‘I’ ON CULTURE
I sometimes go to the movies so you don’t have to sit through really bad films. Recently I saw two stinkers. The first, Amsterdam, bothered me because it was made by David O. Russell, who has made some really good movies, like Three Kings, American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook. And there were some really fine actors: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock and Robert DeNiro.
The problem was that the plot was totally muddled. It started out as a comedy of manners in Amsterdam (not that much time was spent there and nothing about the city really played that much into the plot), but eventually turned into a political drama about the rise of fascism in America in the 1930s. Mel Brooks might have made that funny (see The Producers and Blazing Saddles as examples of finding humor in strange places). Russell’s comedy became a whiny critique of fascism that resonated with critics who hate Donald Trump. Add to that, the history was just wrong. On top of that, time seemed to drag.
And then there is Bros, supposedly a charming romantic comedy about two gay guys. It did terribly, so Billy Eichner, who created the movie and starred in it, went through social media to denounce homophobia. If the idea of two men together doesn’t make you want to spend $10 plus per person, you clearly hate gays. Interestingly, several gay critics pointed out that Eichner managed to insult many gays by denouncing all but the most flamboyant.
The first movie is estimated to lose perhaps as much as $80 million and the second at least $40 million. Even today, that is a lot of money. And revenues for these films are worldwide and include showings on streaming platforms and cable television.
So why were they made? From reports, Russell put together the plot for his film on napkins scribbled out at a series of lunches with Bale over a number of years. And the movie certainly reflects that. But Russell has been remarkably successful, and quite a few actors have given great performances for him. Chances are, movie-making companies and distributors were ready to bid for his work. And they make those bids generally before they actually see the film.
But we also know that the films that do best are PG rated (or PG-13), and generally are family friendly in the sense that they provide life lessons, even if very simple. Things like “good is better than evil” and “it’s right to stand up for what you believe.” Not surprisingly, the Marvel Universe had most of the year’s top films: Spider-Man: No Way Home, Shang-Chi, Venom, Black Widow, F9, The Eternals, Sing2, No Time to Die. Either superheroes or heroes, plus a cute singing cartoon. There are some variations in lists of movie grosses, but all of the above were near the very top of all lists.
But movie moguls and auteurs (those are producer/directors with dreams of glory) seem more interested in making movies to impress each other. The public must be instructed to want to see what the filmmakers believe they should see. Frankly, that doesn’t work. Many movies that cost fairly large amounts are simply going straight to streaming services because distributors realize few people will pay to see them. A Batgirl movie that cost $90 million to make was simply tossed away because it was considered so bad it would ruin the whole franchise. And the people who did it were criticized not for making a bad film, but for not risking their franchise since there was some non-traditional casting.
Yes, there are non-superhero/hero films that do well. A Quiet Place, Dune, The Conjuring and The Candyman made it into the top 20 or so, but so did a lot of other films that reflected the early list. People will stay away in droves from things they don’t want to see. Not wanting to see a poorly made rom-com about gays does not make you homophobic. Not wanting to see a film that muddles a story about American fascism a century ago does not make you a philistine.
If the entertainment business wants to keep making money, it should think more about what the audience wants to see rather than what it feels they should see.