It’s superhero season, which means we’re in for a bunch of thinkpieces about the negative impact that superhero movies have on cinema. The specific type of movie being decried is different, but these anti-populist op-eds have been generated for as long as I’ve been writing online - ie, the entirety of the 21st century to date - and I’m pretty sure they have been written for decades before that. The complaints are always the same, and they’re sorta hard to refute: that big, loud, corporate cinema dominates the landscape while smaller, smarter, more artistic films languish.
I used to really gnash my teeth about this. You can find old writing of mine where I rail against the dreck dominating multiplexes in the early days of this century, where I bristled at the idea of movies as roller coaster rides and where I screamed myself hoarse in the face of the heathen public who let good films die while they marched, like ants in formation, to some sugary sweet piece of shit. And on some level I don’t feel too differently about it; I think that movies as roller coasters/turn off your brain entertainment is bad, I think that there’s a lot of junk choking movie screens and I think that audiences, downing two gallon Cokes and butter-soaked popcorn, clearly do not know what’s best for them. But over the past fifteen years I’ve really mellowed about all of this - I have in fact become exceptionally hopeful about it - and there are a couple of reasons why.
First is that the blockbuster is as good as it’s been in many years. Not every single one, obviously, but we have moved forward from the late 90s/early 2000s where blockbusters were often incoherent messes of CGI directed by semi-anonymous journeymen. A lot has changed in the last decade, and one of the biggest shifts in the blockbuster business is that real filmmakers are working on them. For all the rending of garments over the Marvel Cinematic Universe as self-perpetuating marketing machine, the movies are themselves better than many of the films that had filled the year end box office top ten before them.
Your mileage on that one may vary - for some reason there are a lot of people who are very, very nostalgic for the mediocre blockbusters of the 90s, a period of mainstream cinema I consider especially fallow - but you can’t deny that the filmmakers making these films are more interesting than your Stephen Sommers or John Turtletaubs. Even a movie like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is absolutely terrible, is absolutely terrible because of a filmmaker’s specific vision.
Even setting that aside, I’ve come to embrace the world of blockbuster dominance because it’s ever been thus. Except for a brief period in the 1970s, when Hollywood was totally off-balance, the most popular American films of any period have been the most crowd-pleasing. Sure, the genres that are popular change, and we have a brighter view of the old days because we tend to only remember the great films (millions of hours of total garbage movies have faded from our collective consciousness, leaving entire decades looking like higher points than they truly were), but you can go back to the very beginning of Hollywood and find intellectuals and the artistically-inclined grousing about the base, commercial nature of major motion pictures. People have been saying 'They don't make em like they used to' ever since the second day that they were making em.
You kind of have to make peace with the fact that the lowest common denominator material will often be the most popular. For decades I sneered at this concept, but I had a major wake up call in the last couple of years. Recently there’s been a sea change in the world of video games, and artistic, individualistic and experimental games have found a place to flourish, just as American indie film did in the 90s. This stuff had always existed in some way, but the change was pronounced in recent years, and there was suddenly a proliferation of games with deeper meaning and something to say.
I kind of hate them.
This fucked me up for some time. How was it possible that I could find these works of individual art so tedious and dopey while happily plopping myself down in front of Call of Duty multiplayer for hours at a time? I prided myself in being something of an intellectual (albeit one who truly, devoutly loves low culture), and I read junk novels as well as high lit, I watched art movies as well as blockbusters, I listened to garage rock as well as gorgeous classical music. And yet here I was balking at art in video games. I just wanted to shoot dudes in the face.
Finally I came to an understanding: it’s okay if you’re not as intensely into an artform as someone else is. And it’s okay if someone else isn’t as intensely into your artform as you are. For some people going to the movies is an entertainment first, last and in the middle. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get GOOD entertainments, but it does mean it’s okay that they’re less interested in the quiet meditations on the meaning of loss or the non-narrative examinations of marginalized cultures. And it’s okay that I just don’t care about ‘walking simulators’ but am deeply, totally in love with sniping opponents from across a map. That’s just the level at which I engage in video games.
Of course I love when a game can give me both - I am entirely enamored of the epic, emotional storytelling of Red Dead Redemption (I'm sure this is an embarrassing example) as well as its casual violence - but I don’t always expect the game to give it all to me.
Understanding this about myself allowed me to understand this about the general moviegoing audience. I don’t think my standards are low when it comes to games - I want good gameplay, I want good graphics, I want interesting innovations - but I’m simply not always looking for the same intellectual or narrative experience as people who are deeply invested in video gaming as an art form.
