At the Movies, Everything Is Terrible and Wonderful

Forgive me, dear readers, for this terribly cliche invocation of Charles Dickens, but at this particular moment in the cinematic universe it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times. There is fresh snow in my back yard and a host of awards fodder at my local theater; it is just barely 2015, and like so many others I've got one eye on all that has transpired in the year just past and the other on what is coming next. Looking back and forward -- forward and back -- is an exercise that can lead to only one conclusion: we're in a really weird place.

The Agony

Grantland's Mark Harris authored an awfully pessimistic and near perfect takedown of the movie industry just a few weeks ago. Titled "The Birdcage," it uses the fictional comic book hero played by Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson in Birdman as an entree in to a bleak look at the rise of the franchise. As Harris devastatingly points out, the movies -- at least the movies that have global appeal -- are going to feel awfully familiar.

Existing successful properties -- at this scale, they aren't even really films any more, are they? -- are going to be rebooted, remade, prequeled, sequeled and spunoff ad infinitum. There is no apparent end in sight. It's easy to imagine a world where Birdman is following us down the street in 2020, whispering in our ear and telling us about the teaser trailer for the fourth Chewbacca movie.

This is because, as Harris points out, safety is what the people funding these movies are after, even and especially when it comes at the expense of something that feels dangerous, risky, and, yes, artistic. This isn't the old days. It's not about enrichment through art. The Regal Cinemas at your mall isn't like a donation box at an art gallery. It's odd but in a way refreshing that no one even bothers to pretend anymore. It is all about building buzz -- teasers and Phase 3 and fanboy Q&As at Comic-Con -- and then cashing in. No one seems to care if the product is watered down, mediocre or dull. If it's that bad, you just reboot it.

As Harris so grimly sums it up:

But consider how much of Hollywood’s collective effort and money and insistence and attention that roster [of franchise movies] is going to consume, and I think that if you love movies, you have to sigh a little. And if you care, you have to resist consoling yourself by claiming it was ever thus, because it wasn’t. The future of Hollywood movies right now — at least, as it lives in the hands of five-year planners — feels somehow small and cautious, a dream dreamed by people whose sugarplum visions of profit maximization depend on the belief that things will never change.

Harris' piece really is terrific, probably the definitive one of 2014. It sums up some ofthe frustrations we've shared here over the last few months. You should read it, and then come back.


Back? Suitably enraged and/or despondent? Good. Now, allow me to talk you off the ledge.

The Ecstasy

Dire as these straits might seem to be, there is at least the prospect that we can all navigate them safely and find something better -- or maybe just different, but still pretty good -- on the other side.

There are other forces at work here. There are the Guardians of Peace, for one. More exactly, there is the potential sea change that the hackers of Sony Pictures may have unwittingly kickstarted. The Interview wasn't supposed to portend a video on-demand revolution. It was supposed to make a modest sum at the box office amid a sea of more memorable holiday film options. Sony's by now well-documented mishandling of the situation resulted in it making a reported $31 million in less than two weeks via a last-minute VOD release.

This does not mean that the major studios are all suddenly lining up similar releases in the coming months, nor does it mean that The Interview was a financial success (I'll leave that determination to people who would have any sort of clue).

More importantly, it does not mean that this was some watershed moment. This has been coming. The Interview is simply a a bizarre and noteworthy augur of what is drawing more near. Netflix and Amazon are producing shows and, more lately, movies designed as an end-around on the cineplex right in to your living room. They have barely begun on the film front, and, yet, already one (Netflix's The Square) has been nominated for an Oscar. Both their original offerings and the regular stuff available to subscribers put more movies at a person's fingertips than could have ever been imagined 10 years ago. Later this year, Netflix will debut the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's got a deal with Adam Sandler, too. Regardless of what you think of him, these are inarguably signs of growing clout for the little streaming service that could.

Almost preemptively, the theaters themselves have begun to change in response. How do you get the moviegoer off of their couch with so much entertainment a few button mashes away on their remote control? You give them what they have long deserved: an experience at the theater that doesn't make them feel like they are on a conveyor belt. You go beyond barrels of stale popcorn, gargantuan sodas and disinterested staff. There are three theaters less than a 30-minute drive from my house that have a full bar. They all have assigned seating. One of them even has an upscale restaurant, complete with "ninja waiters" who will bring you dinner during the movie, and fully reclining seats. Sure, I live in a major metropolitan area, but AMC Theatres -- heard of 'em? -- is toying around with some of these features. The rest of the big boys will have to follow because, in the midst of declining attendance, they have no other choice. A trip to the theater has to be worth it.

Stuck in the middle of all of this is us. It's both terrible and wonderful to be a film consumer right now. The dull safety of the major studios threaten to dilute and destroy the blockbuster -- the mass pop culture moment that belongs to film -- as we know it.[/vc_column][/vc_row]

Yet the experience of watching a movie has never been better, whether in the theater or at home. I went and saw the final installment of The Hobbit at the Arclight Cinemas that opened up near me recently. The movie itself was, um, not good, but I can't say it was the worst $13 I spent -- not when I downed a craft beer minutes before the show started, strolled right to my reserved seat and started in on another.

The number of options available to us now is almost unfathomable. If you don't like what Hollywood is offering, go find an obscure Australian horror film on Amazon Instant Video or a Scarlett Johannson Scottish alien movie on Amazon Prime. It's right there, and it'll cost you a fraction of what a ticket at the theater does.

If you can't stay away from the theater, you might not like your options at the ticket counter. But have you seen what's on draught?