How Did Popular Movies Become So Unpopular?

On the era of the franchise endgame — or the marketing-curated “serialized storytelling” — every major Hollywood studio chasing the double digits on the billion dollar yearly income is now desperate to create, recreate or linger on to any possibility of spin-offs of their cinematic universes or the nostalgia of previous success with reboots. Somehow paradoxically, their efforts to achieve sustainable profits are beginning to fail. Why did this happen?

Is the sun being set on Hollywood juggernauts?

There’s something intrinsically attractive about blockbusters. Imbued with infinite out-of-this-world possibilities, cinematic action set-pieces and irreverent character portrayals, these movies — often accompanied with (literal) explosions of color and sound — are capable of defying our imagination, making us experience something unique.

More than just entertainment, these box-office phenomena capture the fascination of the masses, while participating in (and sometimes creating) a new commonplace, or better yet, their own suis generis agora. Therefore, blockbusters too can incorporate a fundamental aspect of art — an opportunity for individuals and society to confront different or similar needs, values and preoccupations, asking us to react and reflect upon them and, if need be, to evolve and change accordingly.

Even you if you’re not fond of spaceships, intimate personal dramas or buddy cop movies, there’s something universal to the best of these movies — they are consequential, leaving an indelible impact on our personal journeys or on our collective discussions. Consequently, through an accessible entry point to more serious or complex issues, they try to infuse pop culture with themes like diversity and tolerance, which might not be the first reason why the moviegoer bought a ticket — but which hopefully will leave them pondering.

However, as of late, suspense of disbelief has transformed into cynicism and the genre — if the term is at all fitting — is suffering vulgarization and depreciation. And maybe understandably so. For the last couple of years, cinemas have been flooded with multi-million-dollar tentpole movies of franchised intelectual properties, which are now released every other month. Huge ads for cinematic events, reboots and awarding winning pictures are printed on all the walls that meet eyeballs.

But despite increasing returns, these financial feats do not imply an increased recognition of blockbusters and their most distinguished achievements. Quite the contrary: many people are feeling mentally exhausted and emotionally abused by the idea of the “new big movie you have to see”.

So, here’s the deeply personal, billion-dollar question: “How did popular movies become so unpopular?”

To better grasp how it all started, let’s go back a few millennia. In 1973, “Jurassic Park” was released and became one of the first blockbuster movies — meaning a film which garnered the interest and dedication of moviegoers, who were lining around the block before the premieres and who would be back for repeated viewings.

On a premise of scientific wonder and vicious fear, the movie presents us with a team of paleontologists who are asked to approve the most fascinating thematic zoo (made of dinosaurs!), unaware of the catastrophic and life-threatening consequences incoming.

Like a great fair attraction, these larger-than-life productions show moviegoers a new representation or perspective, usually leveraged with state-of-the-art, breakthrough technical efforts that enhance the storytelling — working to deepen the audience’s connection to what’s being screened, leaving it craving for more and wanting to revisit that fictional universe.

Although often augmented by extra-ordinary settings, these movies bring about real human emotions and familiar scenarios. While we might not experience the excitement of visiting an island of revived, long-extinct colossal beasts, we might be thrilled for a new trip abroad or a visit to an exotic place. While we might not feel the existential dread of being chased by a T. Rex, we can relate to the characters’ situation — and may or may not liken it to a difficult experience of ours.

By focusing on the point of view and reactions of great actors like Sam Neil and — now prince-of-memes — Jeff Goldblum, Spielberg gives us a relatable proxy for our awe towards the never-before-seen imponent (and then defining) representation of dinosaurs, which effectively inspired a whole generation of kids and grown-ups alike.

Despite knowing this doesn’t apply to all the big budget movies, we can pinpoint two obscenely related basilar problems: one creative, the other financial. Let’s talk money, first.

“We spared no expense!”: the mantra John Hammond, the business man developing Jurassic Park, keeps repeating to the scientists — and the audience.

Starting with the obvious, expensive movies are expensive. Securing your favorite actors, scheduling months of filming and adding digital visual effects on almost every frame of your feature has an astounding price tag — so it’s no surprise that creating huge space adventures has astronomical costs.

So, in order to maintain this modus operandi, movie studios became keen on reading a few key indicators of the interest of general audiences, as to reproduce, improve and stabilize ticket sales.