At the same time I’m very glad those games exist and that people are pushing those envelopes in the medium. I mean, I don’t want to play those games necessarily, but it’s good that they’re there. Which leads me to the next understanding I had, which came only days ago. Indie horror filmmaker Joe Begos tweeted this:
Imagine if there was as many tweets about GREEN ROOM as there was CIVIL WAR— Joe Begos (@joebegos) May 3, 2016
Yeah, I agree! Green Room is an amazing movie and everybody should see it. Except… should they?
I thought about this for a minute after reading the tweet. What makes Green Room special is that director Jeremy Saulnier was able to make his movie, one filled with unheroic protagonists, brutal violence and an ending that is purposefully a step down in intensity. If Saulnier were making Green Room for the same audience as Civil War he wouldn’t be able to do those things. Sure, sometimes extreme or unusual films/books/songs/etc break through into the mainstream, but in general it’s the very uniqueness of these things that make them unsuitable for everybody.
What Begos is wishing for here isn’t that Green Room was getting more attention but rather that everybody in the mainstream thought the way he does. Which, I get. I really do. But at the same time it’s inherently unrealistic. Begos, me, the people reading this long-ass editorial on a fairly niche cinema site, we’re all the devout. We engage with this stuff in a fundamentally different way than most people. And that, honestly, is okay. I suspect that when film critics complain about the tastes of the masses this is what they're complaining about - why don't these dummies like the stuff I like? (Source: I'm a film critic)
I’m reminded of the mission statement of sister company Drafthouse Films, which sums it up:
Sharing the films we love with the widest audience possible.
The idea of ‘the widest audience possible’ is correct - it’s about finding the right people for the right movies and putting them together. But it’s also an understanding that not every Drafthouse movie is for everybody, and they shouldn’t be. Some movies, though, try to be. And they always have, from the beginning of cinema.
On a truly macro level - the idea that the stuff that appeals to the most people does the best - nothing has changed since 1939. On every other level, everything else has changed in the world of cinema. It’s my understanding - and even embracing - of this change that has also led me to be more than okay with the modern blockbuster-crammed multiplex.
Over the last 70 years Hollywood has found itself in a constant state of competition with emerging technologies. From TV in the 1950s - the reason we watch movies in widescreen today - to video games in the present and VR in the near future, cinema has seen its share of the pop culture market shrinking inexorably. What was once THE American entertainment option is now only one of many, many choices. And often it’s the least convenient and more expensive of those choices.
In its attempts to hold onto its place in the entertainment landscape, Hollywood has choked out what is called ‘the middle class’ of movies - those films that cost between say 20 and 75 million dollars (in modern money) that appeal more to adults than to teens. Hollywood’s attention has turned largely to the huge films, based on their understanding that it costs just as much to market a movie that will earn modest amounts (ie, a hundred million or less) as it does to market a movie that will return a billion dollars. This is an enormous part of what people are saying when they complain about the pernicious influence of superhero films (which is a new variation on the old complaints about Jaws and Star Wars ruining the movies, but now a generation that grew up on Jaws and Star Wars is writing about the movies so they need to transfer their derision to newer films).
It’s an economic reality, and as far as I can tell there’s only one actual answer to it: create a state-subsidized cinema. I’ve thought about this a lot, and this is the truth I keep coming back to - as long as movies cost a lot to make and widely (please note the word widely) distribute the for-profit model will err on the side of what returns a bigger profit. Movies paid for by the state - as happens in many countries that send works of great art to international film festivals - don’t have to worry about making their money back in the same way. We have public TV and public radio in this country, but we don’t have public movies (or cinemas).
That’s a big can of worms, to be honest. I spoke with an Israeli film student who was stunned to discover that the United States doesn’t have a state-run film fund. But she wasn’t horrified; rather she was amazed that people could just make movies about anything they wanted to without having to go through all the bureaucratic approvals. I can’t imagine the United States ever setting up a centralized, state-run film fund the way many European countries have*, but then again I thought socialism was still a dirty word in this country, so who knows.
At any rate, embracing the economic reality of filmmaking is a big part of letting go of angst about blockbusters. We still get lots of great, small and personal movies - so many, in fact, that the New York Times has suspended its policy of reviewing every single movie that plays in New York City - it’s just that they don’t compete, on a national consciousness level, with the pop-oriented blockbusters.
And maybe they shouldn’t. Perhaps the hue and cry about the destruction of the middle class in film is the sound of people screaming in the face of inevitable, inexorable change. Maybe the question isn’t ‘Should the big studios be making movies in these mid budget ranges?’ the question is ‘Should we accept the fact that “cinema” no longer lives exclusively on movie screens?’ I think the answer to that second question is very, very much a yes.
