Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Collapse of the Tentpole: Why Hollywood’s Grim Summer Is Good News for the Rest of Us

Hope springs eternal—and by that I mean it was just this past spring I was lamenting Hollywood’s hopeless addiction to nostalgic, twentieth-century brands, from superheroes to Star Wars, and its incorrigible aversion to original genre works in favor of endless sequels and remakes (I will not cave to social pressure by calling them “reboots” just to assuage the egos of filmmakers too precious to be considered slumming with the likes of—heaven forbid—a remake).  And yet…

And yet what a difference a summer can make.  Let’s review the scorecard, shall we?

Batman v Superman took a critical beating (to say the least) and, despite sizable box-office returns, underperformed to expectations, an inauspicious opening salvo in Warners’ would-be mega-franchise (and something tells me, no matter how tepid the public response, they’re not going to take “no” for an answer on this one).  The follow-up, Suicide Squad, performed well even if it didn’t fare any better critically, though one could argue both movies actually did the health of the budding cinematic universe more harm than good in that they tarnished the integrity, such as it is, of the brand; DC is thus far not enjoying Marvel’s critical or popular cachet.  And you don’t build an ongoing franchise playing only to the base.

Other expensive underperformers:  Warcraft; X-Men:  Apocalypse; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Out of the Shadows; Neighbors 2:  Sorority Rising; Star Trek BeyondJason Bourne opened well but suffered a steep second-week drop-off—it had no “legs,” in box-office parlance.

Who ya gonna call to exterminate the "ghosts" of a previous generation haunting the multiplex?

Who ya gonna call to exterminate the “ghosts” of a previous generation haunting the multiplex?

Plenty of other “surefire” sequels outright bombed:  Alice Through the Looking Glass, Ghostbusters (not a sequel, but it was promoted as one), The Huntsman:  Winter’s War, Zoolander 2, Independence Day:  Resurgence, and The Divergent Series:  Allegiant, the last of which has resulted in a particularly embarrassing—and unprecedented—predicament for its studio, Lionsgate, which, following in the footsteps of previous YA adaptations Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, unnecessarily split the last movie into two parts, and now they’re stuck with a commitment to a final sequel (or half of one, anyway) without an audience anticipating its release.

 

GHOSTBUSTERS RETURNS!  BOURNE RETURNS!  DIMINISHING RETURNS!

Don’t for a minute feel bad for Hollywood—they did this to themselves.  Prior to the disastrous 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike, the industry worked like this:  Studios had deals with production companies, furnishing them with “war chests” with which they could then seek out and hire screenwriters to develop original projects; once a satisfactory screenplay was complete, the prodco would take it to their partnered studio and try to get it “set up”—i.e., greenlighted for production.  That was the way the business operated for a long, long time; it’s how many of your favorite films found their way to the silver screen.

During the strike, however, it occurred to the studios that they already own enough “branded IPs” (intellectual properties)—from Star Wars to Fast & Furious to Transformers to Bond to Bourne to Planet of the Apes to the superheroes of Marvel and DC—to keep them in business through the end of time.  Why pay to develop new material—why take a chance on an unknown entity—when they could simply sequelize and “reboot” proven franchises for an audience with an insatiable appetite for them?  Culturally speaking, this was a troubling strategy, of course, but economically, it made a kind of sense—even to a no-name screenwriter like myself, whose very welfare depends upon a marketplace hospitable to new ideas, new stories.  So long as audiences were coming back to see, time and again, “the ephemera of a previous century” (to borrow Watchmen scribe Alan Moore’s exquisite phrasing), why not keep serving up the same old shit on a fancier platter?

Only this year, audiences didn’t show up for it.  Like the housing bubble of ’08, Hollywood’s avaricious overreliance on branded IPs may have finally reached its saturation point.  Could it be that an entire movie-going public considered what was being offered—from Batman to X-Men to Star Trek to Ghostbusters—and collectively shrugged, “Already seen it”?  Could we finally be hungering for new stories, and new heroes, that speak to the ethos and preoccupations of our new millennium?  Is this the summer we declared, for good and all, our Independence Day?

