Steven Spielberg once said, “I like ideas, especially movie ideas, that you can hold in your hand. If a person can tell me the idea in twenty-five words or less, it’s going to make a pretty good movie.” Spielberg’s comment embodies the essence of the high concept film, which can be condensed into one simple sentence that inspires marketing campaigns, lures audiences, and separates success from failure at the box office. This is the foundation for the development and dominance of the high concept movie within commercial Hollywood film-making since the late 1970s. A single phrase like “Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the water…”, a single image or a theme song could be used to turn a movie into a blockbuster. Today Hollywood distributors spend over US$7 billion every year on marketing movies. And all marketing campaigns for Hollywood movies are targeted at the global viewers, designed to speak persuasively to the cinema goers from New York, London to Singapore and Beijing.
The month of May is the start of the so-called summer blockbusters. This year, the Super Heroes are coming at us fast and furious. Among them is a different kind of Hero. An Eastern Hero given the total Hollywood treatment. Godzilla! I went into the Imax 3D experience without reading any reviews. I left the cinema gasping. Almost every shot is what our industry will call a money shot. Helmed by one of the most promising young directors, the movie bestowed a certain nobility to the title character, a sign of respect for the source material. This character first crashed onto movie screens in Toho Company Ltd’s 1954 classic ‘Godzilla’ (Gojira in Japanese), at a time when special effects were in their Bronze Age. This monster was born of the two nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, started out as a spectacle of carnage and destruction, a symbol of how humans are causing colossal harm to their environment and themselves. As its popularity soared, it evolved into a hero for Japan and the entire world. An antithesis of the interplay of nuclear power.
When Hollywood takes on an Eastern character or subject matter, with global marketing, there is world-wide recognition. In 1987 when Bernardo Bertolucci directed ‘The Last Emperor’, suddenly audiences around the world were introduced to the richness of the Forbidden City in China. The movie won nine Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Director and also introduced a young actress to global audiences. Joan Chen. In the same vein, ‘The World Of Suzie Wong’ and more recently Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, are movies which brought global attention to a slice of Eastern culture or phenomenon otherwise not known to many in both the West and the East. This is how the power of entertainment marketing can shift cultural milestones and realign fixed mindsets. Yet nothing fits like a glove into the Hollywood movie machinery as this monster called Godzilla. Its Japanese origin just makes it more exotic and appealing.
After its debut in the 1950s, every few years, another threat would rise that was too ferocious for mere humans to challenge on their own, and the earth-shattering roar and distinctive silhouette would rise from the sea to save the day. However the over 20 Japanese Godzilla movies did not travel beyond their shores. Watching ‘Godzilla’ directed by Gareth Edwards, I see a commercial high concept movie with artistic merits, not to mention the eye-popping production values. Conceptualizing the look and character of this monster, Edwards realised strangely “that Godzilla was going to tell us who he was.” I see quite clearly that Hollywood has finally produced a movie on an organically Japanese creature with its dignity and majesty intact. I also realise, whether in budget, storytelling, effects or cinematography, there is still a gap for Eastern filmmakers to catch up. While we build on our expertise, it is indeed a wonderful feeling to sit back and enjoy a multi-million dollar homage Hollywood pays to an Eastern cultural icon, as a Super Hero on equal billing as theirs.