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John Lopez

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Is the Next Spielberg in Your Neighbor's Garage?

Posted: 09/14/11 01:41 PM ET

It's an immutable Hollywood law: with Labor Day behind us, movies suddenly have to get serious again. In fact, power-players and stars have already descended upon the Toronto International Film Festival in search of Oscar red meat, whether it's Viggo Mortensen as an uber-sexy Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method or George Clooney as every Democrat's wish-fulfillment president in The Ides of March. However, before diving headfirst into the glitter pool of the prestige picture season, cinebuffs everywhere love to first look back at summer and bemoan the state of studio blockbusters. Mark Kermode penned this year's signature screed in last Sunday's Guardian, claiming that we as audiences suffer a Stockholm syndrome of lowered-expectations during summer. E.g. No one really liked Pirates 4, but we keep going out of a lemming-like herd instinct/habit to see event movies -- and thanks to 3D and higher ticket prices, Hollywood still makes its money. However, when you look at the number of actual tickets sold, this is the worst year since 1997 according to the New York Times -- actually, it's the fourth "worst year" in a row. It seems heresy to think it, but with the i-Generation busy tweeting LOLcat links, blockbusters might actually start to lose their ability to bust blocks.

Almost as if Hollywood wanted to collectively deny blockbusters' fading powers, this summer seemed to be the summer of Spielberg -- or more accurately, the next Spielberg. Sure, the King of Hollywood won't have a film of his own out until War Horse and TinTin this winter. But if you theater hopped the multiplex at all in 2011, chances are you saw his name so many times you'd think the marquee had a stutter. Spielberg executive produced Michael Bay's Transformers 3, taught Jon Favreau how to be John Ford for Cowboys and Aliens, and even helped with his own homage, tutoring J.J. Abrams on the finer points of suburban alien invasion for Super 8. (He's also making TinTin with the help of the Lord of the Rings himself, Peter Jackson.) You couldn't catch a re-run of Access Hollywood without hearing these directors gush about the Great One's mentorship. And the not so-subtle subtext is that one of these guys may be the next Spielberg.

It's the kind of question movie bloggers love to bandy about at happy hour, although no one could ever really replace the one of a kind wunderkind who gave us Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire of the Sun. But right now it's more than just a fun bar question because Hollywood really could use a new Spielberg. Part of the boy wonder's beauty was that he stormed the gates of the old studio system -- literally, he jumped off the tram tour at Universal Studios -- and re-invigorated a moribund industry with his unique vision. The creative crisis Hollywood faced then feels very similar to the doldrums it's in now; perhaps that's why the maestro's turned his DreamWorks office into a guidance counselor's desk for mega-movie directors. But are these the guys who need Spielberg's guidance most? From Elf to Iron Man Favreau's already proven himself the most reliable studio director since Victor Fleming; J.J. Abrams could get a show about the debt ceiling crisis picked up by ABC; and Peter Jackson's turned New Zealand into his own personal hobbit plantation. If Spielberg's looking for a real protégé, how about someone with the wide-eyed sense of wonder, undying love for movies, and Eagle-Scout ingenuity to jump the tram?

You see, for me, the movies of this summer that actually packed a popcorn punch, had nothing to do with the studios. Take Joe Cornish's Attack the Block, for example. It's a quintessential Spielberg conceit: aliens invade and a brood of bike-riding kids are the ones called to fight back. Except these aren't subdivision latch-key-kids; they're inner-city London thugs, fighting to save the projects. The lead is a teenage son of African immigrants -- you can practically hear a studio exec's chest constrict if a director pitched that idea in a meeting. But it worked and how! By the end of the film, you're cheering for these wholly redeemed hooligans, like you cheered for a be-hoodied kid riding his bike against the moon. Closer to home, there's Evan Glodell's Bellflower. A crazy combination of Mad Max and Annie Hall, Glodell made his film over three years on $17,000 -- most of which he used to build a post-apocalyptic muscle car, a flame thrower, and his own custom-designed, tilt-shift cameras. Talk about jumping the tram. Bellflower has divided some audiences; but love it or leave it, you can't deny its wow factor. For my money, it's a surprisingly authentic story of confused emotions that hits the same bittersweet home as Richard Dreyfuss' longing to leave in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

These guys are the young blood that Hollywood needs, powered by the same passion that helped Steven Spielberg reinvent the reel. They're the ones who would gain the most from his mentorship. Because in this age of digital cinema revolution, the next Spielberg, the director who will give us movie memories for the 21st century, is more likely to be the crazy kid working on a flamethrower in his garage than whoever the media, the system, and the executives have crowned the next king. And we better find the next king soon, otherwise, next summer we might actually get to the beach.