Fans aren’t exactly flocking to the cineplexSep 22, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 02 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The summer of 2014 confirms it: Hollywood is dying. By “Hollywood,” I mean the industry that produces mainstream, conventional movies that are made and distributed by big studios. This summer was a great disappointment for the business, with total ticket sales down 15 percent from the year before: the “Worst Summer Since 1997,” declared the New York Times. Some say it’s because several would-have-been hits were delayed (a Pixar film, especially). But the truth is, it’s far worse than that. Summer 2014 has definitively exposed a secular trend that has been underway for nearly a generation.
The number of tickets sold in the United States has floated between 1.2 billion and 1.5 billion since 1996. This year, Hollywood will be lucky to make it to 1.2 billion. But here’s the thing: In 1996, there were 270 million Americans. In 2000, 282 million. In 2007, 301 million. In 2011, 311 million. In 2014, there are an estimated 319 million. Hollywood has sold the same number of tickets every year, give or take, while the population has grown by nearly 20 percent.
The conventional wisdom in Hollywood says that 2014 has been flat because audiences are rejecting “more of the same,” as Brooks Barnes said in the Times. Too many superheroes, too many sequels, too many old faces. Boring. But there’s nothing new about the sameness: The biggest ticket-seller of 1995 was Batman Forever, which was both a comic-book superhero film and a sequel to a sequel.
Perhaps the reliance on such fare was what created the trend. But sameness in popular culture is far less of a problem than you might think. The Tin Pan Alley wordsmith Gus Kahn once quipped that every popular song says “I love you” in 32 bars. Golden Age Hollywood was nothing but sameness—westerns and musicals and romances, all with pretty much the same plots—and still, in 1946, 90 million Americans went to the movies every week.
In any case, there’s a reason Hollywood repeats itself obsessively, and it’s not because financiers and studio executives are desperate to tell the story of obscure comic book superheroes like Ant Man (the name of an actual picture that will open next year). They make such movies because, in a business in which bosses are constantly being fired, the usual fare is a safer bet than anything else.
The story of 2014 is not that people are tired of the usual fare; it’s that the usual fare can’t just be usual. The year’s biggest hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, has been a spectacular success because it’s a comic-book superhero movie that takes its inspiration from the Bill Murray comedies of the 1980s. It’s fast and colorful and very, very funny—with a dazzling star turn by a previously all-but-unknown actor named Chris Pratt. But it stays firmly within the conventions of its genre.
The second-biggest hit, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is nowhere near as good—but it, too, plays variations on the form by evoking the paranoid leftist thrillers of the 1970s, like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor (down to having that movie’s star, Robert Redford, play the villain part).
Both Guardians of the Galaxy and The Winter Soldier were made by Disney—the only filmmaking machine that seems to have a strategic sense of what it’s doing. It made last year’s mega-hit, Frozen. And it made Maleficent with Angelina Jolie, another of this year’s rare box office triumphs. It recently paid $4 billion for the rights to the most successful franchise in movie history and next year will release the seventh Star Wars film—which will almost certainly be the biggest hit of 2015, with the next Pixar (also owned by Disney) release, The Good Dinosaur, a likely second.
What is it about Disney that has given it such a command of the American pop-culture psyche? The answer is that its movies are straightforward and unironic. Both Frozen and Maleficent are very earnest fairy tales. Even Guardians, which is basically a comedy, has nothing campy or self-mocking about it. Pixar has always distinguished itself by refusing to go for cheap laughs, which is why it has become a beloved brand in a way that DreamWorks (which began around the same time) never has. DreamWorks is Shrek—a jokey pop-culture put-on. Pixar is Toy Story—funny, moving, original.
Not so mad about the boy, but the premise is promisingSep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
If you know that Boyhood has been rapturously received as a revolutionary work in the annals of American filmmaking, it is almost sure to disappoint you. I know this, because I saw it two weeks after it opened and it disappointed me, even though I knew I was seeing something no other filmmaker had ever really tried before and that the experiment was an undoubted success.
