Download: The Day the Movies Died … Again
“The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.”
“Maybe so, sir. But not today.”
When Mark Harris wrote the article in GQ, “The Day the Movies Died,” 11 years ago, it was a big deal. He was the first to name a trend that would eventually mean the extinction of original movies that use to flourish in movie theaters. Those of us who lived through the 1960s and 1970s remember when there was an abundance of every kind of movie on offer. Harris rightly noticed that suddenly things had become too pre-packaged, too formulaic, too branded. What would the future hold for movies? It didn’t look good.
The movie Harris settled on as the culprit was not Jaws or Star Wars, which launched the blockbuster, but Top Gun of 1985:
The Top Gun era sent the ambitions of those who wanted to break into the biz spiraling in a new direction. Fifteen years earlier, scores of young people headed to film schools to become directors. With the advent of the Reagan years, a more bottom-line-oriented cadre of would-be studio players was born, with an MBA as the new Hollywood calling card. The Top Gun era shifted that paradigm again—this time toward marketing. Which was only natural: If movies were now seen as packages, then the new kings of the business would be marketers, who could make the wrapping on that package look spectacular even if the contents were deficient.
In some ways, the ascent of the marketer was inevitable: Now that would-be blockbusters often open on more than 4,000 screens, the cost of selling a movie has skyrocketed toward—and sometimes past—$40 million to $50 million per film, which is often more than the movie itself cost to make. According to the Los Angeles Times, the studios spent $1 billion just to market the movies that were released in the summer of 2009.
Ten years later Harris’ husband, Tony Kushner, would write the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. It would open and disappoint at the box office so dramatically that many of us thought that signaled the death of movies. It was Mark Harris’ prediction finally coming to pass. Movies that would have to be relegated to streaming. Peggy Noonan declared movies for adults in movie theaters over:
How ironic, then, that in 2022 it would be Top Gun: Maverick credited not with killing movies but with saving them. So much has changed in this country and in Hollywood that Top Gun was the only glimmer of hope that there was still such a thing as movies at all. It’s not a superhero movie or fantasy or animated. And currently sits atop the global box office.
But if you compare this year’s box office to the last year when movies were really thriving you’ll see not just superhero movies making money, but many of the Best Picture contenders also in the lineup:
2019 turned out to be such a great year for movies and especially Oscar movies. We might have been worried about the Oscar ratings but the movies on offer were attractive to audiences worldwide.
The box office story of this past weekend is Glass Onion: A Knives out Mystery, which made an impressive $13 million in only 700 theaters. The first film was so successful that Netflix paid a hefty price for a deal to make the second and third installments. Now that they’ve made their own history by opening it in theaters – they’ve shown they can now do both successfully. They can keep movie theaters alive while offering a diverse array of content. There’s something for everybody. They can be “woke” and non-woke. They can go big and they can go small.
But as Pamela McClintock writes in the Hollywood Reporter:
Without Glass Onion grosses, revenue for the five-day Thanksgiving corridor was down 53 percent or more from Thanksgiving 2019 and — more troubling — down 12 percent from last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic was far more of an issue.
Down 12 percent from last year.
There was a similar culture quake back in the 1950s when so many were opting to stay home and watch television:
There were various solutions tried by movie theaters and studios to bring movies back. Once countries like France started making movies that need not abide by America’s Hays Code, that in turn inspired Hollywood filmmakers to start taking more risks. Disregarding the Hays Code meant movies could now offer audiences something they couldn’t get on the strictly censored television – more sex and violence, mainly. This would eventually lead to arguably the best era of Oscar history, the 1970s. Had studios chosen not to evolve away from the Hays Code we might never have gotten that 2nd golden age of Hollywood cinema. Something had to change, and it did.
We might never get back the box office we had even in 2019. But now something has to change again.
There is one thing Hollywood can now do that will bring people out from behind their smartphones or their televisions. They can bring back traditional entertainment, like Top Gun Maverick and Knives Out: Glass Onion. Tried and true formulas that move the needle, always. In other words, give the majority what they know the majority wants and it doesn’t only have to be superhero movies or action pics. Just find a way to extricate at least some movies from the grips of the “Woketopians.”
