A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 2, 2019

Is This Another Summer From Hell For Hollywood - Or Business As Usual?

It's not just streaming. Dreck content, dreck results. JL

Sean Fennessy reports in The Ringer:

Of late, the existential crisis of the industry has become a routine tradition, now chronicled in monthly, weekly, and daily intervals. The annual box office is down 9% in 2019, despite the fact that for the first time since 1993 the average ticket price has fallen from the previous year. The industry is on pace to sell its lowest number of tickets since ’92. (But) there have never been more new movies to see than there are today. There have also never been so many that are utterly inconsequential. There has never not been a time when Hollywood was barely hanging on.
There has never not been a time when Hollywood was barely hanging on. The very best books about the history of the town are invariably about the way it has been threatened by its own design, its eminent respectability in peril due to self-created imminent doom. In Lillian Ross’s Picture, from 1952, MGM mangles John Huston’s vision of The Red Badge of Courage, creating a microcosm of the inherent conflict between art and commerce that plays out right before Ross’s eyes. In The Studio, John Gregory Dunne reveals a carnivorous appetite for profit and a vainglorious pursuit of fame operating inside 20th Century Fox circa 1967, as the industry approaches the precipice of revolution. In 1991’s The Devil’s Candy, Julie Salamon breathlessly and virtuosically untangles the fiasco that was Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a misbegotten venture from the moment it was green-lit. Failure is an endemic part of the business—it dictates decisions, terminates trends, and is riven in the psyche of most anyone who makes movies.
Of late, the existential crisis of the industry has become a routine tradition, now chronicled in monthly, weekly, and sometimes even daily intervals. An entire media subcategory is devoted to box office reporting that closely charts the predictions and subsequent achievement or failure of those predictions. It is reliable content, with data reporting, built-in narrative devices, and the thrilling stakes of winning and losing buttressing its churn. Though it rarely arrives in the novelistic style of Dunne or Ross, it may be pitched at a more operatic frequency than anyone has seen before. The sky is falling and no one has an umbrella to spare. It feels most acute during the summers, when a series of sequels are released, each more distended and unnecessary than the last. Nearly five years ago, in an essay entitled “The Birdcage,” my former colleague Mark Harris wrote what is considered—by me, and a great many people—the definitive vivisection of Hollywood’s problematic superstructure: too much intellectual property, too many connected universes, too much continuity, too many sequels, too few original stories. Zeroing in on this crisis, Harris conjured a trenchant thesis:
Movies are no longer about the thing; they’re about the next thing, the tease, the Easter egg, the post-credit sequence, the promise of a future at which the moment we’re in can only hint.
Most modern diagnostic movie analysis is rooted in this piece, or at least its mode of thinking. Less than a year after “The Birdcage,” Harris wrote about the cauterizing effect that the surprise mega-success of Jurassic World would have and the sorts of movies we would get because of it. Shortly after that, the perceptive BuzzFeed critic Alison Willmore wrote about “The Movies That Made Us Love And Hate Sequels In 2015.” Seven months after that, Harris returned to the well, with a column called “The Sequels of 2016 Aren’t About Storytelling; They’re Just Brand Extensions.” I’ve gotten in on the act, writing about this exact phenomenon, which felt grave in 2017, and then again last summer, which seemed to usher in what I called “the curveball sequel”—spinoffs no one asked for, like Ocean’s 8, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!, and The Nun—but were somehow still successful enough to move the chains to the next summer. It’s always bad. It continues on. Last week at Vulture, Nate Jones wrote on what he calls “The Step-Sequel,” films that are existentially connected to if not outright bound by their predecessors—think Men in Black: International or X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Most of these movies are failing, badly. They happen to be terrible. This summer, the panic is justified. I think.