Women rule Hollywood, and men are box-office poisonAug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The age of the male movie star has passed. Welcome to the age of the female movie star.
Snow, dystopia, trains, inequality. What’s not to like?Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
I don’t know what it says about the movies these days that the best one I’ve seen so far this summer is a completely insane thriller set on a train in perpetual motion around a post-apocalyptic earth on which the have-nots are packed like sardines in the caboose while the wealthy live in splendor in the front.
The ‘Apes’ franchise goes unintentionally comicalJul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
If you really want to know what a bunch of simians—whose IQs have been boosted by drugs to the human level (or higher, maybe even to the Kardashian level)—would do with themselves if that same drug wiped out all of humanity, then you really have to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s quite an achievement. For its first 15 minutes, Dawn is history’s first nature documentary about animals that don’t actually exist in an environment that doesn’t actually exist.
Latest trends in the modern moviegoing experienceJul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Something interesting happened a year ago: The movie theater a few blocks from my house was radically redesigned. This came as a surprise, for the AMC 84th Street wasn’t failing in any way. Indeed, from its opening in 1985 to the present day, it has been one of the most successful theaters in America (for a decade, the highest-grossing).
There’s a flaw at the heart of this unpretentious tearjerkerJun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The key to understanding the publishing sensation called The Fault in Our Stars—John Green’s young-adult novel that has dominated bestseller lists for more than two years and has already sold more than nine million copies worldwide—is first to imagine Holden Caulfield in the 21st century. Then imagine that, rather than being anxious and upset and in a funk for no good reason, Holden Caulfield actually has a very good reason, which is that he has terminal cancer.
For Tom Cruise, from top gun to second fiddle? Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Movie stars go cold. It’s part of the way popular culture works. For a long time, people just love watching them. People can’t get enough of them. And then, after they go to the well once too often with a formula that has gone flat, or after their messy personal lives get all mixed up in the characters they’re playing, stars become even slightly distasteful.
A parody of a spoof of a well-worn formula. Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The much-maligned new comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West is actually pretty funny in spots. But it’s very strange. It’s an affectionate western homage, a mash-up western, a western pastiche. That’s not odd. What’s odd is that it’s an homage to a parody, and paying tribute to a spoof is just weird.
A ‘food-cart-as-spiritual-salvation’ idea that works. May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The new movie Chef is about a hotshot cook who loses his way and then finds himself anew selling Cuban sandwiches off a truck.
An old idea gets a surprisingly fresh treatment. May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Adultery comedies usually follow a pat formula: A perfectly sensible married person is being cheated on. Revenge is plotted, and the punishment usually involves taking advantage of the fact that the person with whom the spouse is cheating is either a gorgeous bimbo or a brainless hunk. The Other Woman is an inventive riff on this formula. There’s a sensible person and there’s a ditz, but here the sensible person is the mistress.
Science fiction plus magic equals disaster. May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This observation is both brilliantly true and wildly overblown: After all, for many of us, even the most basic technologies, even those hundreds of years old, are still nearly supernatural.
Nice enough, and all that, but worth the trouble? Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
There’s a new movie called Draft Day you’re almost certainly not going to see in a theater if you didn’t go see it during its first weekend—and because you didn’t, it won’t be around much longer. Twenty-five years ago, Draft Day might have been a hit. Its headline performer, Kevin Costner, was the biggest star in America around then, after all.
The comic-book movie enters its Commie Age. Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Aficionados often refer to comic books in terms of eras: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age. The same may now be true of the comic-book movie. Judging from last year’s mega-hit Iron Man 3, and the brand-new mega-hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the comic-book movie has entered the Commie Age.
Noah meets the Book of Enoch, rock monsters, and a ravenous Eve. Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
First and foremost, Noah is a movie, and the first question about a movie is whether it is good or bad as a movie. That turns out to be a difficult one to answer.