ID4’s subtitle proved to be quixotically—and certainly cynically—optimistic

I certainly hope so.  I hope so for the sake of our culture, so mired in nostalgia right now, and I hope so, rather selfishly, for my own professional prosperity—my forthcoming novels, none of which feature cameo appearances by Iron Man or Wolverine.  I don’t think Hollywood will take a lesson from any of this, mind you:  In the midst of this dismal season at the box office, Disney announced a remake of The Rocketeer, a movie that bombed in theaters a quarter century ago, just to give you a sense, folks, of how deep the town’s denial runs.  (Remind me, Disney, how that Tron rehash worked out for you?)  But by digging in their heels they’re only digging their own graves—by clinging to a formula growing less and less effective every year.  Next year’s franchise offerings, like Wonder Woman and Justice League, are already in the pipeline, so we’ll have to see if the box office rebounds—if 2016 was merely an anomalous dip—or if the downward trend continues.  I’d like to think what we saw this summer is a referendum—on nostalgia-for-profit, on the inexcusable cooptation (and perversion) of children’s characters by a generation of middle-aged men, on the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood movie studios and their hermetic stable of go-to content creators—that will still hold true in a year’s time.

Granted, the sheer number of entertainment options may have very well played a part in eroding the audience for everything:  Aside from the fact that there are now nearly 500 scripted television shows competing for our attention (a far cry from the measly trio of networks I grew up watching), the movie studios have come to rely so heavily on “tentpoles” that there’s more or less a new one being released every Friday—$200 million–budgeted movies get a single weekend to do all their business before being shoved aside for the next weekly must-see “event.”  As Scott Mendelson from Forbes recently put it:  “The mood for the last year regarding would-be tentpoles has not been ‘Woohoo, we’re going to hit it big!’ but more ‘Aww geez, I hope we don’t lose too badly!’”  And that’s exactly the problem:  We’re being force-fed more “must-see” media than we have the appetite or bandwidth to consume.  We’re overwhelmed.  And when that happens, at some point “must-see” becomes—out of sheer self-preservation—“Who cares?”

Adults, certainly, can’t muster sufficient enthusiasm to go out to the movies anymore.  Only the teenage demographic still bothers to do that, because, despite their increasingly digitized socialization habits, they still need a physical place to go on a Saturday night that isn’t under the watchful eye of their parents, hence the reason movies now are geared almost exclusively to their juvenile sensibilities.  There are no more Godfathers, no more Dances with Wolves, no Bravehearts or As Good as It Gets.  In 1996, Tom Cruise introduced us to both Ethan Hunt, a dimensionless action figure not half as interesting as even the dumbest incarnations of 007, and Jerry Maguire, a complex, layered protagonist in a drama about a sports agent; since then, Hunt has been reprised four times (with more missions, impossibly, yet to come), while even Cruise’s considerable (if somewhat diminished) star power can’t get projects the likes of Jerry Maguire made anymore.

 

PATTERN RECOGNITION

Which is not to say good stories aren’t still being told—we just have to go elsewhere for them.  So while you won’t find the next GoodFellas at your local Cineplex, Netflix is offering Peaky Blinders.  There are no more Shawshank Redemptions, but there is Orange Is the New Black.  No new Russia House, but The Americans instead.  No more Fargos, but at least there’s Fargo.  Noticing a trend here?

Whereas movies are increasingly becoming a more expensive—and correspondingly riskier—enterprise, ever more reliant on spectacle over nuanced storytelling, television is filling the narrative void.  I’m not implying, as many of my colleagues would suggest, TV is a better medium than cinema, it’s simply being utilized, for the most part, in more emotionally complex and resonant ways at present.

