Something hit me while watching Creed, and in ruminating on the upcoming Star Wars movie. They’re bringing back 1970s nostalgia to remind us what movies once were. In thinking about these films I wondered why everything seems so different now. Movies aren’t really the culture quakes they used to be. In the science of evolution we know that with little competition a species can thrive and quickly evolve. With lots of competition that evolution is slower. Movies only have ever had one major thing competing with them and that was television. Now, there is much more competition. That competition is seeing its own golden age and it is starting to look like that golden age is about to leave the greatest generation of cinema behind.
In his November 19th column, Peter Bart theorizes as to why “Good Films Are Failing at the Box Office in Awards Season.” Bart wondered why a movie he enjoyed so much (it was Burnt) was failing at the box office. He offered up a few theories. But really, it’s this that we should all be paying attention to:
The current crop of movies seems somehow diminished by the media fixation on the present “golden age of television.” The water cooler conversation — online version — focuses on binge-watched digital shows, or even an evanescent YouTube act. During the summer, the kids put that all aside, and respond faithfully to their must-see Marvel Comics movie opening. But come fall, their parents aren’t as ready to leave the house.
What Bart is touching on here is a generational shift that’s underway. It is affecting every generation for sure, this entertainment-on-demand climate. We can buzz about the new Marvel series Jessica Jones on Netflix and at the same time all tune in and watch it. Such is not the case with movies, partly because many of the prestige films don’t play in all parts of the country for some time after they open in limited release. But also – there’s a lack of any dying urgency to leave the house, drive to a different location, pay money to watch a movie.
The first mass extinction, the 1950s, was nowhere near the end of things for cinema. As Bart explains, there was a shift to arthouse fare – probably somewhat influenced by the Cahiers of Cinema and the prominent film critics of the time, most notably Pauline Kael. There was suddenly a new identity to be attained by going to the movies – a counterculture revolution that was starting. To sit at home and watch TV was so ordinary, so domestic. The movies offered something else – something wild and vibrant and unpredictable.
Though they wouldn’t know it for a while yet, movie nerd culture was being born. It would begin by reviving and reassessing directors like Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Sturges and Wider as artists, to name a few.
Nerd culture eventually gave rise to the master film-school directors of the 1970s – Coppola and Scorsese, among others. But in 1975, the blockbuster was born with Jaws and then Star Wars. That tectonic shift would have a greater impact, ultimately, on movies than any other. Part of that change, as pointed out by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, would eventually lead to the obliteration of women as any kind of power force in film (except for all-too fleeting reigns by the likes of a Julia Roberts and now Jennifer Lawrence). This would eventually give rise to fanboy culture. Fanboy culture has probably done the same kind of harm to movies that human beings have done to their own habitat. Just as our growing and unending need to consume has all but wrecked life on earth (and will eventually lead to our own extinction), fanboy culture gave rise to movie branding – to sequels – to pre awareness – to tent poles.
It was never about abandoning nerd culture – it was about enhancing it. The early sites like Aint it Cool News weren’t just about comic book movies. They were also about movie love overall, embracing the nerd culture that had emerged from the 50s, the 60s, the 70s and up to now. It was an all-out moviegasm whose drawback only seemed to be, ultimately, the obliteration of all other good things. First to be destroyed: film criticism as it used to be. Whereas Pauling Kael could once actually shape the way people talked about and thought about movies, fanboy culture has turned everyone into a laptop critic so that there is no longer one powerful voice but voices of many that make up a noisy consensus that can make or break a movie’s opening. Good or bad? Who can say. Just as in science and evolution, you can’t always judge what is until we get some distance.
This is where we find ourselves today. Hollywood pretty much knows how to make money on movies. If you brand it, they will come. They will come in droves. They will come so hard and so often your eyes will be spinning with the box office take. Funny part about that, though? It kind of pushes the boomers – or as we like to call them, Oscar voters – to the fringe of the hot conversations. It can leave once counter-culture film nerds who can’t really abide fanboy culture – as evidenced by last year’s Birdman Best Picture win – out in the cold.
Does Hollywood care about that, really? No. The money is flowing. The interesting thing to note, however, because we all know none of this is news, is that the younger generations, coming up behind generation X, the millennials? They don’t really care all that much about movies as a way to get their counter-culture fix.
And therein lies the problem for the future of the Oscars, perhaps movies overall. When Steve Jobs “went wide” and then didn’t open big, suddenly the Oscar prognosticators began devaluing it as a contender. It had to be the movie’s fault, right? It was getting all of the right reviews. It had Oscar buzz, by god. The internet was abuzz with it. Why did it fail woth ticket-buyers? It failed because people are becoming less inclined to go outside of their houses to pay to see a movie they know will be on Netflix not too long from now. Where is the urgency to see a movie like that? There isn’t any.
If it was just Steve Jobs, you might be able to blame the movie. That it’s probably going to describe the plight of all of the limited release “Oscar movies” this year? That’s a major shift and a potential sign that the end is truly upon us, at least in any broad spectrum way.
