- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

Hollywood has never had a consistent challenger when it comes to big-budget, action-adventure-type releases. While foreign markets long have succeeded at producing prestige pictures — critical darlings that may do well at festivals and the Oscars but tend to be ignored at the box office — they have offered no real challenge to American hegemony over action-packed popcorn movies.

Globalization has spread from industry to industry, however, and moviemaking is no exception. More films than ever are shot overseas to cut down on costs; special-effects shops have cropped up around the globe and can compete with the best America has to offer; a new generation of foreign directors has arisen who are comfortable combining the spectacle of Hollywood with an original, indie sensibility.

Look at “District 9,” the somewhat surprising sci-fi hit that has grossed almost $80 million since its debut two weeks ago. A New Zealander (Peter Jackson) spearheaded its production, a South African (Neill Blomkamp) directed, and another (Sharlto Copley) starred. The picture was shot in South Africa and New Zealand, and companies from Canada and New Zealand did the bulk of the special-effects work.

Mr. Jackson is accustomed to bypassing the standard Hollywood production model: His “Lord of the Rings” films also were shot in New Zealand with a largely foreign cast, crew and effects company. He’s not alone, as a contingent of foreign filmmakers led by Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) have been wowing action audiences for much of the decade.

Does the success of “District 9” and those other features point the way to a new, international model of action-adventure filmmaking that might balance some of the excesses we’ve seen from big-budget Hollywood tent-pole features?

Imagine, for a moment, that “District 9” had been bankrolled not by a smaller studio that trusted Mr. Jackson and Mr. Blomkamp, but by a larger studio like Paramount Pictures (the point of origin for this summer’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”). How would things have turned out?

Intrigued by “District 9’s” audacious concept — one that posits an alternate history in which aliens landed in Johannesburg and were consigned to a form of intergalactic apartheid — Paramount may have decided it would be the perfect summer tent-pole film: an interesting idea surrounded by big action set pieces with just the right dash of humor that would be sure to appeal to the 16-to-34-year-old demographic.

Of course, if this picture is going to serve as a tent-pole release, you can’t leave the marketing in the hands of some clever kids cranking out viral Web sites and the like. A star must be brought in — Will Smith, let’s say — whose appeal is beyond question and whose face alone will sell the picture to audiences that otherwise might be wary of the subject matter.

And really, that subject matter … . Is it necessary to conjure up images of apartheid? Does the film need to be shot in a faux-documentary style that necessitates a fair amount of improvisation (which Mr. Smith isn’t terribly accomplished at doing anyway)? Do audiences really want to grapple with issues of personhood and self-determination at the expense of stuff blowing up real good?

In come the rewrites and a new director, one more willing to play ball with studio heads. The budget expands (Mr. Smith doesn’t work for scale, you know, and nonstop television commercials aren’t free), the script gets dumbed down, uniqueness is excised, and suddenly you have a generic big-budget feature on your hands, one you can bludgeon the audience into seeing with an omnipresent advertising campaign — one they may see but won’t love.

That budget expansion is the key problem: More expensive pictures are riskier pictures, and no one likes risk with his investments. The greatest asset Mr. Jackson and Mr. Blomkamp brought to the table in “District 9” might have been their ability to keep costs down. They shot away from expensive Los Angeles, they cast a first-time actor in the lead, and the special effects were integrated seamlessly into the action and cheaply created.

By keeping costs to a minimum, they guaranteed themselves the greatest range of artistic freedom. Sure, a budget of $30 million isn’t quite nothing, but compared to “Transformers 2” and “G.I. Joe” ($200 million and $175 million, respectively), it’s pretty close. And when a studio sinks a half-billion dollars (after accounting for advertising) into a pair of films, those films’ risk had better be infinitesimal.

Hence the bland, cookie-cutter results of the big-budget shoot-‘em-ups.

With any luck, “District 9” will point studios in a cheaper, spicier direction.

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