Modern Blockbusters & The Death of Culture

Oftentimes in cinematic circles you’ll hear snobs discuss how modern movies are for plebeians as they idolize their niche directors and surreal artists, but do they have a point? Has the rise of monopolistic conglomerates like Disney sucked the soul out of Hollywood? Or do we have only ourselves to blame for the repetitive dribble we see on our silver screens year after year? John Wayne said it perfectly a whopping 50 years ago during his controversial 1971 interview with Playboy. “That may make the bankers and stock promoters think this is a necessary ingredient for successful motion pictures”.  As consumers, we vote with our wallet for the kinds of things we want to see in future studio tentpole films. Let’s look at the top grossing films in America across the 80’s  for a bit of context.

1980The Empire Strikes Back$209,398,025
1981Raiders Of The Lost Ark$212,222,025
1982E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial $359,197,037
1983Return of The Jedi$252,583,617
1984Beverly Hills Cop$234,760,478
1985Back to Future$222,067,229
1986Top Gun$176,781,728
1987Three Men and a Baby$167,780,960
1988Rain Man$172,825,435

Out of these 10 movies only 1 is adapted from another work (Batman) and 2 are Sequels (Star Wars) leaving a whopping 7 movies of the decade to brand new intellectual properties that captured a nation and redefined culture. Needless to say there always was and always will be a demand for adapted works and franchise movies. These works have established and built in fan bases that make it a safe choice for any studio exec investing his own cash, but as adaptations and established franchises become the only thing we see on the silver screen, smaller, more original works are left by the wayside without an opportunity to properly flourish. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the last decade to see how originality is rewarded in modern Hollywood.

2010Toy Story 3$1,066,969,703
2011Harry Potter 8$1,341,511,219
2014Transformers: Age of Extinction$1,104,054,072
2015The Force Awakens$2,068,223,624
2016Captain America: Civil War$1,153,296,293
2017The Last Jedi$1,263,521,126
2018Avengers: Infinity War$2,048,2010359,753
2019Avengers: Endgame$2,797,501,328

Out of these 10 movies 5 are hybrid sequel/adaptations (Harry Potter, Marvel) 8 are straight sequels, and we have 1 original work (Frozen) that just happened to have been made by the same company responsible for the 6 other winners of the decade. All hail Disney. The 2010’s ushered in the era of the billion dollar movie with a little help from inflation but also from the evolution of marketing and the uncanny ability of studios to appeal to our baser instincts of nostalgia and instant gratification. There is no doubt that the blockbusters listed above are absolute spectacles to marvel at but is it healthy for the industry and greater culture? Motion pictures as an artistic medium have taken on the duty of entertaining us but it’s also taken the responsibility of provoking, inspiring and challenging us. They can often serve as mirrors in which we can observe ourselves and the shared human experience.

Image from Indie filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refns’s Only God Forgives (Courtesy of ScanBox Entertainment)

The diversity in storytelling seen in a decade like the 80’s inspired creativity not only within the industry but in the minds of all Americans. The formulaic repetition of story beats and spectacle line the pockets of the studios well enough but do they inspire and challenge the people in the way they used to? Unfortunately not. That’s not to say that there are no longer good movies being made. That would be an outright lie. Even within these top 10 of the decade at least half are arguably good films that offer us something substantial as consumers. When you begin to prowl the sphere of independent filmmaking and you see provocateurs such as Nicolas Winding Refn or Robert Eggers or even insane people like Lars Von Trier you get the sense that film as an artform isn’t dead after all. The truth is that the medium will never die but the culture can and is. I cannot implore studios to not make movies that turn profits, but I can suggest that we as a people choose to watch films that do provoke, challenge, and inspire us in the ways they used to and still can. When we support original ideas from inspired creatives we support diversity in the industry and effectively force to the surface a new wave of movies that will become the legends of the future.

In this new age of technology and social chaos, it’s easy to understand why Americans gravitate towards the familiar, the comfortable, and the easy. Escapism was a driving force for moviegoers during the second World War for similar reasons, however we deserve a renaissance. We deserve as humans to watch new perspectives and original ideas be recognized to their full potential and backed with full force by the Paramounts and Columbias and Disneys because it’s what we want to see.

 Movies have become more accessible than ever before both for creation and consumption. With the theaters opening up again we have an opportunity to reshape the industry the way we want to see it, and invite a new age of blockbuster unlike anything we’ve seen before. It may be comfortable watching the 4th Avatar or the 28th Marvel movie. It may even be somewhat enjoyable but as the quality in films decline and audience viewership increases, do we really have anyone to blame when we’re not having fun at the movies anymore? Let’s shake up Hollywood and create new experiences for everyone. I’ll see you all at the movies.

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