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Saturday, June 5, 1999 Published at 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK

Money takes over the movies

The Phantom Menace: Commerce has the upper hand

By BBC News Online's Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

This week's top two highest grossing movies at the American box office, The Phantom Menace and Notting Hill, are setting new records, bringing in a fortune, delighting legions of fans and delivering adequate entertainment.

But to my mind they both fall short, because in each case art has become subservient to commerce and, as a result, audiences have been cheated.

[ image: Are audiences being cheated?]
Are audiences being cheated?
This is most notable in the Star Wars epic where many moviegoers emerge transfixed by the wondrous spectacle they have witnessed but are left wondering what happened to the story.

In Notting Hill there's a much stronger narrative, but even some ardent Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant fans find they have experienced a very formulaic movie.

I have to admit I was quite taken by this well-crafted British confection, but viewing it was like eating a big candy bar.

It tasted delicious, it was sweet and compelling, but it left me feeling unfulfilled and uninspired. I expect more from movies.

Manufactured products

The Phantom Menace and Notting Hill are pictures that resemble American political candidates.

[ image: Darth Maul figure: Part of the billion dollar marketing push]
Darth Maul figure: Part of the billion dollar marketing push
They seem shaped more by focus groups, marketing departments and image makers than by humanity, ideas and originality. Movies made for cynical reasons will eventually, like manufactured politicians, induce apathy.

It's already happened with the voter in America, and it could happen with moviegoers.

The Phantom Menace grossed more than $200m in a record-breaking 13 days and the film is still raking it in.

It is also energising a retailing bonanza that could bring the Lucasfilm empire an estimated $2bn.

Now that the hype is subsiding, the movie emerges more clearly as a sophisticated marketing device to generate money rather than an effort in well honed storytelling.

If it wasn't for the goodwill that the previous Star Wars films have generated, anger towards George Lucas would, I am certain, be more overt.

Marketing Britain

Equally Notting Hill can be seen more as a movie marketing endeavour than as original edgy storytelling.

[ image: A very formulaic movie]
A very formulaic movie
The film comes from basically the same production team that brought us Four Weddings and a Funeral, a quirky comedy that became the highest grossing British film ever.

It seems Notting Hill is an effort to reproduce Four Weddings on a much grander scale.

It had a bigger budget, estimated at $45m, Hollywood's best paid actress, and it's one of the first British films to be promoted as an "event" movie.

Already the film's international distributors are boasting that Notting Hill will break records to become the new highest grossing British film of all time.

This mentality of bigger and grander seems to have been the mantra driving Notting Hill all along.

That fake feeling

[ image: British film for a US audience]
British film for a US audience
Distributors are bound to want bigger and more profitable films, but people who make movies need to keep their eye on the art.

This, it seems, did not happen with Notting Hill, which has an irritatingly fake feel to it because it is a British film designed for the American market.

Duncan Kenworthy, its producer, admitted as much at Notting Hill's New York premiere.

He said "I think in many ways we made an American film. I don't think there's any sense in which an audience will look at this and say 'oh isn't it a cute British film'. It really is an American sensibility that is behind this film."

Hollywood sheen

It's a strange statement from a man who's made a picture that is British in virtually every respect except for the presence of Julia Roberts, its American star.

But it explains why Notting Hill has such a manufactured feel, providing a charming but nonetheless sweetened unrealistic view of London life and British eccentricity.

The film's success could spawn copycats shaped by producers who believe the only way a British film can triumph is by adopting a Notting Hill Hollywood sheen. That would be a shame.

With Notting Hill and The Phantom Menace commercial and marketing imperatives seem to have got the upper hand.

Both films have shining moments, but both could have been so much better if the producers and creators cared less about money, marketing and box office and focused instead on creating authentic human stories that inspire.

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