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.
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.
'I'm a really good nag.'11:46 AM, Mar 28, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
A top of advisor to President Barack Obama is in Los Angeles to try to get Obamacare written into scripts of TV shows and movies. Valerie Jarrett explained in an appearance on Top That! on PopSugar.com:
"That's the cool thing," a host said to the presidential advisor. "You've been reaching out to people that are, you know, outside of the norm of what the president might work with. Who else are you working with? Like celebrities, personalities, things like that?"
2:31 PM, Feb 26, 2014 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Harold Ramis died on Monday morning. Having written, directed (or written and directed) five of the funniest movies of the last 40 years, I think it's safe to put him on the short list for Funniest Guy of His Generation.
The ‘American dream’ survives an armed assault.May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Wildly successful movie directors often bemoan their successes and say they long for a time when they will be able to just make smaller and more personal films. Then they don’t.
Familiar premise (art heist) meets tired device (amnesia).Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Trance has to be judged one of the great disappointments in recent cinema, given that it is only the second movie Danny Boyle has made since Slumdog Millionaire. That Oscar-winning worldwide smash may have been the best film of the past decade.
4:49 PM, Apr 4, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
President Obama released the following statement on the passing of film critic Roger Ebert:
The busy life, and the busier television schedule, call for desperate measures.Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Someone living in Barack Obama’s America, circa 2013, says these words to you: “I’m so behind.” In previous epochs—say, the Age of Lewinsky, or of disco—this might mean any number of things. A person might have failed to collate the year’s receipts for his accountant. Another might not have completed the longitudinal analysis necessary for her dissertation. A third might not have cleaned out the attic.
No longer. In Barack Obama’s America, those words refer to only one thing: the inability to keep up-to-date with a serialized television program.
There are bumps along the way, but Les Misérables is worth the trip.Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Les Misérables grabs you by the lapels from the first moment and never lets you go. In this respect it is little different from the stage musical from which it derives—and not so different from the Victor Hugo novel from which the stage musical derives.
Brilliant cinema in the service of one-size-fits-all faith. Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
"This story will make you believe in God,” says the title character in Life of Pi, the visually ravishing adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 bestseller. Apparently, Barack Obama himself thought the same thing of the novel: “an elegant proof of God,” the president called it in a note to Martel.
An impressive rendition of nothing at all. Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
When a movie receives rave reviews from critics who say they need to see it again to understand it fully, you should treat such a recommendation as though you were Will Robinson from the old 1960s TV show Lost in Space hearing his friendly robot companion as it flails its accordion-like arms and shout
Philip Terzian, the non-moviegoerOct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
I recall an interview with William Faulkner in which he said that he didn’t read books but read in books, the distinction being that he seldom consumed a volume from start to finish but preferred to stick his toes in here and there, read favorite chapters over and over, proceeding from finish to start if necessary.
Calculating the price of obsession. Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By STEFAN BECK
"What really matters,” said Rob (John Cusack) in High Fidelity, “is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films—these things matter.”