I’ve been writing about this for a while now and it’s not easy to talk about. Most people just don’t want to confront what has happened to the film industry, even if almost everyone knows that something dramatic changed — and that something has turned people off. Even if the movies themselves don’t have activist-driven content, the Hollywood brand means that’s what they’re going to anticipate – so they’ll avoid it and wait for streaming.
The problem can’t be fixed because the problem can’t be named. No one wants to be called out on Twitter, dragged into the arena for public shaming — as I routinely am. So they keep quiet. They name everything they can safely target without being screamed at by activists who somehow think that if movies are correct they can make life correct.
Activists are mandating productions adhere to their own codes with casting and storytelling. It’s so bizarre to most people who understand that they’re being manipulated by invisible hands tinkering with their perceptions. Those invisible hands have an agenda. They want to change how people think. But that isn’t their job. Not if they want to make money and not where the free market is concerned.
Out of Frame says:
But at the end of the talk, Solloway announced that her real mission was to advance what she called the topple principles as in topple the patriarchy throughout the entertainment industry. The first of these principles is our revolution must be intersectional. This is a demand that new film and TV projects be politically activist in nature. From an explicitly leftist, intersectional feminist point of view. That’s a perspective that sees virtually all of human interaction as a power struggle between different, sometimes intersecting identity groups, and which defines those groups by their comparative levels of privilege or oppression. This is deeply illogical, inherently divisive, and leads to severely flawed conclusions about the world.
Point is people who have a massive influence on our culture have shifted away from caring about the craft of creating entertaining, engaging movies and shows towards creating multimillion-dollar PSAs pushing a specific message. Everything from what stories are getting told to who is allowed to work on the projects to casting choices to what’s being distributed and promoted on major networks and streaming services is all being filtered through this ideological lens. Unfortunately, this approach has the tendency to absolutely wreck good storyteller. And that’s without even getting into problems with tokenizing pre existing characters or making radical changes to serve the message.
So the problem is now named. What is the solution? Says Out of Frame:
Empathy requires an objective shared reality. If your entire understanding of the world is dependent on whether or not your asis white woman or a gay black man or a member of some other group, then we are all permanently divided, we will never understand each other. And that leaves us with a cold, dark world that can’t tolerate nuance or differences of opinion.
Well, one of the most important and practical lessons I’ve learned after a lot of years working with economists and entrepreneurs, is that the key to success in business is shockingly simple. You ready? Here it is, find a way to create something a lot of other people want and figure out how to get it to them at a price they’re willing to pay.
Easier said than done, obviously. But that’s really all there is to it. And it’s just as true for artists as it is for plumbers and electricians. If you want to earn a great living or create a profitable business, your first priority has to be your customer. For most of its existence. The entertainment industry understood this. It was the best in the world at creating movies, TV shows, music, comics, and all kinds of content that hundreds of millions of people loved. The major studios and publishers dominated their competition because they were laser focused on making audiences happy by telling interesting stories. Somewhere along the way, the industry stopped caring about that becoming more about promoting a political agenda than producing great content.
And now with so many great scripts and talented creators being boxed in by this restrictive ideology, there’s enormous room for new entrepreneurs to take over. I have no idea who will get there first. But after decades of monolithic control by the gatekeepers in Hollywood, it’s pretty exciting to see people making legitimate content outside that system. In a market economy. competition drives a tremendous amount of growth and change. And I think in this case, change is long overdue.
The micro-managing of Hollywood by activists is killing its product.
It’s making them feel like anything that features a strong male hero is somehow “bad” because hetero men, usually white, must always be the enemy. I watched Barbarian, which I loved, but of course that movie’s message could only be: white men bad. It is almost always the case now – only the villains can be white and everyone else is saintly. Does no one think there is something weird about that or are they just too afraid to say so because they’ll be called a “racist”?
They believe this ideology is universally shared but it isn’t. It is the status quo among an insulated group, but doesn’t represent what the majority in this country thinks or wants.
I will say that I hope more people get out to see Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin. Both of these are great movies that tell traditional stories and tell them well. Not a “right-think lesson” to be had anywhere. I hope their box office numbers now are just the beginning of what will lead to great numbers on down the road.
But back to Mark Harris and his declaration that movies died with the first Top Gun. He wasn’t wrong. He laid it out and much of that came to pass. But things changed again, life and culture evolved. Top Gun might have helped kill a certain kind of movie. But its follow-up can help revive the kind of movie that will bring audiences back to the theater.