Like in science and economy, there’s a somewhat formulaic nature to this kind of predictions. Firstly, they factor the performance of previous similar movies and patterns in demographic affluence. Then, add marketing operations. Track social media buzz continuously. And, at the finish line, a couple of months before the release, measures pre-release ticket sales and critical reception, only to await for the opening weekend and subsequent drop-off.

As we can see, there’s a tightly controlled investment setting, which, not unlike Jurassic Park, exists to ensure that the business survives and that it is sustainable enough to yield a profit and interest from visitors.

(And the profitability problem has another, not obvious huge issue: it allows for a perverse monetary pseudo-democracy in which a couple of markets can influence what movies are made. For instance, do you expect an openly LGBTQ+ character to carry a movie franchise in countries like China and Russia? Or, more appropriately, do you think studios are willing to reject the potential $200 million return sacrificed for a “minor” change?)

All in all, the checklist protocols for moviemaking, arguably the safest for investment, are locked to a diminishing returns spiral, and through the very mass promotion of blockbusters, audiences have been “educated” on what to expect, what is possible, having developed a more informed and demanding taste of what they want to see, i.e. their definition of a good movie.

Nowadays, film discussion is more open and abundant than ever. You can go on YouTube, Twitter or Reddit to see or read everyone’s opinions. From essays on the rudimentary technical choices regarding filmography to the representation of “minorities” (see “Crazy Rich Asians”) or non-heterosexual orientations (well, there aren’t too many good examples, actually), Hollywood has been getting a few nods about what people like and want to see.

But the modern disconnection is not only related to representation. Moviegoers themselves are better trained to find immature and underdeveloped strategies to establish pathos: especially with recurrent criticism of unoriginality and cheap tricks to sell more tickets.

On a desperate pursuit for familiarity and trust, these attempts have mostly culminated in cynicism, with people feeling they’re being tricked into seeing a new movie motivated by something more peripheric to the actual movie and its content.

Therefore, the risk aversion and the intent to capitalize on the zeitgeist have culminated in some of the most criticized pipelines in the history cinema. There’s all kinds of wrong: from nauseous attempts to ressurect classics, like Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’ (released only 2 months apart) to comically blatant commercial movies, like ‘The Emoji Movie’ or the so-bad-it’s-good ‘The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part’.

Likewise, both long time fans and general audiences are growing tired of being pandered to and know when they are being played with less than desirable techniques — by just pulling their emotional strings and by exploiting nostalgia for beloved movies and memories.

And even when they get us on the movie theatre, attention span is extended by seasoning an otherwise bland plot with “I understood that reference!” instant gratifications. Instead of paying attention to the plot, we are asked to spot all the self-referential instances and recycled quanta of micro-dosing immediate cognitive compensations of almost non-stop blink-and-you-missed-it easter eggs, cameos and jokes, which quickly go from satisfying to exhausting.

We all know when we enjoy a movie going experience. We can easily know if we had a good time. But I can’t shake the feeling that the conversation about filmmaking is filled with babble and noise towards the “big movies”. And it’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed with so much going on and a less-than-ideally-transparent business structure. However, that reaction comes up because 1) we care about these movies (and want them to be better) and 2) someone is doing them wrong.

Why do we care? Because we’ve been shown how fascinating and revealing they can be. Because for some they have been an intricate part of their personal development, of their relationships and of their lives. These movies should be stories that inspire us. The narrative should propel us to know more about ourselves and the the world around us — and not to buy merchandised products.

Why is someone doing them wrong? Because there’s one too many movie fans frustrated with their experiences — and, even though there’s more to it, that should be reason enough to change.

Regarding moviegoers, it’s on us the responsibility to be curious and open to new and different cinematic experiences. But it’s on the studios to do everything else. And who knows — maybe we too can, one day, be creators in our own right and tell better stories.

In conclusion, the fact that we are openly discussing these issues and are requesting improvements it’s a good first step to see different movies in the coming years. Moreover, there’s enough momentum right now to assume that the tide is changing. From Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” to Adam McKay’s “Vice”, we are getting an expanding catalogue of novelty features which consider both modern issues and perennial philosophical questions.

Originally written for: Ágora Quórum — Fórum Político, available at http://quorumfp.aefmup.pt/2019/05/11/how-did-popular-movies-become-so-unpopular/

Rekindling his interest in writing with essays. Twitter: @diz_diniz.

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