Ten years of writing about the movies

John Cairns

Welcome to the Cairns on Cinema Tenth Anniversary column! 

Now, those of you out there who can put two and two together are probably going: ‘this makes no sense. Cairns is celebrating his tenth anniversary, and yet he hasn't even been at the News-Optimist for ten years!’

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That’s because I’ve been writing about movies regularly for longer than I have been at this paper! And this year marks ten years, so I’m going to do a column about it now and get it over with. 

I got into movie writing basically on a lark. I was kind of looking around for some new direction in journalism at the time. My experience had been in news and sports, but I wanted to see if I could do something related to entertainment writing. 

In particular, I wanted to see if I could get into writing movie reviews. Like a lot of the movie writers you see regularly these days, I had been a regular viewer of the Siskel and Ebert's At the Movies for years. That show was can’t miss weekend viewing in my household every week, as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would have heated arguments about the movies released that week. These two really got into it. 

But this was a new era, an era of online film critics and online movie websites. A lot of new websites had sprung up around this time, covering new releases and looking for writers. 

One of them was a website based out of Columbus, Ohio called Film School Rejects. I contacted them to see if they would take me on as a writer, and they agreed. 

I started off doing movie reviews for the site and ended up reviewing films such as Spider-Man 3, Ratatouille, Juno and Cloverfield.    

A few months after I started writing for them, the site needed a columnist to take over The Reject Report, their weekly box office column. Basically, they were looking for someone who would write up a weekend box office preview on Thursdays highlighting some of the new releases, and then write about the domestic box office results on Sunday. 

I offered to do the column, and that is how I ended up a “box office pundit.” 

Predicting the box office was the hardest part of the gig. There was plenty of information out there from industry news sources about what was expected to happen on the weekends in terms of totals, but from my vantage point it was an inexact science. As a box office watcher, I had to stick my neck out on the line and predict not only whether a movie would win the weekend, but how much it would make and whether it would set any box office records – a big deal when covering this beat. 

So whenever things turned out differently from what I predicted, I would always end up looking really stupid. 

Still, my predictions were in the ballpark most of the time. I figured out really quickly that if a movie had superheroes or lots of CGI, it was going to do well. The other thing I realized quickly was that if the movie had any association with the PIXAR studio, it would be a big hit.

My tenure writing the box office column coincided with Michael Bay’s series of Transformers movies at the box office. One of my most controversial columns was when I reported the box office results for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. 

It opened at $108 million, a big improvement over the first movie, but that made no sense because the reviews were generally awful. Usually, for popcorn-type movies like Jaws or Star Wars, blockbuster numbers like these are accompanied with lots of good reviews. 

I pointed out this was surely the best box office performance ever for a movie this awful, and that set off the Transformers addicts. They sent in over a hundred comments to my column arguing with me and saying they don’t listen to the film critics; almost taking my assessment of the movie as a personal affront, as if they were insulted.

Well, my assessment has stood the test of time. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ended up with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 19 percent, and ended up winning three “Razzie Awards” including Worst Picture, Worst Director (Michael Bay) and Worst Screenplay. 

Which goes back to my original question: how could a movie so bad do so well (over $400 million domestic) at the box office? 

I suppose what it comes down to is that there is a large group of moviegoers these days who totally ignore the film critics and dismiss them as "elitist," and these moviegoers will decide whether or not they like a particular movie even before they’ve seen it. 

Some of you might think the current crop of moviegoers simply don’t have good taste. I don’t know about that, but it sure seems like there are a lot of movies these days that are “critic-proof." 

My tenure writing the box office column also coincided with the rise of the use of 3D at the movies. 3D had been a big deal in the early Fifties but sort of fell by the wayside for years. But it has come back in a big way during this past decade.   

A movie that really ushered in the new 3D era, James Cameron’s Avatar, ended up setting all kinds of box office records, including breaking Titanic’s record for the top grossing movie of all time. It ended up hauling in over $760 million at the domestic box office, and held that record until very recently when Star Wars: The Force Awakens toppled it at $936 million. Worldwide, Avatar’s record still stands at $2.788 billion, about $600 million ahead of Titanic.

I wrote about the box office for Film School Rejects for three years. I kept it up even after taking a full-time daily newspaper job in Manitoba and then, after that, with the News-Optimist. 

It proved an increasingly impossible task to juggle regular news assignments with trying to do a good job with my movie columns every week. Finally in 2010, I decided I needed a life, so I called it quits. 

Not long after, I was offered the opportunity to launch a movie column for our newly-launched News-Optimist website. 

So, “Cairns on Cinema” was born. It started off as a web-exclusive, but eventually made its way into the newspapers as well. 

As I had done before with the “Reject Report” column, I’ve kept up writing about the movie box office with my end-of-the-year results columns, my summer box office previews, and other features. The main thing is that I am able to do these columns on a less hectic schedule than before, and usually when the news is a bit slower on my other beats.

While it’s been exciting to follow the progress of the movie box office these past few years, it’s also been a troubling time. 

In 2012, an epic summer box office superhero showdown was shaping up between Marvel’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, the latest Batman feature. 

But that went by the wayside during the opening weekend for The Dark Knight Rises, when a crazed shooter entered the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire on the audience. There were 12 people killed and over 70 injured in that tragedy. The box office race meant nothing after that.

A few years later, the spectre of a similar tragedy haunted the December 2014 release of The Interview. It was a comedy featuring Seth Rogen and James Franco about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. 

Sony ended up pulling the movie from wide release, amid hacking of the studio's emails and online threats to carry out attacks on movie theatres that screened the film. 

The thinking was that the threats and the hacking originated from North Korea itself. Not long after, the release was reinstated, amid mounting criticism that freedom of speech was under attack and that the studio had caved in to terrorists. The Interview ended up getting a digital release online. 

These are some of the major stories that I have followed and written about over the last while as part of Cairns on Cinema. From Spider-Man 3 to The Fate of the Furious, it has been an interesting decade covering what's happening at the movies.

We’ll launch the next decade in the coming days with another one of our annual summer blockbuster preview columns. Look for that, soon.  


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