Thursday Thinkpiece: Is Cinema Dying?

Nah, it’s doing fine. Just going through some growing pains.

Of course if you’ve been paying attention to movie news this past months you’ve no doubt heard a chorus of doomsayers declaring that OH NOOoo0oo Hollywood is done for.

Except not really, because every single year we hear the same thing. August has always been slow for the movie business; it’s more of a surprise when there are box office successes during the month. Studios dump their big guns from May to July, then hold off for a month or so before delivering the big autumn pics. Is this really shocking?

It’s true that this has been a less-than-stellar season for blockbusters nationally, but that too isn’t the death knell that some would have you believe. Nor is it a sign that a certain website now rules supreme over the public’s viewing choices. I’ve been over this. And to strengthen my point from that blog- The Emoji Movie scored 7% and has made $76 million domestically so far, while the critically acclaimed Logan Lucky got 93% and has only $15 million to date. BAM, Rotten Tomatoes is not a universal indicator of success. In your face, I am so smart.

It’s all about the brand, and what all these prognosticators seem to be missing is the obvious fact that this summer the American people just didn’t care about the brands that were being offered. Is it really that hard to gauge public interest in a property? I could have told you in January that nobody in North America wants another Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, or Mummy. People have been saying IDGAF about those for years now, why is it such a huge surprise that they failed so badly? Oh, right- because top Hollywood brass are hilariously out of touch with the public. They have yet to understand the concept of organic buzz.

They do understand, however, one thing- money. Something most cinematic releases are failing to make, leaving their serialized peers to pick up the slack. Television series are booming beyond belief at the moment; it seems like every other day another critically lauded Netflix special has the world talking. There are now more good shows being produced than bad shows. The “idiot box” critics once railed against has now become a portal to prestige. Narcos, Ozark, Shameless, Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, Stranger Things– just a tiny sample of the top quality entertainment being made now.

The astute executives at Marvel Entertainment realized this a few years back, opting to release a greater amount of properties as series rather than movies. The move was a success on all fronts- creatively, financially, and logistically. Rather than contributing to the glut of comic book movies being churned out, they began putting second-tier characters on the small screen. They began developing another universe within their larger universe, and it paid off in spades. They could retain the rights to Daredevil, Punisher, Ghost Rider without cramming them into their risky and expensive movies. Their schedule wasn’t overloaded because they could save their tentpole dates for the names that brought in the biggest crowds.

(DC of course tried to imitate this strategy and of course bungled it. The shows were markedly less acclaimed, amounting to little more than cheesy CW soaps along the lines of Smallville. They also missed the point of Marvel’s breathing room idea and created double universes- so even though there’s a Flash show there will still be a Flash movie, and it won’t even be the same actors. They’ve also made plans for a Shazam (?) movie and a Joker origin movie, both of which are crash-and-burn ideas for so many reasons that won’t be gotten into because this tangent has wandered too far off track anyway.)

Marvel pushed this strategy to an even more drastic point this year. InHumans, once scheduled for a 2019 release in theatres, has now turned into a series. Good move! They mitigated risk with a lesser known property by serializing it. Fox has followed suit- Legion and The Gifted are both series based on comic books.

And just like that, the paradigm’s changed. Can you feel it? The zeitgeist is now firmly in a new place, and the thought of watching Tom Cruise fight CGI monsters for two hours in a big dark room suddenly feels very antiquated. Watching the latest Star Wars or Oscar movie though…that doesn’t. The cinema is an event chamber now, reserved for the biggest brands, and that’s just how it is. Audiences have accepted that.

It’s still very much a transitory period right now, but the point to take away here is that even if “movies” aren’t fresh and lucrative, series are. The way we consume our entertainment has culled lesser cinematic efforts, and allowed for quality content to be created. We’re on the cusp of a major cultural change, and it’s all thanks to a bunch of guys running around in rubber suits.