Among other innovations, television has become a haven for “postnarrative” fiction.  Unlike conventional storytelling (the Aristotelian arc), with its beginning, middle, and end—and its takeaway “moral of the story”—postnarrativity is an open-ended, ongoing exercise in “problem solving,” in which the sprawling fictional worlds of shows like Game of Thrones “are like giant operating systems whose codes and intentions are unknown to the people living inside them.  Characters must learn how their universes work.  Narrativity is replaced by something more like putting together a puzzle by making connections and recognizing patterns” (Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock:  When Everything Happens Now, [New York:  Penguin Group, 2013], 34).  In postnarrativity, there’s no emotional value at stake (like hope in Shawshank) or lesson to be learned (“There’s no place like home”).  Consider:

  • Unlike Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano neither struggles to be ethical nor seeks absolution for his transgressions.  His “resolution,” therefore, is neither tragic nor redemptive:  In the middle of a perfectly ordinary scene—he’s sitting with his family in a diner—the screen cuts abruptly to black and the series is over.  The Sopranos ended, but it did not conclude, for that would have been beside the point.
  • On Lost, the castaways spend all their time on the island trying to puzzle out what it all means:  the mysterious sequence of numbers, the smoke monster, the polar bear on the beach.  Note the final line of the first episode isn’t, “Guys, how do we get home?”  Instead, rather tellingly, it’s “Guys—where are we?”  Getting home was irrelevant; cracking the enigma (or interminable sequence of them) was the entire point of the epic narrative.
  • On The Walking Dead, the rules in question are ones of moral parameters:  In a civilization-has-fallen world without laws or government, what, if anything, constitutes right and wrong?  The characters no longer know.  Some cling to absolutes, like Morgan, while others, like Rick, prioritize survival above (obsolete?) principles of morality.  Back and forth the pendulum swings, the survivors hardening or softening depending on their present circumstances and recent experiences, but no new set of laws or principles is ever established—sorting it all out is very much an ongoing work in progress.
  • On Seinfeld, Jerry and his pals are preoccupied with decoding the unspoken and often ambiguous rules of etiquette in modern urban society; something as simple as a call-waiting alert becomes a social dilemma fraught with consequences, and is even given, in an attempt at codification, its own clever label:  a phone-call face-off.

None of the above examples of postnarrativity are about providing resolution or catharsis like the “hero’s journey” arc, only about an endless game of pattern recognition.  They’re about ongoing, sustainable plots, but they are not about story.  Story concludes; story imparts values.  (In a recent episode of Mr. Robot, itself an exemplar of postnarrativity, a character ruminates on the classic Seinfeld episode “The Chinese Restaurant”—that its real-time plot about a group of friends waiting interminably for a table, and debating as the night drags on the pros and cons of staying versus bailing, is not a story.  He’s right.  And just like Mr. Robot, it wasn’t intended to be one.)  The classical form of narrative (And the moral of the story is…) isn’t resonating anymore; it doesn’t reflect the challenges and anxieties of our new Digital Age in which our sense of linearity has been fractured by telecommunications technologies that allow us to be—that demand that we be—multiple places at once.  This is what has emerged in its place.

"Seinfeld" pioneered the postnarrative "show about nothing" approach to television

“Seinfeld” pioneered the postnarrative “show about nothing” approach to television

Postnarrative television has become so popular, so culturally resonant, that movies are now being produced by way of a similar model:  Consider, for example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first successful “mega-franchise” in which sequels, as we’ve traditionally understood them (a linear progression of subsequent adventures featuring James Bond or Indiana Jones or Freddy Krueger), are supplanted by installments in an expansive fictional universe of concurrent action where what happens in Captain America:  Civil War has an immediate butterfly effect on the events of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Spider-Man:  Homecoming and Avengers:  Infinity War and so on and so on and so on.  That’s no structurally different, really, from your average episode of Game of Thrones (or Gotham or Sleepy Hollow or Once Upon a Time, for that matter), with its umpteen simultaneous plotlines, many of which are only tangentially connected to one another outside of simply existing in the same vast fictional landscape.  How it all connects is ultimately more important than how any of it resolves.  This is how storytelling works in a postnarrative world in which endless connections—smartphones that urgently “hyperlink” us to the next happening before the conclusion of the current one—keep us from ever experiencing resolution.

Cinema and TV, therefore, once provinces as distinct as Winterfell and the Dothraki Sea, have formed a multimedia feedback loop:  Movies, with their A-list talent and ambitious scope, influence television, and television in turn makes an evolutionary storytelling leap, thereby influencing movies—to the point now where the line between the two is becoming indistinguishable, certainly to a generation that consumes virtually all its media not on a screen in a darkened theater or family living room at a designated time, but on a phone or tablet whenever the mood strikes.

