The long goodbye

The need for movie studios to hit a home run every time they produce something is leading the film industry down a very unfortunate path.

Matthew Hoy


I spend a lot of time thinking about movies. Usually it’s in sort of a passive way, like speaking in references, comparing the events of my life with the plot point tropes of my favorite films, figuring out who my friends would be if they were characters in “Blazing Saddles,” stuff like that. To make the process active, I watch between three and five movies a week, reviewing one every weekend.

As anybody who pays even a shred of attention to the film industry will tell you, the current trend in filmmaking is not a positive one. Stories are becoming less imaginative, characters are more one dimensional and any iteration of ambiguity is a death knell.

As a result, each year is heralded as the “year of the sequel,” where familiar characters and plotlines are chosen instead of new or fresh ideas. This year we’ll see almost 30 sequels released by Hollywood.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this; after all, these films wouldn’t get made if people didn’t go see them. But the film industry model that results in such repetition is killing innovation.

Danny Boyle recently spoke about this phenomenon, blaming the “Pixarification” of movies — the move from making “adult movies” with complex themes and characters to making kids movies where there are simple and well-defined good guys and bad guys, and nothing about any of them is called into question — for the decline in quality of filmmaking.

As Boyle is quick to point out, this is not meant as a shot at the digital animation studio. Pixar has consistently made the best films of any studio for the past two decades. It is meant to criticize the studios whose audiences are not children.

Boyle is right in pointing out that it is a part of the problem, but it is certainly not the root of it. On April 27, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh spoke on the “State of Cinema” and came much closer to identifying what is responsible for the decline.

The first, most important point Soderbergh makes is that there is a difference between movies and cinema: “A movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made.” He highlights the economic motivations behind creating imitative films, pointing out that though Hollywood is making fewer films, they are taking up a larger part of the market share. He describes the effect that this is having “pushing cinema out of mainstream movies.”

What Soderbergh is hinting at is the “Blockbuster Effect:” the need for the film industry to strike it big every time they release a film. In an attempt to ensure that their products are successful, they create movies that are in many ways the same as previously successful ones. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was widely reviled, regardless of the fact that if you replace the words “Soviets” with “Nazis” and “aliens” with “God,” it was effectively the same movie as the beloved “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

It grossed $786 million worldwide.

This is the biggest problem facing the film industry. Movies now make more money in foreign markets than domestically. And the films that travel best are ones with long action sequences, simple characters and little to no dialogue. Why make the next “Office Space” when you can just make another “Transformers” movie and gross a billion dollars?

The responsibility, then, falls on the audience. Imploring people to forgo seeing the big-budget recycling experiment of the day and instead support the brilliant little indie that was made on the director’s friend Larry’s camcorder isn’t going to do anything, because as much as “Iron Man 3” might be contrived, shallow garbage, it’s contrived, shallow garbage with robots fighting orange people! And who doesn’t want to see that?

Soderbergh speaks at some length about the fact that the people who run movie studios these days don’t know or watch movies. He presents this as a major issue, one that is causing the film industry to fail.

The problem with this argument is that the barometer for success has nothing to do with how good a movie is, it’s only concerned with the ability of the film to make money. Seven of the ten top-grossing films of all time are sequels. It’s no wonder we’re seeing more and more of them.

The future of cinema seems bleak, as if we are destined to be increasingly assaulted by progressively less-inspired films. I suppose I’ll still keep going to the movies, trying my best to shift some of the viewership from the blockbusters to the indies. Please do the same.