You can’t stop what’s coming. In America, almost every aspect of our lives has become corporatized. Our choices, under a capitalist system that is supposed to be about more options instead of fewer, are becoming more and more limited. This is true about fast food. It’s true about phone companies, search engines, media outlets, Broadway — and it’s especially true about movies. The model works for humans who are becoming less inclined to take risks with unknown stories (or restaurants) and more inclined to invest in what they already know they like to hear and watch and eat. Mini-malls all over America showcase chains. Starbucks has swallowed up mom-and-pop coffee shops. You now look for Walmart to find the most affordable items. Brands, chains, favorites, franchises. Algorithms that know us better than our own moms do — since you like that then you’ll like this. It’s all about familiarity. Fewer choices, disappointments avoided, expectations met.
“Avengers: Endgame” is now the second highest grossing film of all-time, only behind Avatar (without adjusting for inflation — Gone with the Wind probably still tops all), and since “Black Panther” became the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture, fans are wondering if the Academy will bestow “Endgame” with a similar honor. Don’t count on it. “Black Panther” was unique, as it was a movie your typical Academy member would not feel deep shame naming as its number one film of the year. In fact, it was a bit of a badge of honor. Liking “Black Panther” made them feel good. Liking “Avengers” will not carry the same kind of kick.
The reason for this is, despite last year’s revolutionary pick, there is still an internal war for the soul of Hollywood — or whatever remains of what Hollywood used to be. International box office hauls are so lucrative now that studios are pitching to those seats abroad, and those seats really seem to like grand spectacle, high fantasy, and films as events rather than actual stories. Old timers and purists will resist these for taking up all the oxygen from what they feel are actual movies and will want to preserve what movies have always represented before there was so much emphasis on massive visual effects blockbusters. While people still seem happy to buy a ticket to see good movies in European countries, streaming is infiltrating everywhere, and taking over the eyeballs that crave actual substance. It is just way too easy to get the good stuff at home, on your phone or tablet, on the train, and on the plane than it is to find the time to spend a few hours in a dark theater watching a movie on the big screen.
Our lives are about multi-tasking now. Spending even two hours with our phones turned off seems like a chore, an inconvenience, or a punishment, because what’s happening minute-to-minute on Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram or Twitter compels us, by design, to check, and check again, and then check again. Note how I named just a small handful of social media platforms where most of us get our news? When I say every aspect of American life has become corporatized, I mean every aspect. The way we live our lives, buy food, travel, and most especially, how we are entertained. What was once a matter of how our time is occupied feels more like our time has been invaded and plundered.
Streaming, as opposed to going out to the movies, affords consumers the opportunity to share the experience with people and tweet out reactions in real time, as opposed to waiting until all people have found the time to get to a theater to see the film. The exceptions are the franchise films like “The Avengers” which play everywhere and people are motivated to go see as soon as possible, because everyone is talking about them. Everyone is talking about them because everyone can go see them, all over the world, in almost every corner of the world, virtually simultaneously. Be there or be square. Films in the Oscar race aren’t able to compete on that level without any adaptation into the world of streaming.
Although, when we think about it, what are DVD/Blu-ray FYC screeners that arrive on the doorsteps of 7000 Oscar voters on the very same day, if not a physical-media form of cozy home streaming? Watch me now, the discs say. Watch me at your convenience, watch me with your pants off, watch me without even getting out of bed. In the next stage of that evolution, we’re now witnessing the era of DVD screeners fade into far more efficient technical realities, as VIP streaming links for Oscar contenders are emailed to everyone in the awards industry. Just click a button and it’s showtime.
Yes, how ironic that the same platforms that Hollywood is complaining about are inadvertently saving Hollywood (or at least the most valued aspects of it) from mass extinction. That is why, for instance, “The Irishman,” which will be a Netflix release, will be seen everywhere by everyone, as opposed to paying audiences waiting months and months after it has its Oscar run when it happens to make it to your town. On Netflix, it can be seen all over the world at once. Kind of astonishing, isn’t it? Netflix and Amazon and the other streaming giants offer the kind of choice theaters used to offer, but stopped being able to.
Scrolling the queue on any of these platforms is a reminder of those limited choices when you try to find new release movies to watch, for instance. And why is the original content on Netflix or Amazon often so much more appealing than the stuff Hollywood finds time to generate? By the time movies are made and released, they can’t seem to catch the same kind of exciting risk-taking that original content can. As Dylan says, when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose — and these streaming services have nothing to lose because they want subscribers to feast at the buffet — which used to the HBO model, but now is the streaming model. They know their members like original content because they feel they’re getting their money’s worth so almost anything goes.
That brings us back to what’s coming up this year — “Avengers: Endgame” vs. streaming films like “The Irishman.” And then there are the in-between movies that are still made and released the old way, like Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Tarantino is one of the few directors who, on name-value alone, can still draw a massive audience theatrically. (And yes, we’re aware that’s another example of branding, but with Q it’s never homogenized.) He’s also among a small group of filmmakers who resist the technological changes that have become nearly unavoidable: digital cinematography, and of course, streaming. Instead, Tarantino has restored the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles and continues to try to bring people out to the movies to see old movies. Purists still will. The rest of the country and the world will do a quick search on Amazon instead.
Do I think “Endgame” will be nominated for Best Picture? No, I do not. At least it doesn’t seem likely right now. The reason is that I can’t imagine enough Academy members are willing to put that film as their number one favorite of the year for it to qualify. And part of the reason for that, is that it’s not possible to fully appreciate Endgame unless you’ve been invested in 22 other movies. Black Panther had that going for it. It could be enjoyed as a stand-alone achievement. Now, perhaps every other movie released this year will suck or falter at the box office or fail a purity test — and maybe that vacuum at the top will lift Endgame up, but without the supplemental gifts “Black Panther” brought along with it (all-black filmmakers, all-black main cast, important message, history made, etc), it’s hard to imagine voters giving themselves over to “Endgame,” especially without a separate category for popular film, where “Endgame” would fit quite nicely.
Evolution is about who and what survives to produce the next generation. If millennials have stopped caring all that much about going to the movies — unless they’re paying to see something that is much more fun to see on the big screen, and because they’ve been conditioned since birth to respond to fewer choices, expectations met, in a country where brands rule all — it’s hard to imagine turning back the clock on that front. Evolution is about a mutation that becomes so successful it creates a new species. If that new species thrives, it can become the future. Both franchise movies and streaming are mutations of what came before. Both are thriving. And thus, both are the future.