I love the movie theater. I sit down for a movie and when the lights go dim I feel good, safe, at home. I love watching films projected on a big screen, with booming sound. That’s my preferred way of experiencing movies. Always has been, always will be. But is a movie only a movie if you’re seeing it in a movie theater? The answer to this question is always going to depend on whether the experience or the art of the movie matters more to you.
The explosion of distribution channels means that the middle class stuff Hollywood doesn’t make can - and does - flourish elsewhere. VOD offers many opportunities, as do cable channels and streaming services in search of smart, cultured content. The trade-off seems good to me - you don’t get your stuff playing in a movie theater but now you get to tell your story over the course of ten hours, changing the format from short stories to novels.
What I see happening is a moment of immense change, one where our very definitions of cinema are being tested. I think those definitions need to change with the times, and that our expectations of what movies are, how they’re distributed and how they’re shown need to evolve. No, the movies aren’t what they were thirty or forty or fifty years ago, and perhaps they never will be again. At the same time I think that the changes in distribution serve as an escape valve for unique, difficult or unusual films, films that don’t have it in them to compete on a pop level (and should never be forced to do so), films that can now find audiences in their own way. Films that couldn't have existed thirty, forty or fifty years ago. What’s more vital: that audiences experience these films in theaters or that they experience them at all? What’s more vital: that these movies be the center of the national conversation or that these movies exist and are seen by the right people?
I’m not advocating ceding our movie theaters to only loud blockbusters. I am privileged to work for the Alamo Drafthouse, a theater chain that has figured out how to serve the audience not only the blockbusters they crave but also niche films like Green Room as well as older, classic movies. While the studios take the brunt of the blame for the engorged blockbuster landscape surely the exhibitors can get a little shade as well - Drafthouse proves it’s possible to offer an eclectic selection of films and find success. I believe that exhibitors who care about the movies can do the same.
In a recent Indiewire piece provocatively titled “Is The Superhero Craze Destroying The Movies?”**, senior film critic David Ehrlich said this:
The massive tentpoles are only damaging to film culture because they’re not really tentpoles. The idea behind the tentpole approach was that the studios would invest a ton of money in sure-fire hits so that the profits could cover the cost (and potential losses) of their mid-size fare. Unfortunately, at some point in the last 15 years or so, the tentpole model began to more closely resemble a closed beach umbrella — the blockbusters propping it up got more expensive, and the smaller movies they might once have afforded us got less…uh, made. All of the sudden, you’ve got Marvel movies on one side, VOD titles on the other, and a vast wasteland in between. It’s like having to choose between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. At the risk of using a supremely loaded analogy, what can movies do to get their own Hillary Clinton?
Maybe the reality is that the tentpole approach no longer applies to the studios but it can to the exhibitor. Drafthouse’s model works because it’s not an arthouse model OR a mainstream model - the chain shows both blockbusters and small films, and the money brought in by the blockbusters gives Drafthouse the room to program less populist fare alongside the big comic book movies. Eventually cinema chains are going to realize they need to appeal to demographics outside of teens; the introduction of luxury experiences in many chains points to this dawning realization. But the expensive luxury moviegoing experience is only going to draw in an older (and spendier) crowd if there is something playing on the screen they want to see. That’s where the diversity comes in.
We are in the middle of a period of extreme change in the world of movie making and distribution. If we hold on to one idea of what the movies are - if we look back at the 1970s as the only acceptable model for American cinema - all of that change will look terrifying and bad. But if we’re open to the idea that, once the initial period of disruption and confusion is over, the new landscape can service visions both big and small, can appeal to audiences both wide and niche, all of this change can be very exciting.
That new landscape is going to need guides. Even today there are so many movies being released that I, a professional film critic, don’t get a chance to see them all. Imagine being a regular person who goes to the movies as a hobby. While the cultural consciousness may be dominated by the superhero blockbusters, the reality is that the breadth of available cinema (and I’m just talking about new stuff here) has never been so breathtakingly vast. And it’s only going to get bigger as the means of distribution change and as our definitions of what cinema is loosen up. What that means is that rather than waste our breath decrying the loss of an old way, critics and pundits and serious film fans - the dwellers in the temple - need to spend our energy on finding and highlighting the great stuff, on supporting good movies and storytelling, on pointing out great talents and exciting new ideas. It’s time to stop being doomsayers and to become evangelists.
We don’t need to save the movies from superheroes because we don’t need to save the movies.
*There are, of course, many grants and subsidies for filmmakers in the US, just not a “Ministry of Culture.”
**Is it just me or does calling it a ‘craze’ eight years after Iron Man and sixteen years after the first X-Men feel like calling rock a ‘craze’ in 1980? Keep up with the culture, dudes.