We’re All Killing All the Movies

By  · Published on April 28th, 2015

As we all know, movies are dead. Fortunately we also know who to blame.

Before anyone can round up the usual suspects and blame them for killing the movies – Steven Spielberg! George Lucas! Marvel studios! Ewoks! – guilt propels me to step forward and shoulder my portion of the blame. It was me. I killed the movies.

Tom Shone, you maniac. You did it. You blew it up.

That quote is from Shone’s recent essay at The Economist’s Intelligent Life site, appropriately called “I Killed the Movies,” which suggests that children of the 1970s who fell in love with Richard Donner’s Superman and hungered for more. He chronicles needing to dig into the back catalog of comic book culture – all the way back to Supes’ beginnings in the 1930s – because 1) his fandom was strong and 2) the industry at the time wasn’t churning out enough to satiate it.

That’s not the case anymore. The young and hungry have a steady diet of comic books both in print and on screens; the industry watched all the Tom Shones of the world digging through the past and decided to capitalize by bringing more superheroes into the present. Now, movies are dead.

Or maybe everyone is to blame for killing them. Everyone who watches, everyone who makes.

That’s the biggest democratic challenge for an art form, that you have to ask the audience to be aware of the fact that they are just as responsible for the death of cinema as the people who make it.

That’s Sin Nombre and True Detective director Cary Fukunaga blaming Tom Shone, too. He spoke this week at Tribeca about selling his latest movie Beasts of No Nation to Netflix within the context of consumers directly affecting the art that gets created. He’s, of course, correct. Every time we pay or don’t pay to see a movie, we send a signal to producers about what they should be making/selling. The natural end result is, as Fukunaga says, big screens “reserved for comic book movies.”

The problem is that – like being a Democrat in a red state – it’s hard to see the worth of our vote at the box office. That, and a lot of us love blockbuster movies, too. Those of us who support the weird and innovative tend to clench our fists at statements like these and think, “Not me! I’m helping!” but The Audience is a monolithic beast that we simultaneously belong to and have no control over.

It’s easy to understand how a 70s kid cinephile like Shone would view the current superhero takeover as a broken cinema system. It’s also easy to understand why a filmmaker as genre-diverse as Fukunaga, who’s seen some of his greatest success through prestige television, would see large cracks in the studio foundation. It’s easy because most of us have felt it, too. There’s no denying that studios are so heavily invested in spectacle and the big gambles that come with launching billion-dollar hopefuls that it feels like they’re solely invested in them.

At the same time, Fukunaga is directing a new adaptation of “It” for New Line, and innovative cinema continues to get crafted every year. Movies aren’t really dead. It’s the old cinema paradigm that’s dying – one where movie studios thrive on the diversity of their genres and scope, where they’re the sole provider of the art being exhibited in theaters, where indie film has relatively few options for finding fans.

In his essay, Shone uses the Oscar celebration of Birdman as a mirror against the Hollywood’s current existential crisis of championing bold filmmaking while not being particularly interested in making it themselves. However, the reality is that movies like Birdman are getting made every year. Again, cinema isn’t dead.

It’s really just a question of how sustainable the new system is, and it’s not unfair to be nervous about how the least profitable, least broadly popular films will fare in an untested environment. Not that they’ve ever had it easy to begin with.

If it’s a matter of proving worth, superheroes are at the top, but interesting movies are still finding purchase. Philomena, Blue Jasmine and Her were in the top 100 of 2013; The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, Birdman, Wild, Nightcrawler and Boyhood were in the top 100 of 2014. They aren’t forming a colossus, but interesting movies are being made, and several of them are grossing a lot of money to help their cinematic cause.

Enter Netflix and other streaming services. The difficulty in judging Netflix’s success (and thus, the potential for something like Beasts of No Nation) is that their numbers are all internal. They won’t release their figures, but they have a huge advantage in profiting from showcasing other studios’ movies. They have another product to create a safety net (and it’s a big one) while they experiment with producing their own, original art and develop their own talent. It’s easy to lament the death of movies, but it’s completely plausible that Beasts of No Nation will find greater audience and monetary success online than it would have in theaters. So who’s the real loser there?

Maybe theater chains. Maybe the communal experience.

Maybe it’s easier to believe movies are dead simply because we want our favorite creative people to have an easier time making more movies.

The silver lining goes back to what Fukunaga said about the consumer space. As the behemoth of The Audience continues to dictate what studios create, it’s more than possible (really, inevitable) that The Audience’s attitude will shift back toward the types of movies that Shone liked before he killed cinema. Or, at the very least, a better balance of budgets, genres and innovation.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.