LOS ANGELES >> Pass the popcorn, the summer movie season is here and all the spectacle and air-conditioned respite it offers audiences. Summer at the movies has long been synonymous with blockbusters and franchises that are easy to spend a few hours with. For the most part, 2019 is no different.
You want superheroes? You’ve got “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and “Dark Phoenix” on the horizon. Or sequels? There’s “Toy Story 4,” “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” ”Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” ”The Secret Life of Pets 2,” and even a “Fast & Furious” spin-off, “Hobbs & Shaw.” How about a reboot with a casting twist? Look no further than the “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” update “The Hustle,” with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, or “Men In Black: International,” with Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth. Biopics? “Rocketman” is coming and “Brian Banks” too. A literary adaptation? There’s “The Sun Is Also a Star” and “Where’d You Go Bernadette?” Or a remake of an animated classic? Disney has you covered with two: “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”
But there is also a world of original films that will add fresh stories, unique perspectives, depth and diversity to the mix. And they’re not all indies either. Some studios are making big gestures, with original horrors, comedies and major releases from auteurs: Quentin Tarantino has his 1969 Manson-era Los Angeles film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which Sony will release; and Danny Boyle has “Yesterday,” coming from Universal.
“Yesterday,” while a fresh conceit, does have a big recognizable selling point: It’s about the music of The Beatles and what happens when everyone in the world forgets that they ever existed — except one struggling musician.
Boyle laughed that the songs are “both the enabler and the destroyer. Because if you get them wrong, it’s terrible, there’s nothing worse. If you get them right, it gives you an advantage.”
He even made the bold choice to cast a relatively unknown actor in the lead role.
“Any studio is going to prefer one of the leading men if you can get it,” Boyle said. “But there’s a natural inhibitor here: They’ve got to be able to play Beatles songs.”
The one who stood out in a sea of “Yesterday” auditions was Himesh Patel, who Boyle said made them sound new.
“It’s not cheap making a Beatles movie. The Beatles songs cost money. But (the studio) saw the audition and they bought into him,” Boyle said. “He’s a lovely discovery. He has a modern sense of humor.”
It’s not the only big original movie coming out this summer featuring a South Asian lead, either. There’s the Bruce Springsteen-soundtracked film “Blinded by the Light,” from “Bend It Like Beckham” director Gurinder Chadha , the Uber driver who gets in over his head comedy “Stuber,” with Kumail Nanjiani, and Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night,” in which she plays a diversity hire on a late night talk show writing staff.
There’s also diversity in the independent realm with two notable and highly personal visions manifested in Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” with Awkwafina, and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” both A24 releases.
Wang’s semi-autobiographical film about a Chinese-American family who decides to keep their Chinese grandmother’s terminal illness from her, was a breakout at the Sundance Film Festival.
“To have an entire film of Asian faces and then have it predominantly be not English language, but to still have it be American financed and distributed and marketed as a US production is not the usual,” Wang said.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is another exciting discovery from newcomer Jimmie Fails who wrote and stars in this story about gentrification and loving a home that’s no longer yours.
“I love that company,” Fails said of A24. “They give young, new voices a platform.”
Another outfit taking gambles on new stories is Annapurna, which backed Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut “Booksmart,” a sure-to-be breakout about two high school overachievers and devoted good girls who decide to go to a party one night.
Focus Features is releasing Jim Jarmusch’s star-studded zombie-comedy, “The Dead Don’t Die,” with Bill Murray and Adam Driver, and Neon has “Wild Rose,” about an Irish mother of two youngsters, recently released from prison, who dreams of being a country music star.
Some found luck with Netflix, like Amy Poehler with “Wine Country,” which is based on a real trip she took with Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch and others. In the film, the group of friends gets together in Napa to celebrate a 50th birthday.
“There are just not enough representations of long female relationships,” Poehler said. “We’re obsessed with the beginnings and endings of things and there’s so much to tell in the middle.”
The film will be getting a limited theatrical run, too, but she likes that audiences will have the option to watch it with wine and then just roll into bed if they want.
“The summer can be a land of opportunity for films that offer an antidote to the overwhelming onslaught of blockbusters that are the stock in trade of the industry’s biggest season,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore.
Of course it’s usually the franchises that earn the most. Last summer the top five films were all sequels and accounted for over 40 percent of the overall summer box office. The last time a non-animated original topped the summer box office was in 1998 with “Saving Private Ryan.” And this year needs all the help it can get, even with the “Avengers: Endgame” boost, the year is still down 13.3% .
But the originals have a chance to provide upside. There’s rarely the kind of grassroots-level buzz as when something truly fresh comes along.
“Last summer was a great example of how original and fresh concepts were big drivers during the summer months with ‘The Meg,’ ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ‘Book Club,’ ‘Tag’ as well as the documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ all performing better than expected at the box office,” noted Dergarabedian.
And it’s something that creators and studios are fighting to preserve.
“People like original content and are excited when there are good original movies. I think they also like big franchises but I think there’s room for both,” said Seth Rogen, who produced two original films this summer with “Long Shot” and the sixth graders go wild film “Good Boys.” ”Studios have an appetite for both.”
Plus, Boyle hopes that even with all the possibilities on television and streaming that there’s still specialness to going to the theaters to see something new.
“Television is endless time, in a way,” Boyle said. “But movies, you go and you give two hours of your time to one thing, and you’re not going to be distracted. You sit there and you go, take me somewhere and transform me. It’s wonderful to be able to do that. The spotlight is so much more precious.”