The film nerds are alive and well. The fanboys are hitting their 30s and 40s. They maybe will have kids, maybe settle down, but they’ll still get excited about the next genre movie coming out. That will never change. Maybe they pass it down to their own kids. The generation behind them might be inclined to start websites about movies. The truth of it, though? The farther you get away from the fanboy generation, the closer you get to the generation that doesn’t yet have a name. You can call them the millennials if you want, though there is a negative connotation attached to that term now.
These are mostly kids and teenagers and some young adults who not only don’t give a crap about serious movies anymore because they can get their counter-culture fix from Youtube, Snapchat, and various other methods of media at the ready – many of them may think of movies as something old people do. They just aren’t interested.
In ruminating on the why part of this, I asked someone I know who would like to remain anonymous and this is what they wrote – really laying the blame at the advertising saturated culture of our American reality:
This generation is coming up in the most cynical advertising environment that has ever existed – one that knows through cutting-edge science that the best way to sell a product is to sell an idealized self-image. The advertised self is “different,” “special,” “desirable by the desired,” “deserves to have what s/he wants when s/he wants it” – in other words, someone who “matters.”
In the advertised life of 2015, success is not modest – it’s extravagant. Why put your nose to the grindstone and work toward modest success when you can be rich or famous or beautiful. The filmmakers we grew up with were storytellers who knew how to connect with us on an emotional level, and we projected ourselves into the story and experienced catharsis. Those movies don’t connect with the new generation on an emotional level because they can just pick up a camera and be the stars of their own movie and connect directly with their own audience, and the kids watching youtube can then project themselves onto them – which is their version of what we used to get in the theater. The same is true with videogames – they’re operating the character – the game-makers have given them a way to both star in and direct their own movie, or interact with other people within that that environment. Also, when you consider the way movie trailers manage to create so much emotion in 3 minutes (for movies that a lot of the time don’t live up to that), why would kids who grow up in the youtube/videogame/trailer age even bother watching a full length movie in a theater? It’s like how people just read headlines rather than the whole story.
It’s impossible to pigeonhole an entire generation and say what they will or won’t do but there does seem to be a need for something bigger than the fanboy fascination with superhero movies to revitalize the movie goers. What could that be? Whatever it is, it’s not likely to be the movie nerd preferences of days gone by, the Pauline Kael vision of what cinema should be, the definition of what defines a life-changing masterpiece from the perspectives of the older critics who were in charge of it.
What demographics are covered? The senior set has proved quite profitable when they are given the opportunity. They seem to still like to go out to the movies in the afternoons and see interesting stories. They fit right in line with the Oscar demographic, which means Oscar movies will always do well in Pasadena on a Sunday afternoon. Behind them would be the baby boomers. They, too, remembering the counter culture days of their youth will still pay to see a movie but maybe they’ll only go every so often. Maybe they’ll only go during Oscar season. Or maybe half of them would rather sit at home and watch their neighbor’s screener. Or maybe just wait for Netflix.
Behind the Boomers is Generation X – my generation. Most of my friends rarely, if ever, go to the movies. My daughter and her generation, the full blown millennials born around 1998 and through the early 2000s? They will go but only if there is heavy marketing, pre-awareness or they’re forced. They seem to like movies made from books they already know. All in all, though, they have to be told to turn off their cell phones, little shiny boxes of their reality that are far more interesting than what they’re seeing on the screen. They’ve been raised to multitask – to watch a movie while chatting on Skype, while texting while Facebooking. Actually going to a movie theater and shutting that out for two hours? Hmm.
Can movies like Anomalisa or the upcoming animated films or even something within the tent-pole genre awaken the coming generations to bring the film nerd back? To keep him or her “ever stalwart:? There is no way to answer that right now. You can’t see adaptations and mutations coming. They come or they don’t.
I put no judgement on this generation or the one coming after it. One thing I do know is that things are changing. We’re still a decade or two away from that change in any obvious way. The Oscars will still clatter along as though their world and the things they care about still matter – white guys doing heroic things. Hollywood will still make lots of money making movies that play in China as China speeds past them with their own growth and soon to dominate with their own film industry. In twenty years, though, what will Best Picture look like? Will it be still focused on mining the past, when things were more easily understood because our roles in our culture were more clearly defined?
This year’s Oscars will likely feature, at least, one blockbuster film that did bring people of all ages out of their homes to see it and that is The Martian. There will also be a bridge of opportunity with Beasts of No Nation, to help ease the pain of what’s coming next for the Oscar industry. Can they or will they embrace Netflix? Maybe they won’t this year, but it’s not going away any time soon. Netflix is moving in a fresh new direction. Unlike movies, it has less competition and can therefore evolve more quickly, as it has been doing for some time now. And then there will be the tried and true Oscar Best Picture choices – the ones they have chosen for the past eight decades. I for one will be watching with great interest to see what the Academy chooses to reward this time around and why.