Has cinema’s obsession with blockbusters reached crisis point?
For devoted movie-goers, it’s tempting to roll our eyes at another needless sequel or big budget franchise being pumped through our multiplexes. In truth, though, film has always been a key battleground in the continual back-and-forth between art and commerce. The crucial difference now is that, with technological advances and the opening up of global markets, big films feel bigger than ever and can earn more than many countries’ GDPs. As a result, tentpole movies have become more central in studio thinking, and risks have become even riskier.
An interesting case-in-point came last month with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It was Warner Bros’ biggest release of 2016, the first cinematic meeting of its two most bankable characters and the gateway to a planned Justice League mega-franchise. The only flaw in the plan? The movie simply wasn’t very good. Reviewers deemed it cluttered and depressing, and savaged its producers for prioritising the set-up of lucrative spin-offs over telling a coherent story. And yet, the film made millions. $862 million, to be precise. We’ve seen films like The Dark Knight succeed critically and commercially, as well as the likes of Fantastic 4 which flopped in both arenas (and were quickly swept under the rug). Batman vs. Superman’s contrasting fortunes at the box office and in the review pages, however, place Warner Bros at a strange juncture, financially compelled to plough on with their franchise but praying that audience loyalty will compensate for critical derision.
Still, a few more years of superhero-stuffed cinemas isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Take the recently-released Captain America: Civil War. It’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which, despite being a big bucks, market dominating franchise, is also made with painstaking care and features solid, at times outstanding films. While it’s easy to assume that all ‘big movies’ are mindless trash, inherently less worthy than independent fare, they are as capable of quality as any foreign-language auteur piece. What’s more, we watch films for all sorts of reasons. We watch them to laugh, to cry, to be provoked but also to be entertained. From Cleopatra to Star Wars, there’s always been room for popcorn entertainment.
Moreover, if studios weren’t making blockbusters they wouldn’t automatically be making profound art movies instead. Studios have always been driven by financial concerns, and have to make their money one way or another. Back in the Golden Age - the height of studio movie-making - stars were often contractually obliged to make dud epics in order to get passion projects greenlit. More recently, films like Deadpool and The Danish Girl endured years of ‘development hell’ before being produced, thanks to investors fretting over their profitability. In fact, it is only because film is an art that any concessions are made at all; without that, many studios would no doubt slide into focusing solely on what lines their pockets.
bravery is what’s required to stop cinema becoming a parade of identikit dullness
You could even argue that sure-fire money spinners are necessary, since they provide studios with enough cash and clout to then take risks on more off-beat output. Likewise, starring in superhero flicks and rom-coms allows actors like George Clooney and Scarlett Johannson to become ‘box office draws’, able to persuade studios to invest in more low-key ventures. It’s not ideal, perhaps, but it at least means that investors and film-lovers alike can both get more-or-less what they want.
Or, rather, that would be the case, if worrying reports hadn’t surfaced claiming that Warner Bros are considering greenlighting fewer ‘homegrown’ films in order to focus on franchises and pre-existing properties like Batman vs Superman. This, surely, presents the worst of both worlds. Mediocre blockbusters are one thing, but they become much less forgiveable when made at the expense of smaller but higher quality films.
Such behaviour not only stifles creativity, it leads cinema to sabotage itself. Some of the strongest hits of recent years are riskier films which audiences embraced for their originality - think Ex Machina, Bridesmaids or The Babadook. All of these required bravery from studios, but bravery is what’s required to stop cinema becoming a parade of identikit dullness. Good films can’t be churned out production line-style - audiences are too savvy, and can sense when there is no passion or flair (consider the wholly unnecessary 2012 Spiderman re-boot). Even when it comes to blockbusters, confident directors rarely materialise from thin air. Before Christopher Nolan could make The Dark Knight, he had to experiment and learn with Following and Memento. By not taking a chance on the unknown and behaving in such a risk-averse - no, risk-allergic - manner, studios are hurtling towards a generation of wasted potential and dissatisfied audiences.
To quote Cabaret, money does indeed make the world go a-round. As consumers, though, it’s worth questioning what exactly we want to put our money behind. With studios growing reluctant to invest in anything that isn’t pre-established, it becomes the audience’s duty to send clear messages about the movies they want to be made. By all means, queue up to see Batman vs Superman if it’s your cup of tea, but keep an eye out for films that had a harder time reaching our screens - the audaciously inventive Midnight Special, the harrowing Son of Saul, drone drama Eye in the Sky, which scrapped the script’s male protagonist in favour of Helen Mirren, or Miles Ahead, one of the few 2016 releases from a black director.
Ultimately, studios’ decisions over what to commission and what to leave at the bottom of their piles of abandoned scripts rest largely on what they believe audiences want. By spurning play-it-safe cash-grabs and embracing genuine creativity, we the audience are best placed to save cinema from itself.
About the author
Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.
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