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Fiction Friction: Box Office Bombshells

By Tom Anderson

In this article, I want to discuss a strange paradox I have encountered when I compare my childhood memories of the world of film to the critical consensus and box office success. Before I begin, I should say that this is only my own personal experience, which will vary from person to person and time to time. As we’ll see, I think a number of the factors affecting my experience were highly conditional on growing up where and when I did, in South Yorkshire in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and how media worked at the time.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s the paradox I’ve noticed for films that came out in this era: The more successful a film was at the box office, the less likely it is I have childhood memories of seeing it. Which, in turn, means I was less influenced by it in my formative years, am less likely to be able to quote it offhand, and so on. This may sound like a strange inverse correlation, but allow me to explain.

Consider the methods by which one might see a film as a child at this time, what the options were in an age when the closest thing to the internet was Ceefax. There were basically four options. Firstly, and most obviously, view it at the cinema with your parents. Secondly, see it on one of the four TV channels that existed (BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel Four) and perhaps record it on a VHS tape (then always referred to just as ‘a video’ or ‘a tape’, for any enterprising time travellers who want to fit in). Thirdly, purchase it on a pre-recorded VHS tape. Fourthly, rent it on VHS from your local video rental shop. (Mine eventually became a Blockbuster, but so late in the day that I never instinctively associate that name generically with video rental, rather thinking of the game show). In today’s world of infinite, often dizzying choice, it’s important to note the lack of it in many of these options. For TV, you were at the mercy of what the channels decided to schedule and needed to remember to set the video recorder timer if it was on at an inconvenient time. (Anyone else have a paranoid fear that VideoPlus never put enough time buffer on at the start and end of a recording in case of clocks being a few minutes out, so always did it manually?) And what the channels chose to schedule was what they could get the rights to cheaply. Barring the odd blockbuster at Christmas when they pulled the stops out, this was often second-tier fodder (and this was doubly true of the satellite service Sky Movies when my family got it in the mid-90s).

For cinema, if you missed the run of a film, sorry, that’s it – and in those days, it took years for a film to make it to purchasable home media, if at all. And then when it did get there, buying pre-recorded videotapes was heinously expensive for what one got; I well remember them selling a couple of episodes of a kids’ TV show, with barely any tape visible on the reels rather than a full-length VHS, and charging you £15 – 1980s pounds at that – for it!

Then there’s the video rental shop, which I made great use of. Even here, though, where one might assume choice was front and centre, there were caveats. The biggest-name films were often always checked out, or cost more to do so, whereas one could get two lesser-known ones and rent them for more than one night. So that’s what I usually did.

Logo of Blockbuster, a franchise of video rental stores and where a generation of people watched films

You can probably see where this is going. These factors seemed to conspire to make it less likely that I would see the box office hits and, conversely, more likely that I’d see ones that had bombed at the box office but still got some form of TV or video release. This is not to say I didn’t see any blockbusters at the cinema, of course, but this was the era when many of the biggest hits were iconic action movies – which were supposedly not aimed at kids and were rated by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) as 18 (i.e. you have to be aged 18 or older to see them). This did not stop companies releasing tie-in toy lines and the like for those films, a practice which has continued to the present day. This despite the fact that, in theory, the only legal way for a kid of the toy target age to see the film it was based on was to wait two years for a censored cut to arrive on TV. (I could devote a whole article to these on reflection – they often cut foul language and nudity while leaving the violence strangely intact; to this day, I often think of the TV cut of films like Die Hard as the ‘definitive’ one I saw at a probably unwisely young age, and feel unsettled seeing the differences in theatrical cut on DVD or streaming services).

I’ve discussed with a former poster on the SLP forums the strange experience of being a kid in this era, getting really into all the supplementary material (tie-in fast food toys and so on) and buildup of an action film, yet in the knowledge you’d never actually get to see it until years later. Somehow that actually made it better – to see the film itself would never live up to what your imagination had created. This was also an era in which companies released brand new toys for series that had been made thirty years ago and were being shown on TV again as though they were new, so maybe it didn’t seem so strange to us. (I went to Pizza Hut so many times, despite it being absolutely rubbish quality in the early 90s even for a kid’s palate, just because I had to collect all the drink cup toppers with original-series Star Trek ship models on them…)

So, while I did see some big-name films in cinema, the restrictive certification at the time was limiting. Canny filmmakers such as Roland Emmerich and Steven Spielberg craftily cut their films to be rated as PG (Parental Guidance) at the cinema so they could be aimed at kids, and so I enjoyed Stargate and Jurassic Park on the big screen among others. For the uninitiated, the BBFC only introduced the 12 classification in 1989, and wouldn’t introduce the 12A (under-twelves can see if accompanied by an adult) until 2002, when I was already eighteen anyway. The fact that the first film they applied it to was The Bourne Identity illustrates the philosophy behind it – making action movies accessible for the kids who were getting toys flogged to them. But that lay far in the future. So for a long time, the cinema was simply not an option for all but films explicitly targeted at kids (I was of a very specific age threshold to consider Aladdin the best thing ever but The Lion King as evidence that Disney was for babies and I was far beyond that now…)

