A Dangerous Moment in the Hollywood Economy

Though many excellent movies were released in theatres in 2022, most of them hardly registered on the Hollywood economic scale. In the current environment, few good movies are likely to make money the old-fashioned way, in theatres; meanwhile, the new-fashioned way of streaming doesn’t seem to reliably channel money to producers and distributors. The practice of streaming movies at home accelerated during the pandemic, and most of the movies that have managed to lure large numbers of viewers back to theatres are big-budget franchise films, big-studio animation, and sequels.

Of course, historically, many great movies have failed at the box office and many bad ones have been hits. But, in the pre-pandemic era (and, even more, in the pre-streaming era), a film’s artistic value wasn’t necessarily at odds with its commercial appeal. That has changed. Since movie theatres opened again, after the first pandemic shutdowns, box-office returns from new films by notable directors have been a fraction of their earlier films’ results. Brooks Barnes, in the Times, cites poor box-office numbers on critical hits such as “Tár,” “The Fabelmans,” “Armageddon Time,” and “She Said.” In the case of international films, such as “Both Sides of the Blade” and “The Eternal Daughter,” business has been still worse compared with pre-pandemic numbers, even with the same directors (Claire Denis and Joanna Hogg, respectively) and actors (Juliette Binoche and Tilda Swinton). Low-budget independent films have almost always been commercially marginal, as have a majority of the most original international films. But now the same is true of the majority of the most significant Hollywood and Hollywood-proximate movies.

Hollywood has been in a state of nearly uninterrupted crisis at least since the nineteen-fifties, when television cut deeply into moviegoing, and the sixties, when the Hollywood old guard was slow to bring in new talent. The present-day commercial dilemma follows on the great hollowing of the two-thousands, when critics and analysts offered a collective threnody for the “midrange drama for adults,” when the market for studios’ relatively high-budget but unspectacular movies was being taken over by so-called prestige TV. The world of movies responded, dare I say, spectacularly: independent producers, recognizing the salability of directorial talent, made films on lower budgets that afforded filmmakers greater freedom than big studios could or would offer. Meanwhile, a grassroots movement of ultra-low-budget filmmaking provided a new generation of filmmakers and stars, including Barry Jenkins, the Safdie brothers, Greta Gerwig, and Adam Driver.

The danger of the current moment is a second hollowing: the relegation of even lower-budget productions to commercial oblivion, the ever-widening gap between the spectacular successes and the quiet failures. In a way, the industry has done itself in, aesthetically. What distinguishes feature films from serial television is the primacy of the director; in television, the showrunner is, in effect, the head writer, and directors are mostly hired hands, facing the constraints of the serial jigsaw puzzle. (Mike White’s writing and directing of every episode of “The White Lotus” is an exception.) Yet many of the independently produced films that succeed, such as “CODA” and “Belfast,” are largely works of writing and performance, realized with direction that’s merely functional, that transparently puts the story and the characters onscreen with little to express a personal point of view in the dramatic concept or the moment-to-moment image-making. The success of directorial neutrality leads straight to television—and that’s how “CODA,” released on Apple TV+, was mostly seen. (It had a nominal theatrical release.) Perhaps the movie’s Oscar for Best Picture is a result of the still dismal state of theatrical release amid the pandemic, a hangover from protracted at-home viewing. But the previous two Best Picture winners, “Nomadland” and “Parasite,” whatever the specifics of their artistic achievements, are very much the work of directors (Chloé Zhao and Bong Joon-ho, respectively) who conceive their movies comprehensively, whose methods are inseparable from the results; they are auteur movies.

Even as the economy of art-house and director-centric movies is dwindling, there’s a form of virtual subsidy that offers their makers the best chance at moving ahead with new projects: Academy Awards. Good movies will not stop being produced as long as Oscars are worth more to filmmakers, actors, producers, and even streaming services than the money that it takes to chase them. As the Academy has expanded its membership in recent years, to include a more diverse array of voters—a wider ethnic range, closer to gender parity, with fuller international representation—the awards that have been bestowed have, by and large, been better chosen. It may well be that the Oscars—and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign—have saved the art of movies in the United States.

The greatest danger that the industry faces is one that’s largely under the radar: the difficulty faced by as yet unrecognized, ultra-low-budget, grassroots, independent filmmakers to gain recognition for their work and to make their way into the industry. That’s where critics—and their values—come in. Reviews can be like Oscars for D.I.Y. filmmakers; critical attention is the form of recognition that gets their work acknowledged by more established filmmakers, producers, and distributors. But the commercial dominance of franchise films gets in the way of that recognition—and critics themselves, and their editors, are partially responsible. As few good movies appear likely to become breakout hits, critics end up facing an abyss that separates the art from the money.

Many of the reviews of “Top Gun: Maverick” have the feel of Stockholm Syndrome—that isn’t to doubt their sincerity but to get to the roots of the feelings sincerely expressed. The excitement at anticipating crowds returning to theatres—and possibly keeping some of them in business—feels as if it spilled over into assessments of the movie itself. Its potential for enormous box-office success was treated like an artistic value. It’s a value of the sort that’s likely to drive out appreciation of movies that are far bolder and risk being far more alienating—as suggested by this year’s fussy reviews for such daring movies as “Amsterdam” and “Don’t Worry Darling,” and the sniffy ones for “Nope” and “The Eternal Daughter,” compared with their directors’ previous films.

The world of movies is poised to become more like the world of books. The biggest sellers will be distant from the art, with few exceptions, and those exceptions will get the attention they deserve. (Word of mouth, at those heights, carries far and fast.) And, just as a single blockbuster book can help to subsidize a publishing house all on its own, the giant box-office take of a franchise film can be all to the good: its success gives the participants cash and power to spread around to more ambitious and personal projects, and enables the cast and crew to accept much lower pay to work on them. But the future of the art will increasingly be found at lower economic altitudes. That is where the overwhelming bulk of critical attention will have to head—that is, if critics are going to reflect the creative progress of the cinema, and not condemn themselves to impotent echoes of its business plans. ♦

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