Let’s face it:  Movie theaters are an outmoded presentational forum, anyway.  Sure, they made sense before anyone had TVs in their home.  And they still had a purpose as recently the eighties and nineties, when I was a kid, because VCRs weren’t yet de rigueur, and even by the time they were, the quality certainly wasn’t up to theatrical snuff.  But nowadays?  C’mon.  Most home-theater setups provide a comparable if not superior audio-visual experience to your average aging multiplex, minus the expense and inconveniences of a night out.  And since fewer and fewer people are actually buying tickets anymore, and the theater-to-download release window is getting ever narrower, I have a hard time imagining theatrical exhibition will still be a viable thing in a decade, if even half that long.  There will always be theaters, certainly in the big cities, but they will become niche outlets for special event screenings.  The days of going to the movies are about to be relegated to one of those romantic notions of the past, like drive-ins.

 

THE ERA OF POSTTHEATRICALITY

Something revolutionary, however, is coming that will supplant the old twentieth-century media models—they will merge into an entity not quite cinema, but not quite television, either.  Movies won’t get theatrical distribution and TV shows won’t air on the weekly installment plan any longer.  We’ll download all our filmed media at our own convenience, and the line between what constitutes cinema and television will be moot to a generation reared on no-beginning/no-end postnarrative stories that were never projected or broadcast, but rather streamed.  To them, The Avengers won’t be a movie series anymore than Daredevil is a television series—it’ll all just be entertainment continua, available on demand, ever and always, in their bingeable totalities.

Storytellers are already adapting their fictions to suit both the cultural complexities of modern society as well as the new presentational modes.  In discussing House of Cards, creator Beau Willimon observed that “we were able to take a novelistic approach to filmmaking, which you could call television, but we really saw as a long movie, I guess, with more of a resemblance to a novel than anything else.”  Got all that?  Is he, then, creating a movie?  A TV series?  A filmed novel?  Something else altogether?

"House of Cards" creator Beau Willimon

“House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon

Who cares?  He’s telling a good tale that’s resonating.  Whether it earns him an Emmy or an Oscar is irrelevant—as irrelevant, in point of fact, as those two distinct awards ceremonies will soon, I suspect, find themselves.  More and more narratives are going to start to emerge in the House of Cards mold, and one or more of them will make the next transmutative leap.  Hell, even compact, closed-ended stories may return—and prosper—in this new paradigm.  I’m betting they will—so much so that those are the kind I’m writing; I think we long for traditional narratives and old-fashioned heroes, actually:  Audiences are often taken with the unpredictability of postnarrative series that don’t conform to the familiar three-act model (look at all the time spent analyzing their minutia on pointless “aftershows” like Talking Dead), yet get frustrated when they fail to deliver on Aristotelian conventions (by which I mean a satisfying resolution).  That’s not postnarrativity’s job, of course—it’s merely to keep “the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible” (ibid.)—but finality is nonetheless hardwired into our very apprehension of reality, and stories that provide closure help us find meaning in the unavoidable and often unpleasant truth of cessation.

Perhaps “movies,” then, unrestrained by the time limits of theatrical presentation—of show times—will run eight or ten or twelve continuous hours; imagine, if you will, a finite narrative like the recent Netflix original series Stranger Things, but without episode breaks:  The viewer would then decide, at his own discretion, when to pause and resume the program, same as the way a novel is read.  Something like that is going to happen, sooner than later.  The different forms and formats will evolve into new permutations that take best advantage of the latest content-delivery technologies.  Closed-ended stories won’t necessarily be confined to two-hour “movies” or one-hour “episodes,” just as open-ended narratives will no longer be beholden to “phases” (as they’re called by Marvel) or “seasons” (on television), but will instead serve as the testing ground for experimental, amorphous structuring from innovative storytellers; that which works—and not all of it will—will become the new structural standard in narrativity.  But make no mistake:  Storytelling criteria as we’ve understood them for nearly a century are going to metamorphose—and our notions of “movies” and “television” as separate entities, I predict, will soon be as antiquated as landlines and credit cards and wristwatches and photo albums and wall-hung calendars, and all of the other archaic independent apparatuses whose functions are now fulfilled by a single featherweight device.  This is inevitable.