Therefore, with the cinema largely inaccessible and bought pre-recorded VHS tapes swingingly expensive, the two options that remained were happening to spot films on TV in the Radio Times and remembering to set the video (i.e. VCR – we called everything indiscriminately ‘a video’ back then and somehow it wasn’t confusing at all) or the rental shop. And, for the reasons I described above, I found I was more likely to come across films that had failed at the box office rather than ones which had succeeded. (I should say I was also unaware of this at the time and had no context for comparison, which probably helped). Sometimes I was lucky enough to catch big-name films on TV such as Robocop and Die Hard (18 at the cinema yet somehow cut to a family-friendly version on telly) or The Naked Gun. Whereas many people only had a few blank videos and would tape new programmes on them over and over (as the Scotch stop-motion skeleton informed us on the advert to the Buddy Holly song, ‘Re-record not fade away’) I always tried to keep recordings and watch them again down the line. After all, the prices for bought tapes made it feel like I was ripping off The Man by doing so. Strangely enough, I recently discovered that my amateurishly TV-taped version of K-9 is higher visual and sound quality than a bought version, so who’s got the last laugh now? My only regret is I usually conscientiously paused it for the adverts for the benefit of my future self, when nowadays looking at the old adverts is often more interesting than the film in between! There were other films I happened to catch most of, but didn’t tape as they had already started, and of these I have fuzzier memories – such as Back to the Future and Ghostbusters.

Yet amongst these few big-name films, I came across so many that I would later discover had been bombs or only qualified successes. And again, without the internet, there was no context for me to know this at the time, meaning I judged all these films on the same level. I have a vague memory of seeing what I now know was the opening sequence of Star Wars while trying to tune in our video recorder on a holiday to North Wales in the late 80s, but never saw any more of it at the time, and didn’t see the film till the Special Edition came out in cinemas in 1997. In the meantime, on TV I’d seen Battle Beyond the Stars and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and The Last Starfighter and Explorers and Flight of the Navigator and a host more, with the result that when I finally saw Star Wars (i.e. the first film of the trilogy and the one they all stylistically ripped off) it felt boringly generic and predictable to me. It wasn’t till I rented The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi from the video shop, after reading some supplementary material, that I found something to love in this iconic franchise. This is one interesting consequence of the paradox; often when I finally do come to see the original blockbusters I missed out on, I don’t feel any emotional connection to them because I didn’t build up childhood memories of them. Of the three original Indiana Jones films, most people would agree that Temple of Doom is the weakest; objectively I agree, but emotionally it’s the one I feel connected to because it’s the only one that happened to be on television when I saw part of it as a kid.

Some of the films I liked growing up, like Flight of the Navigator, were at worst qualified successes rather than bombs. Others, however, were unquestionably rejected at the box office, unbeknownst to me. I well recall reading a Guinness book in 1999 which cited the top ten box office bombs, and was genuinely flabbergasted to find Hudson Hawk on the list, to the point that I felt like I’d fallen into an alternate timeline where Sylvester Stallone is the Terminator or something. Hudson Hawk is one of my favourite Bruce Willis films, ranking up there with Die Hard and The Fifth Element (though in a very different way), and one which I will still quote at the drop of a hat to this day. The weird thing about it is that nowadays it feels like a bitingly funny parody of The Da Vinci Code, despite having been made years before it was written. (As others have observed, the same is true of Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum vis-à-vis the Twilight series).

That was easily the most dramatic case, but there are others. 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man, starring Chevy Chase and Darryl Hannah, was a huge bomb yet I enjoyed it, while beside its tape on the shelf sat a cardboard advertising stand of Batman Returns with never any tapes available to rent. (I did eventually see that film at a rather young age, but thanks to a TV edit – same as its predecessor, whose TV cut seemed to leave in all the violent parts and the Joker’s gory plastic surgery). Explorers was apparently rushed into production unfinished and bombed thanks to competition with Back to the Future in 1985, but I can’t say I ever noticed any gaps in its brilliant portrayal of three kids’ sci-fi adventure. (The flux testing scenes on the L3 space station in my novel The Surly Bonds of Earth are directly inspired by those of Wolfgang Mueller, played by the late River Phoenix, experimenting with shield bubble technology in the film). In this case I am evidently not alone, as Explorers did become a cult classic on VHS. By contrast, I didn’t see The Goonies, a more financially successful take on a similar kids’ adventure concept, until I was already a teenager – by which time I could appreciate it as a good film, but did not identify with it on the same emotional level.

