Audiences Are Getting What They Wanted, Good and Hard
Plus: An interstellar comedy assigned!
Writing in Paste, Jacob Oller argues that the venture capital-style pursuit of billions has ruined movies, specifically in the way studios have tried to ruthlessly capitalize on intellectual property to generate mega franchises.
“Tidy, consistent, sustainable profits—the kind of thing generated by movie studios that once offered a diverse slate of reasonably budgeted adult dramas, teen-date rom-coms, family films, and fence-swinging art movies—are a thing of the past for those in charge of the industry,” Oller writes. However, “There must be growth. There must be domination. There must be Shared Universes.”
Thus, the rise of IP-driven blockbusters. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most notable iteration of this; you also have a similar DC Comics version, an effort to make Fast and Furious movies and spinoff titles, Jurassic Parks as far as the eye can see, Harry Potter prequels and video games and amusement parks, oh my. Making a million bucks on an Oscar contender isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Making a billion bucks on a Mario Bros. movie. This, to Oller’s mind, is what has killed the mid-budget movie for adults.
The argument is half-right, or maybe a third-wrong, or just somewhat misguided altogether. There is, undoubtedly, a venture capital mind virus, to borrow a dumb phrase that has captured the conversation in a different context, but it doesn’t really have that much to do with IP. The real problem is that every studio saw that Netflix was generating tens of billions of dollars in revenue a year via streaming and shareholders were like “Wait, why can’t Warner Bros. and Paramount and Universal and Disney all do that as well?”
If you want to blame venture capital for anything, blame it for the push to get every studio to think that streaming should serve as every source of revenue combined and multiplied by five instead of how they should have been thinking of streaming: as a way to replace the lost DVD revenue that actually paid for the mid-budget movie for adults we all love so dearly.
But one thing this mindset isn’t to blame for is the studio pursuit of the mega-franchise. The studios are pursuing mega-franchises because audiences have reliably demonstrated time and again that mega-franchises are the only thing they will show up for in theaters at a level commensurate with the cost of opening a mid-to-large-budget feature on 3,000 screens. Or, really, at all.
Look, I wish The Last Duel had made $100M domestically just as I wish Dunkirk had outgrossed The Dark Knight Rises. I would love for Air’s theatrical campaign to have been more than an extended advertisement for its debut today on Prime Video (though I do like what Amazon did with this movie). And it would’ve been nice if more people had been willing to take a chance on the oddball indie Beau Is Afraid (even if I did not much like Beau Is Afraid, I like the idea of Beau Is Afraid). The reason 20th Century Studios spent so much money on Avatar 2 that they’d have to gross two billion dollars to make it back is that they knew they could gross two billion dollars on it and they would never gross two billion dollars on the 20 to 30 lower-budget films they could have made with what they gave James Cameron.
William Goldman’s truism—“nobody knows anything”—wasn’t ideal for studios, who had to spend enormous amounts of money on movies that might or might not resonate with audiences. It was, oddly, ideal for the art of filmmaking, at least in the sense that it caused a wider net to be cast around what could potentially make money. Uncertainty is exciting, and movie houses are where we go to be excited. But Oscar puffery aside, the movie business is only nominally interested in the art of filmmaking. The movie business is about making money and, well, we all know what makes money. Goldman’s line hasn’t been proven false, exactly—we still get the occasional surprise hit like Everything Everywhere All at Once and the surprise flop like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania—but studios have a better bead than ever before on what audiences are willing to spend money on, and they’re giving it to us good and hard.
Anyway, it doesn’t make any sense to blame the studios for turning wholeheartedly to preexisting IP. If we want to identify a culprit, we need to take a look in the mirror.
Speaking of Air’s debut on Prime Video, I wrote about it this week and what the movie and its distribution strategy might mean.
ICYMI, I reviewed Ben Smith’s new book Traffic and used it as an excuse to talk about how much I enjoy working for The Bulwark with its subscriber-based model.
The Across the Movie Aisle live show has sold out! Very exciting. But you can still listen to our bonus episode previewing the summer release schedule if you are one of those subscribers I was just bragging about. And if you haven’t signed up yet, well, what are you waiting for?
Big news: the far-superior director’s cut of Michael Mann’s Blackhat is finally getting a proper home video release. As someone who has only seen it once, on FX, years ago, I am very psyched for this development.
Assigned Viewing: Fired on Mars (HBO Max)
I’ve really enjoyed this new animated show, which calls to mind the visual sensibility of King of the Hill and the acerbic wit of Office Space and Idiocracy, yet, despite these reference points, was not made by Mike Judge. Luke Wilson stars as a hapless graphic design artist who gets laid off while working on a corporate colony on Mars and watches as his life falls completely apart, only to try and pull it back together by joining a breakaway sect of settlers looking to start a new colony elsewhere on the Red Planet. It’s a lot of fun, with some great little touches (like the fact that everyone seems to be using Windows 95) and some fine voice work by Wilson, Tim Heidecker, Cedric Yarbrough, and Leslie David Baker. Highly recommended if you’re looking for an acerbic half-hour of mirthful chuckles.
Wish I lived near where the live show was being hosted. Maybe the crew can make a trip up to the northeast eventually.
Though I enjoyed this article very much , I'm really using this opportunity to declare how great the piece "Trafficking the News" was a couple days ago. I didn't see any method of giving feedback on it, but it was informative and insightful and well appreciated.