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February 28th, 2010, 05:15 AM #1
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F&SF films - what good are they for written F&SF?
Half a century ago fantafiction (fantasy and science fiction) was barely a blip on the account books of motion picture studios. For the last decade it has been the prime money maker.
For some details on what movies have grossed over the years a good place to go is BoxOfficeMojo.com. It lets you look at the figures several ways - including raw and inflation-adjusted, by year, and by US and foreign income.
It does not include DVD, rental, and TV income. Nor does it tell you the net income of a film, only gross. Movie studios, to hear them tell it, NEVER make a profit. And they have a trillion ways to PROVE it.
So what are the 100 top-grossing films of all time? Here they are, with figures adjusted for inflation and limited to earnings from domestic (US) exhibitors. (This limitation is to allow comparison with films made before WWII.)
Notice the genres of the films? In the top ten 2 SF, 1 fantasy, and 1 horror (or 2 if you count Jaws as horror). In the top twenty 7 SF, 2 fantasy, and 1 (or 2) horror.
In the top 100 they are 23 SF, 24 fantasy, 2 (or 3) horror.
But 11 of the fantasy are animated with animal characters. Do they count as fantasy?
And 6 of the SF are based on comics. Does a radioactive spider biting Spiderman count as scientific? Batman has lots of neat tech toys, but is that scientific? You judge.
Those are quibbles, however. The bottom line is that of the 100 top-grossing domestic films of all time HALF were SF and fantasy.
This primacy is fairly recent. Perhaps the beginning was 1968 with 2001: a Space Odyssey. Certainly Star Wars in 1977 was a watershed year. It earned a US gross of $307 million dollars (on a production budget of $11 million).
By 1989 foreign film grosses had begun to match those of the US. As you can see in the following link from then on almost every year the top earner worldwide was SF. Also the top 20 contained several F&SF films. (On the page linked to below click on each year for a list of those films.)
The year 2001 was the beginning of F&SF primacy over other kinds of films. It was also when fantasy became so important. That year the top two films were Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Lord of the Rings I. The next two were Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. Numbers 7, 8, and 9 were The Mummy Returns, Jurassic Park III, and Planet of the Apes (2001). Numbers 15 and 16 were Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
This pattern repeats for each year afterward. Want the details? On the page linked to above click on the year.
Here is the link for 2009. The titles in gold are still in the theatres.
What does this mean for written F&SF? I'm not sure. What do you think?
February 28th, 2010, 11:43 AM #2
It's a matter of visibility. An adaptation of an actual book makes that book a bestseller, even if the film's take is modest, because it raises awareness of the book's existence. Of those readers who seek out the book, a small percentage then may try other works by the author or by other authors working in the same field. If they like what they are reading enough, a small percentage of that small percentage then become habitual readers, new SFF fans, the ones who put threads up in the forums going, I just started reading fantasy, SF, horror, what should I read? When you compare those thousands to the millions of film, t.v., games, etc., it doesn't seem like a great deal, but it's on those narrow margins that fiction is sold. The same goes for bestsellers who reach levels that attract media attention and increased visibilities, such as phenomena authors whose sales climb so far above other authors that it seeps more into public consciousness and culture, books that get a boost from Oprah which makes them visible to millions of viewers, a small percentage of which may then buy the book, and so on.
And then there is the "hot" effect. It is very hard to connect fiction works with status, making them the fashionable thing to buy. Nobody cares what their favorite actor is reading, for instance. And book publishing does not have the money to do the elaborate advertising things that other industries like music and film, and even computers, can do. But when there is a phenom author, or when there are several hit films in the same genre -- even if they are not adaptations -- then the type of story becomes more visible, becomes the hot sector. And this again may lead a small percentage of people to try out books in the "hot" sector. SF got this in the 1960's. Both fantasy and YA fiction got it around 2000, and then got the unexpected bonus of Twilight, which benefited from the influx of Potter/YA readers. That was a more dramatic effect that was reinforced by other factors that were making fantasy more visible on numerous fronts -- the romance, the horror films which often include fantasy, etc. That made fantasy the "hot" sector and that brought in readers. (A small percentage of those readers again would then go on to read SF, which is why SF YA got a boost.)
SF is now looking at several successful or moderately successful SF t.v. shows, and successful and sometimes critically supported films -- Avatar, Transformers, District 9, the Star Trek reboot. So in media minds, etc., it is becoming the "hot" sector. What we need is more adaptations for SF, and a number of these are in the pipeline. Neal Stephenson's Anathem got a larger than expected reception for the type of novel it was, not only from his substantial fanbase, but from media as well. So we're already seeing ripple effects, and we'll be seeing more. It is, however, unlikely to be as dramatic as the one for fantasy, because SF does not have the same base in YA or romance (though the SF romances are increasing,) and because we won't have readers being drawn in from as many different sources as fantasy did. However, it will be sufficiently respectable, and games and comics will help too.
Jointly together, SFF, and with Horror linked in, are now seen as the bomb in the written fiction market, even though technically romance and suspense still have bigger chunks. They are more firmly established, they have a larger, more solid, more international base than before. They are the power couple, even when the fields are given separate shelves next to each other. Every time you read an article about the geek ascendency in culture -- that's us. (And manga and graphic novels.) We are the mainstream. We've actually been for awhile now, but only recently has media been forced to notice it. For which I guess we can thank the Internet a bit. Even when it recedes back a bit, which it naturally will do, SFF has still made substantial gains that it will probably hold on to because SFF is so ingrained in both Western and Eastern cultures.
Written SF needs to fervently embrace films, t.v., the Web, comics, manga, anime and games, not the least because its fans, especially younger fans, are into these things to one extent or another. But there are factions of the community that are very resistant to that idea and see all that as the enemy, and not as what they are: a gateway drug and free advertising. Consequently, you are more likely to see younger fans at multi-media conventions than ones that insist on being book-centric. But book festivals are also doing well, helping regional sales, and SFF is doing better at those kinds of events than they ever used to do.
What I will not be surprised to see in the future is some Web t.v. shows that are SFF and that do well, and some of those may be adaptations. And I think we'll eventually have a SF phenom author, but not for awhile. I think the next one will probably be a suspense author, though no one really knows.
March 2nd, 2010, 07:57 AM #3
Oh, I don't know how much of your thesis is really just putting the cart before the horse. Of the top 10 films of the 1930's four were clearly SFF genre (Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Frankenstein, King Kong), in the 1940's, even with the prevalence of wartime patriotic movies, again four of the top 10 films were genre (Bambi, Pinocchio, Song of the South, Fantasia). Genre films take five slots in the top ten of the 1950's (Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Around the World in 80 Days), and four of the top ten in the 1960's (101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Those are just the top ten films by unadjusted gross domestic box office. Science fiction and fantasy films had a tremendous impact on the film industry from its beginnings. Some of the earliest films produced were genre: Frankenstein, Nosferatu, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. What about the Flash Gordon serials in the 1930's. What about the burgeoning of the science fiction and horror "B" movie in the 1950's? Was The Blob just a blip?
I just don't see the premise, that "half a century ago (1960) fantafiction (??) was barely a blip on the account books of the major studios," being born out by the evidence. Take a look, for example, at the top 100 films by gross domestic box office adjusted for inflation: http://www.filmsite.org/boxoffice.html Of those top 100, 18 are pre-1960 releases and of those 9, exactly half, are fantasy or science fiction - by far the most represented genre even in the first half of the 20th century.