Breaking news: film is dead

If you’ve ever thought they don’t make movies like they used to, you’re right; we’ve entered a new paradigm of cinema

In an age where one can access all their favorite movies easier than ever before, a deep contrast appears between new and old. Where there once existed a large variety in production, now only a stream of regurgitated stories with formulaic productions remains. And in all fairness, some movies always looked like this. By the time “Pretty in Pink” rolled out, even the most devoted John Hughes followers started to catch on to the idea. But John Hughes got his start with something completely original: “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” While he may have fallen into a routine of high school movies overselling the picturesqueness of being a high schooler in the Reagan years (see “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), his breakthrough came with an adaptation of a short story he wrote. It was different, new, exciting, raunchy — and absolutely hysterical. Movies like these don’t seem to come around like they could before. Where a comedy group could take a bit of a chance for someone like John Hughes back then, risky investments now have gone the way of the flip phone — completely passé. So what has changed?

One of the first big shifts has come in the death of the DVD and VHS era. As Matt Damon discusses in an interview with Hot Ones, home video sales provided a massive cushion for making risky films. Streaming services may pay for the rights to screen a film, but the revenue there pales in comparison to what DVD sales could once accomplish. As Damon describes it, for him to pitch a creative project, he would have to pay up front the cost of production, an equal amount in advertising and then split revenue with exhibitors, the people who own the theaters. For a movie projected to cost, say, $25 million just in production, he would have to make $100 million in revenue just to turn a profit. With streaming services, that money would have to come almost exclusively from ticket sales, which, incidentally, streaming services have also decimated. Now, instead of individuals or small groups having the option to fund creative projects of their own or in which they believe, the funding falls to the corporate entities at the top. Whereas a hopeful director could have once built their hopes on funding from established actors, paying back in shares of DVD and ticket sales, they now have to lay their ambitions at the feet of CEOs for Amazon, Netflix, or Disney, who may feel compelled to opt for a safer cash cow. It’s a bleak creative environment. With the death of home video came a new obstacle for creating original, risk-taking films.

Another difference in the movie industry has arisen in how successful a bad movie can prove. About once every other month it seems, a new Netflix original releases that, so I’m told, is so bad that it’s hysterical, and I have to watch it. These films take low budgets, poor writing and a complete disregard for anything sacred and turn them into millions of dollars. I’ll refrain from too many examples for fear of offense, but I doubt many would defend any genuine merit in “The Kissing Booth 3” or “Hubie Halloween.” The corporations that fund the movies released today suffer no obligation to back many expensive projects because they can turn a massive profit without investing anything in production crew or in a writers’ room. In fact, when the incompetence draws the profit, they do better to thrift. And this is also why every streaming service offers an abundance of horror films. In looking only at return on investment, horror films produce some of the greatest proportional returns imaginable and they do it because they simply cost nothing to make. Bad equipment makes it harder to see or hear what happens, raising the anxiety of the viewer; filming in a single location can make a viewer feel trapped. A highschooler filming his friend with an iPhone at his parents’ house works with comparable materials to someone making the next Netflix original horror movie. And I’m not saying horror itself is a bad genre, but I will say it’s a saturated market with diminishing variety. Bad movies and horror movies have taken film in a stranglehold, and it could take years before other genres can break through.

The third aspect holding film back lies in its abject commodification. Borrowing in no small part from Theodor Adorno’s discussion of music in “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression in Listening,” I argue that the idea of enjoying a film for its aesthetic value has almost escaped all consideration. The rise of the cinematic universe epitomizes this problem. Twenty years ago, a person might have gone to see the Tobey Maguire “Spider-man” movie because it looked like an enjoyable film. They could have even taken the same approach for “Spider-man 2” and “Spider-man 3.” And results suggest that they did, as the second kept the franchise rolling with better critical reception than the first while the third bombed and killed prospects of fourth and fifth installments after reviewers widely panned it. Now, nothing is quite so simple. To enjoy the newest film with Spider-man, I need not only to have seen the first two, but it helps tremendously to have seen the last few Avengers and Doctor Strange movies, which each have their own web of connections. A viewer might now see a number of films in double digits just to understand one movie that caught their eye. Or worse, they catch up to watch the newest “Spider-man” just so they can understand the references their peers make. They have completely separated aesthetic pleasure from filmgoing. People now see films to involve themselves in the esoteric knowledge available from having seen something others have also seen. We don’t watch a movie to enjoy it, we watch it because we feel behind if we have not seen it as well.

Borrowing a tad from Walter Benjamin as well, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” one can also question who plays whom in a cinematic environment. Does Tom Cruise play Maverick in “Top Gun,” or does Maverick play Tom Cruise? In other words, would the film or its sequel see nearly as much success with a different actor? The answer is an unequivocal no. The average moviegoer today prioritizes the actor propped up for the camera more than the character the actor helps to create. People packed themselves into theaters earlier this year not to see the character Maverick take to the skies again but to see Tom Cruise do it. In this manner, the actors too have become a commodity in the same way the film has. Their presence in movies relies much more on their ability to draw a crowd than on any aptitude for bringing the character to life. Whether a person watches a movie to understand an expansion of the cinematic universe (see “Solo”), to involve themselves in the drama they hear (see “Don’t Worry Darling”) or to see their favorite actor solely because of the actor (see the underwritten and hypersexualized Zoe Kravitz in “The Batman”), whatever the circumstances may be, they fall victim to the commodification of film.

But then one remains wondering what to do. After all, the individual has little power to persuade Disney to invest in the potential next-best-thing, and the sense of powerlessness makes finding what enjoyment possible out of what’s available seem tempting. But there is action one can take. First and foremost, stop watching movies because everyone else watches them. Watch movies because they look good. If you have to know what everyone’s talking about, you can read the synopsis online and have all the same information and keep your two hours. In the end, companies won’t keep making movies that people don’t watch. But when you do want to watch a movie, consider why. Find the writers and directors that you appreciate, even the actors. The impact a writer and director can have is obvious, as only the complete final cut of a film can attest to their contribution. With actors, take a more wary approach. Watch because they seem to have taken a role seriously, to have embodied it and to have put forth the honest effort to do the job well. Please, don’t watch them just because they’re the hot topic and Golden Globe shoe-in right now. Lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, consider ditching the streaming services, at least in part. I know how convenient they are, but take a good look at what Netflix offers right now. If you took the entire catalog and picked out everything you genuinely thought looked entertaining, you might have a fraction of a percent of the entire offering. The solution? Buy or rent what you want to watch. Want to rewatch “Modern Family” for the seventh time? I can promise that buying the entire series from the get-go would have proven cheaper than the Hulu subscription has cost these last four years running. Want to just watch movies instead of series? Cool, you can rent just about anything you want to watch for four dollars, buy it for about 15. And yeah, it might cost more upfront to build a library, which can, by the way, still be digital (see services like Vudu). But once you start rewatching your favorites, the return will be immense. Basic Netflix without ads costs $120 a year. With that, you can buy four movies you love and rent 15 you don’t feel as confident about. And before you say that’s not that much, factor in how much more you get with those other streaming services (not to mention most take the $15/month plan with Netflix anyway). If you want good movies to come back, it really is as simple as putting money toward what’s good and pulling it away from what’s broken. I promise the movie makers will go wherever the movie buyers reside.

Post Author: Zach Short