Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies? How the richness of technology led to the poverty of imagination.
September 30, 2012
SIX HUNDRED OR SO movies open in the United States every year, including films from every country, documentaries, first features spilling out of festivals, experiments, oddities, zero-budget movies made in someone’s apartment. Even in the digit-dazed summer season, small movies never stop opening—there is always something to see, something to write about. Just recently I have been excited by two independent films—the visionary Louisiana bayou mini-epic, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and a terse, morally alert fable of authority and obedience called Compliance. Yet despite such pleasures, movies—mainstream American movies—are in serious trouble. And this is hardly a problem that worries movie critics more than anyone else: many moviegoers feel the same puzzlement and dismay.
When I speak of moviegoers, I mean people who get out of the house and into a theater as often as they can; or people with kids, who back up rare trips to the movies with lots of recent DVDs and films ordered on demand. I do not mean the cinephiles, the solitary and obsessed, who have given up on movie houses and on movies as our national theater (as Pauline Kael called it) and plant themselves at home in front of flat screens and computers, where they look at old films or small new films from the four corners of the globe, blogging and exchanging disks with their friends. They are extraordinary, some of them, and their blogs and websites generate an exfoliating mass of knowledge and opinion, a thickening density of inquiries and claims, outraged and dulcet tweets. Yet it is unlikely that they can do much to build a theatrical audience for the movies they love. And directors still need a sizable audience if they are to make their next picture about something more than a few people talking on the street.
I have in mind the great national audience for movies, or what’s left of it. In the 1930s, roughly eighty million people went to the movies every week, with weekly attendance peaking at ninety million in 1930 and again in the mid-1940s. Now about thirty million people go, in a population two and a half times the size of the population of the 1930s. By degrees, as everyone knows, television, the Internet, and computer games dethroned the movies as regular entertainment. By the 1980s, the economics of the business became largely event-driven, with a never-ending production of spectacle and animation that draws young audiences away from their home screens on opening weekend. For years, the tastes of young audiences have wielded an influence on what gets made way out of proportion to their numbers in the population. We now have a movie culture so bizarrely pulled out of shape that it makes one wonder what kind of future movies will have.
Nostalgia is history altered through sentiment. What’s necessary for survival is not nostalgia, but defiance. I’m made crazy by the way the business structure of movies is now constricting the art of movies. I don’t understand why more people are not made crazy by the same thing. Perhaps their best hopes have been defeated; perhaps, if they are journalists, they do not want to argue themselves out of a job; perhaps they are too frightened of sounding like cranks to point out what is obvious and have merely, with a suppressed sigh, accommodated themselves to the strange thing that American movies have become. A successful marketplace has a vast bullying force to enforce acquiescence.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, The Avengers, which pulled together into one movie all the familiar Marvel Comics characters from earlier pictures—Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and so on—achieved a worldwide box-office gross within a couple of months of about $1.5 billion. That extraordinary figure represented a triumph of craft and cynical marketing: the movie, which cost $220 million to make, was mildly entertaining for a while (self-mockery was built into it), but then it degenerated into a digital slam, an endless battle of exacerbated pixels, most of the fighting set in the airless digital spaces of a digital city. Only a few critics saw anything bizarre or inane about so vast a display of technology devoted to so little. American commercial movies are now dominated by the instantaneous monumental, the senseless repetition of movies washing in on a mighty roar of publicity and washing out in a waste of semi-indifference a few weeks later. The Green Hornet? The Green Lantern? Did I actually see both of them? The Avengers will quickly be effaced by an even bigger movie of the same type.
This franchise-capping Avengers was a carefully built phenomenon. Let’s go back a couple of years and pick up a single strand that led to it. Consider one of its predecessors,Iron Man 2, which began its run in the United States, on May 7, 2010, at 4,380 theaters. That’s only the number of theaters: multiplexes often put new movies on two or three, or even five or six, screens within the complex, so the actual number of screens was much higher—well over 6,000. The gross receipts for the opening weekend were $128 million. Yet those were not the movie’s first revenues. As a way of discouraging piracy and cheap street sale of the movie overseas, the movie’s distributor, Paramount Pictures, had opened Iron Man 2 a week earlier in many countries around the world. By May 9, at the end of the weekend in which the picture opened in America, cumulative worldwide theatrical gross was $324 million. By the end of its run, the cumulative total had advanced to $622 million. Let’s face it: big numbers are impressive, no matter what produced them…