of a hit. Soon after, when his searing war epic Saving Private Ryan came out, Spielberg fully had proven one thing: he was pretty much capable of anything and, on the whole, audiences would lap it up.
Having presumably realised this, in the 2000’s Spielberg really began to experiment. He largely left the franchises he’d created behind and moved into new territory, trying out a varying range of genres. He finished off a gestated Stanley Kubrick project in A.I., dabbled in the caper with Catch Me If You Can, and returned to the Jewish problem for Munich. Does anyone know which of Spielberg’s films in the 2000’s made the least amount of money? Munich is the answer. Did any of them lose money? Not one. Were all of them critically beloved? Not at all. Indeed if Spielberg is ever considered to have a fallow patch, it’ll probably be the 2000’s people point to (then again it could well be the 2010’s…). People didn’t gush over A.I., nor The Terminal, and the reaction to ill-advised fourth sequel Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was positively, if you’ll forgive the pun, nuclear.
Again, it was another place, much like at the end of the 1970’s, where people were suggesting Spielberg had lost the ability to enthral or entertain, certainly off the back of the Indy disaster (a disaster that made almost $800 million though, it must be pointed out). In 2011 he responded with The Adventures of Tintin (a rare foray into animation for the director, certainly as the helmsman), and the perhaps under-seen War Horse, but in 2012 he responded to his critics with Lincoln, perhaps his most powerful biopic and examination of American history yet. This last decade saw a shift in Spielberg’s output which could have been one of the factors as to why The BFG failed, but the point I’m making is this: that film did not tank because Spielberg, coming up to 70, is past it.
In the last few years, certainly based on his last few films, Spielberg appeared to have left the escapism behind. Bridge of Spies last year was more in the murky, period politics vein of Munich, but it was a firm critical hit and even reached the Oscars for consideration. It cemented his newfound dynamic with British theatre actor Mark Rylance, who of course won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies & portrayed the BFG himself in the brand new movie. The BFG as a film however sees Spielberg going back to his early days creating family movies, hopeful adventures based on classic texts, while his next movie about to shoot (also set to feature Rylance) is an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s brilliant Ready Player One, which creates a world itself very indebted to Spielberg and could be one of the director’s most joyous, nostalgic movies yet.
Couple this with his involvement on the production side of the monster hit Jurassic World last year, and indeed how Indiana Jones 5 lies in his future (for better or worse), means the Spielberg we grew up knowing and loving hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s got older, we’ve got older, and cinematic tastes have changed. The youth market turn out to see superheroes, more than anything else, or very specific blockbuster interests such as fast cars, spaceships or dinosaurs. Spielberg no longer makes films for them, he makes films for their dads, and The BFG just didn’t fall into the bracket of appealing to either dads or their kids, if we’re being honest. It’s not a question of Spielberg’s ability, it’s a question of the bizarre trend that is modern cinema, and it proves even the most legendary directorial names can’t always guarantee they’re going to make everything they create a hit.
The BFG is still yet to open in the UK of course, and other territories who will make it more money and may enjoy it on a greater basis, but what we need to take from this failure is that Steven Spielberg remains above reproach. He’s always had failures. He’s always had films that didn’t quite hit the same creative or cultural chord as his Raiders or E.T.‘s or Close Encounters, but those are the successes people remember, and they often forget the pictures that have fallen away into the mists of time for being merely good, rather than legendary or groundbreaking. So let’s give the guy a break because, and you can put money on this, his next two films are going to be giant hits which remind us the teenager inside Spielberg who has always loved making entertaining, fun movies, has never gone away.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.