One exception to this rule was the James Bond franchise. Thanks to ITV’s commendable practice of putting Bond films on on a Sunday afternoon, I saw and taped almost the entire Bond canon through my childhood. The canon, that is, up until the then-most-recent film, The Living Daylights, which appeared on TV surprisingly soon after it was shown in cinemas (from what I recall). I don’t know if Bond being a British production made a difference (with it being American films that often took years to arrive on TV or on video) but I do remember it stuck out to me. This made me enough of a Bond fan that I got in to see GoldenEye (12 certificate) despite being only 11 at the time (don’t tell anyone). I actually missed the first few minutes and came in just as Bond is diving off the dam (you know, the end of the first mission in the N64 game). Because of this, I remember being convinced for a while that they had done an EVIL REBOOT that had BETRAYED THE FRANCHISE FOREVER by not having the iconic gunsight and bloodstain opening, when in reality I had, er, just missed it.

One might assume this strange self-selection away from blockbusters and in favour of bombs would decline when we got satellite TV around 1995, but no. Sky TV would boast endlessly of all the wonderful films available on Sky Movies, and neglect to mention that most of them consisted of the ones they could get the rights to cheaply, which often consisted of bombs. (I do remember the infamous Cutthroat Island being advertised soon after we got the service, though I never saw it). The other manifestation of this tendency was Sky’s habit of showing the less-successful sequel to an iconic original while never showing the original itself. For this reason, I can quote Airplane 2: The Sequel endlessly while I can’t say the same about the original, even though you’d be mad to say the original isn’t far better than its sequel. But again, it’s that emotional connection. Same, on a different level, with Hot Shots Part Deux. If they showed a Naked Gun film, it’d always be the second or third (which are good, but not up to the standards of the original) and they would often try to slip in Spy Hard – which, despite having Leslie Nielsen and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic in it, cannot quite disguise the fact that it’s written by Seltzer and Friedburg. On the other hand, there were also plenty of classic Mel Brooks parodies, and it was Sky that really introduced me to this genre.

An interesting example of the Sky self-selection is the parody film The Silence of the Hams by Italian director Ezio Greggio. This was very much in the Mel Brooks tradition (almost an homage); I happened to see it on Sky as one of their cheap purchases, and only discovered years later it was critically panned. This is quite unfair; while as an adult I can see the script does have a fair few Seltzer and Friedburg-style cringe ‘this happened in pop culture recently, that’s the joke’ moments, it also has genuine flashes of Zucker-Abrams-Zucker level brilliance (such as cutting from our protagonist writing a letter to showing it as typewritten text, or pulling back from remembered voices echoing in a driving character’s head to show a truck next to them with the voices’ owners shouting at her with megaphones). As with the Hudson Hawk example, in hindsight I am genuinely grateful that, by experiencing films in this way, I wasn’t hidebound by critical consensus and found something to enjoy regardless.

All of this is not just a happenstance of childhood that leaves no long-term impact. All of us are influenced by the media we experienced in our formative years. Our senses of humour, our go-to pop culture references, our ideas about drama and plot structure – all of them will ultimately depend, to some extent, on which media we consumed. I’ve already mentioned above one part in a published novel of mine which I know, consciously, is inspired by something in Explorers. There will be many, many more examples which I have subconsciously drawn from. The fact that I grew up with Filofax (a.k.a. Taking Care of Business, J. J. Abrams’ first work – what went wrong?) and The High Crusade, say, rather than Wall Street and The Terminator, will inevitably have impacted on how I write today. Paradoxically, then, for me and anyone else who grew up in a similar situation, the best way for a filmmaker of the 80s and 90s to have lasting influence on future generations’ works was to hope their work bombed!

So what about now? The world has changed, all the media is at our fingertips – for a price, which when paid somehow never results in us owning anything new. I will confess to a guilty pleasure for those Youtube videos that involve a Young Person™ enjoying and reacting to a classic film for the first time, yet I can never quite get away from a sense of jealousy that they have such ready access to them. Even with the vagaries of streaming services, literally everything is on DVD (while VHS will always be ‘my’ media system, the advantage of cheap pre-recorded DVDs cannot be overstated). Just as that generation will never know my struggle with being unable to find the third volume of a book trilogy in my town’s only bookshop (everything’s on Amazon) the only thing stopping them from watching any film is being unaware of seeking it out. Often it is older commenters who must direct them towards particular films; ironically, with so much choice, we find it easy to lose focus and miss the gems in the crowd.

Yet maybe those selective factors I grew up with have not gone away altogether. The other day I found Amazon Prime proudly telling me it now had new films available such as… Die Hard 2. Not Die Hard 1, you understand; Disney was charging too much.

Maybe the kids are alright.



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