On the state of movies and blockbuster culture in 2017.
2017 has had its share of watershed cinematic moments already. *Very minor spoilers to follow.* Lakeith Stanfield hissing Get out. Dafne Keen turning the cross into an X (tries not to cry, moves on quickly). Wonder Woman’s quiet moment with Chris Pine on the tarmac. Cinema is alive and well, pulsing as loudly as ever. Even the aforementioned blockbuster films (Get Out notwithstanding, obviously) prove that big budget, fun movies can still make plenty of money and include its share of transcendent moments. But the year has been defined so far mostly by its large misses, whether financially or critically or both. Who was asking for another Pirates movie? Or another Spiderman or a Mummy reboot or a modern day Power Rangers?
The year has already had its flops, and it’s bound to have plenty more coming up soon (there’s no way War for the Planet of the Apes makes money…right?). And I don’t mean to condescend to you if you liked any of those movies; I bought a ticket to the latest Pirates, after all. Movies are, at their core, supposed to be fun. But when does it end? Everyone wants to copy Marvel’s success, but Marvel is an anomaly and that’s becoming more and more obvious. Even Marvel might be losing some steam: Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was a pretty bad movie, even if the critics had enough goodwill not to deem it as such. DC finally managed to create its first genuine success, and will hopefully build on that momentum. Franchises like Pirates, Apes, and Cars all generated another film to little or moderate fanfare. At what point does fatigue begin to impact the box office? Pretty soon, right?
Your pretentious friend will point to Get Out as proof that studios need to create more original content. After a few glasses of wine, he’ll point out that it made seven times its budget on opening weekend. He’ll smirk, assuming he’s smarter than every studio executive, and shake his head. Get Out made lots money, it’s true, but not enough money to allow a studio to rest on its laurels for the rest of the year. And certainly not enough money for a studio to plan for next year, and the year after, etc. For every Get Out there are ten The Space Between Uses.
But is there anything to learn from Get Out? Of course. In fact, someone could write a pretty interesting book about Blumhouse’s business model. They keep the budgets of their films so low that if they gain any traction at all, they instantly turn a profit. For Get Out, they chose to empower Jordan Peele, a first time writer/director, to see his vision through. Peele’s distinct vision and specific filmmaking is a nice contrast to some of the generic studio shlock that feels like it was created exclusively by a test audience (*cough* Suicide Squad *cough*). The film was a risk but, at only a reported five million dollar budget, it really wasn’t.
Every studio is currently mining its IP for anything that can create something sustainable. That’s why Universal tried to create its Dark Universe (on hold until further notice). That’s why Marvel paid for the rights to Spiderman and is hoping you’re ready to process Uncle Ben’s death for the third time in fifteen years.
The role of the studio has changed in the last decade, and that change hasn’t just been necessitated by Marvel’s dominance. The media and cultural landscape has shifted considerably. People just aren’t going to original, well-reviewed, sharp films like Popstar: Never Stop Stopping unless the word of mouth is absolutely insane. The landscape is so saturated with decent content that a film has to be extraordinary to break into the zeitgeist. (By the way, even if people did go to movies like that, it would be a mere drop in the bucket. Popstar was made for $20 million, if we’re pretending that marketing doesn’t exist. Let’s say it overachieved and made $70 million at the box office. Pretty good, right? $50 million profit! Beauty and the Beast, a more or less shot for shot live-action remake of a 25 year old animated film, made $1.2 billion at the box office worldwide. Do you still think that studios care about “little” films that might make a few million? More importantly, do you still think they should care?) Even a film like Logan, an artistic and financial triumph, a superhero movie that subverted the genre brilliantly, doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it made loads of money and spawned thousands of internet thinkpieces. But it doesn’t build a franchise; it effectively ends one.
Blockbusters are important because they make gobs of money. They make gobs of money because they A) have broad appeal domestically and internationally and B) provide the type of entertainment that you still can’t get anywhere else. Until further notice, people still want to go to the movies. They just need to be pulled in a little more than they used to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, either. It’s just that studios are trying to re-figure out the things that pull people in and when they miss, they fail spectacularly.
It’s unclear what happens now. Behemoths like Star Wars and The Avengers will continue to print money for now. But what about the second and third tier blockbusters? The ones that are made with the same amount of money and a quarter of the fan base? Take King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, one of the year’s biggest face-plants. If you dig deep, you can kind of see the formula here, right? Use famous, classic characters with a proven action director (and hit-maker) and a big TV star that’s already fronted a blockbuster. Hopefully, you end up with a surprise hit on your hands. That’s…not the worst plan when trying to create an international sensation without the brand inertia of Star Wars, right? You can kind of see how and why they got there? Yet, predictably, King Arthur bombed, bringing in only $15 million in its opening weekend and limping into third place domestically. But despite all the doom and gloom, King Arthur is “only” an estimated $50 million in the hole (to be fair, it’s probably a good bit more than that, but we can only go off the estimated production budgets that are public). A $50 million loss isn’t quite chump change, but it’s not the death knell to the movie industry (or to blockbuster culture) that the doomsdayers claim.
So where do these smaller, artistically ambitious movies go? (Spoiler alert: Netflix) Take To The Bone for example: a festival darling, the type of film that ten years ago Sony would have bought for a few million dollars and then sussed out the market for a potential Oscar campaign. Netflix comes in and buys it at a hefty $8 million price and plops it onto their streaming service in the middle of July, normal conventions be damned. Why? Because they can. And because the more interesting (and exclusive) content they possess, the more their profile grows and expands. (Amazon is the closest parallel to Netflix. Netflix tried to have their cake and eat it too with Beasts of No Nation in 2015, releasing it in theaters and on their streaming service simultaneously. Amazon learned from their counterpart’s mistakes with Manchester By the Sea, committing to an exclusive theatrical release and a (pretty successful) traditional Oscar campaign. Netflix seemingly gave little care to the Oscars last year, though they won for Best Documentary. Manchester proves that the outsider streaming services can get an invite to the party, but can they do it on their own terms? I don’t think so. At least, not yet.)
I don’t think it’s an inherently evil thing for streaming services to take that corner of the movie industry. In fact, I think it’s growing opportunity. Take Joe Swanberg: a man whose sensibilities, um, eschew typical movie machinations. Win it All, his latest creation, is a quintessentially Netflix movie and it’s actually pretty good. Netflix gave him and Jake Johnson the keys, empowered their vision, and let them create something pleasantly mellow. He probably wouldn’t have gotten much of a distribution deal from a studio but you know what? I wouldn’t have bought a ticket to see it in theaters. And I liked it.
I’m not saying that Netflix has created (or is on the cusp of creating) the next Godfather. The Godfather was a big studio risk that became a sensation and a cultural touchstone. Netflix and Amazon are still making small potatoes, hedging their bets whenever possible. If you’re lamenting the days when studios operated like they did in the 1970s, fine; those days probably aren’t ever coming back. But isn’t Netflix inching that way? Doesn’t a film like War Machine prove that they’re willing to start pushing their chips into the middle of the table? Netflix will continue to ramp up its pedigree until it eventually can’t be ignored. Sooner, rather than later, I think they’ll create something great. And I think that shift is a good thing.
Edit: I’m stoked to be wrong about War for the Planet of the Apes and Spiderman: Homecoming. It’s always a positive when movies are good. However, I don’t think their successes significantly change the points in the article. It is interesting to note, though, that this summer might end up looking a lot better than critics projected.