The annual box office is down nearly 9 percent in 2019, despite the fact that for the first time since 1993 the average ticket price has fallen from the previous year. The industry is on pace to sell its lowest number of total tickets since ’92, the same year that the original Aladdin appeared in theaters. (Since Harris’s diagnosis in 2014, Disney has introduced another successful but intellectually wanting form of regurgitation: the live-action remake.) Back in 1992, 480 films were released theatrically all year. The movie industry is bigger now—through fewer than six months, 371 movies have already been released. Last year, a whopping 878 movies hit theaters. Studios are not exclusively releasing franchise sequels in theaters, though they are invariably releasing those films in more theaters than any other sort of film. Behemoths are meant to bolster the flotsam. Toy Story 4 opened on 4,575 screens. Aladdin, from 1992, openedon about half that number. There have never been more new movies to see than there are today. There have also never been so many that are utterly inconsequential. When the big ones don’t click, everyone starts getting itchy.
This summer has furnished a series of mini-catastrophes, each with new contouring. In May, the modest returns of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart led to perhaps the first social responsibility box office scandal, in which potential moviegoers were encouraged to seek out the movie to support female filmmakers, original storytelling, a vision of different lifestyles on screen, studio-funded comedies, and probably a few other causes hoping to go célèbre. Booksmart is a charming, well-made movie; it shouldn’t be asked to bear the burden of its industry’s future.
Just two weeks later, the inauspicious debut of Dark Phoenix signaled the end of Fox’s X-Men franchise, the first superhero death by merger, sacrificed to the great titan Disney. There are several reasons that movie didn’t work, but it looks like a genuine superhero failure the likes of which we haven’t seen since Fantastic Four and The Green Hornet. It revealed an uncommon miscalculation—too dark, too redundant, too reshot, too transparently reconstituted. Does it mean the start of the superhero wane? I wouldn’t be so sure. But it’s not meaningless.
Last week’s Men in Black meltdown felt like confirmation of a feeling: Something isn’t right, and faith among audiences is diminishing. With each subsequent struggling movie has come a requisite autopsy from The Hollywood Reporter, recounting the various ways the studios and talent clashed throughout production, eager to throw the other under the proverbial bus. In 2018, MoviePass was the secret lubricant in a surprisingly successful movie year. The year before that, Rotten Tomatoes came under suspicion for unduly influencing moviegoers against certain films. (Baywatch, anyone?) Every effect in Hollywood needs a cause. This year’s cause is … streaming? It might be. Fewer people are buying tickets to movies because fewer people need to leave their homes to see new things. And so to draw out the homebound consumer, a theatrical experience must be an event. Last week, The New York Times unveiled a kind of oral history anxiety attack entitled “How Will the Movies (As We Know Them) Survive the Next 10 Years?” featuring interviews with dozens of filmmakers, executives, and actors. There is some subtle disagreement about the benefits of companies like Netflix spending billions on original films, but otherwise the general sentiment seems to be “We’re fucked.” I thought Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman summed up the ambient dread succinctly: “Young people don’t go to ‘the’ movies, they go to ‘a’ movie.”The movies that are most anticipated for the rest of the season—the events—present a paradox: There is the forthcoming The Lion King live-action remake starring the voices of Beyoncé and Donald Glover. A week later, there is Quentin Tarantino’s original, starry period piece Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. And a week after that, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Two major tentpoles bound by their forebearers, and one old-school movie movie. None is guaranteed success, nor is their creative approach proof of anything beyond their existence. Would The Lion King’s inevitable box office championship affirm the ineffectuality of Tarantino movies? We may be back here in six weeks to reevaluate all of our evaluations. This is the life cycle of a business that changes at such a glacial pace that an entire consumption model—streaming—rose up and started gobbling up talent and mindshare before it had a chance to reset its meticulously organized, decade-long release schedule.
Why do writers—people consumed by the very shape of the movie business—who are desperate for great films mine Hollywood’s failures for grand statements about the medium? It’s always been that way. (See: 1983. 1998. 2011. 2012. I had my swing in 2016.) Music is often described as the art form that makes the most lasting impression on young kids—the songs you love as an adolescent tend to become entwined with your emotional DNA, never to be separated. But there is a romantic, adhesive appeal about the movies, too. Seen at the right age, they can render your taste frozen in amber. In 1992, I was already an avid, list-making moviegoer. I saw films released that year—Reservoir Dogs, Unforgiven, Candyman, Malcolm X, even My Cousin Vinny!—that I knew I’d never shake. But the four highest-grossing movies of 1992 were Aladdin, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Batman Returns, and Lethal Weapon 3. Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because this weekend was lousy doesn’t mean it was much better three decades ago. Nostalgia is a helluva drug.
We tend to draw generational conclusions from the things that succeed at the highest level, and make value judgments based on what doesn’t work. No one remembers the bloop single. The business of movies is a three true outcomes sport. Despite this troubled year, Avengers: Endgame stands to become the highest-grossing movie ever made, not adjusted for inflation. I liked Endgame—it’s not a totem for my time on earth nor is it the capstone on this great metaphorical dream machine. It’s a deft series finale, conceived to conclude a 22-episode season of the beloved long-running program known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s what comes at the expense of the finale that has everyone in knots. Every three hours spent watching Endgame is three hours not spent watching The Souvenir. Or Long Shot. Or High Life. (At least we all had John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum.)
As more of these series-oriented event films fail, their highly planned futures come a bit unglued. The creative forces in the industry have historically responded to failure by breaking the paradigm and redefining the form. In the late 1960s, the arrival of the so-called New Hollywood dispensed with the bloated musicals, misconceived historical epics, and shopworn Westerns that had sent the studios into a downward spiral. For a period, the biggest movies looked and felt different—more personal, more handmade, more European. Are we at the dawning of a new era of creativity, a reimagining of what a movie can be? It won’t be so easy. Virtually every studio is bound by corporate overlords or overseas investment or, maybe worse, venture capital. Long gone are the days of a single grouchy studio chief calling all the shots. Today, creativity with serious distribution is managed in the boardroom.
Some working primarily for streaming services see a more inclusive future that levels the playing field and changes the stories we’ll see. In the Times, Ava DuVernay, whose new miniseries When They See Us was released directly to Netflix, says, “There is a privilege embedded in [a theatrical release] because I’ve had it, I’ve seen it and I know what it is: It’s a lot of ego. I’m told by the system that this is what matters, but then people aren’t seeing your movies.” For some filmmakers, that will be true. But on the whole, that may be asking too much of streaming services desperate to fill your time with formats that are more familiar than anything else. Could Netflix have an Easy Rider or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, films with no precedent that are credited with changing the expectation of the modern movie-watcher, to call its own? Maybe. But how would we know?
At the end of “The Birdcage,” Harris wrote the following as a rhetorical sigh and a kind of koan:
Think of how old you’ll be in 2020. Where will you be in your life? What will be different? Do you imagine that your taste will be exactly what it is today? Hollywood profoundly hopes the answer is yes. Your sameness is what it prays for.
We’re almost there now. Are we still the same? And if we’ve changed, how would we even register our new feelings?


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