The movie studios don’t want to face this, hence the reason they’re still operating under the old model—which is fitting, considering most of their material is recycled from a bygone era, too.  (Same with the networks and cable channels, whose content is still structured to support advertiser-sponsored programming.)  They’re squeezing every last dollar they can out of a dying beast by overcrowding the market with event movies.  That it’s unsustainable, as this past summer unequivocally demonstrated, is completely the point:  The old Hollywood institutions are effectively drilling for the last barrels of oil as fast as they can before the grid goes green, imminently and irrevocably.

So, I can’t believe I’m saying this a mere half a year after pleading for it, but the days of the “tentpole,” as we know it, are now very likely numbered, and with it Hollywood’s systemically stupid business model that favors stale corporate franchises—ones that employ but a small fraction of screenwriters vying for opportunities—over new ideas, and that reduce the shelf life of multimillion-dollar investments (blockbuster movies) to a 72-hour window (opening weekend) instead of valuing them as perennial digital assets that, like a Netflix series, can grow a following over months and even years and deliver a slow-but-consistent return on investment instead of a “crack high” frontloaded release followed by a sobering 80% plunge the following Saturday.  This is a good thing, for both the industry and the culture.  It’s evolutionary, in fact—a cosmic course-correction against a vested corporate interest in maintaining the status quo, no matter how outdated or inefficient, to ensure unsustainable financial growth over cultural health and prosperity.

The institution of storytelling, meanwhile, will thrive regardless of the medium, as it has since the days of cave-painting.  It will, in fact, grow more emotionally and intellectually complex as its presentational mechanisms evolve—and as audiences grow ever savvier to the time-honored conventions of narrative—and may one day soon wrest free from the corporate stranglehold that’s been choking it of contemporary relevance and retarding its cultural and creative progression for the last fifteen years.  Imagine it:  commercial filmmaking transformed from the Gen X greatest-hits compilation it is now into the essential leading-edge art form of the twenty-first century.  Better late than never.

17 Comments

  1. This is a great article, Sean. I agree wholeheartedly. I live too far away from the movie theaters to go, but I doubt I’d visit anyway. I find that I am almost always disappointed by sequels. And remakes…even if they are well done, I already know the story, so the excitement just isn’t the same. Every TV show that you mentioned in your post-narrative analysis is a favorite of mine and I go out of my way to watch them. In fact, they’re the only television shows that I watch (which isn’t much).

    I like the indepth stories, getting to know the characters in a way that I rarely can in the current 90 minute slot where half of the time is dedicated to special effects. To me, special effects should support the story, not BE the story. I think Hollywood misses that point too.

    I love the idea of long movies/shows where the viewer decides where to pause. Binge watching 70 episodes is a rare but engrossing event in this household. I’ll be thrilled when Hollywood catches on to the post-narrative trend, or at least starts producing new and more nuanced or thoughtful material. They need to start moving in that direction or they are going to lose much of their adult audience.

    • Thanks, Diana — for sticking with the post! It was another long one!

      There seems to be an invisible course-correction mechanism built into the fabric of space-time. Whenever an institution becomes too outdated or corrupt, be it a government or an economic system or a corporation or even a species (the dinosaurs, for instance), the cosmos compels change — the extinction of one order and the evolution of another. We’re certainly seeing that happen with narrativity: One model (the Aristotelian arc) is giving way, improbable though it seems, to another type of worldview (postnarrativity). And the digital technologies that facilitated that have not only transformed the form of narrative itself, but the presentational medium, as well: Now, with downloadable on-demand content, the need for movie theaters and television networks, once mainstays of our culture, is moot. So, we’re in a rather seismic period of metamorphosis right now, which is certainly frightening to the heads of the inveterate establishment, but as we should all know by now, progress cannot be suppressed. It can be obstructed, but not, in the long run, prevented.

      So, I believe we are the verge of a new kind of storytelling for a new millennium, and that excites me as both a consumer and creator of content. And I think that rather than looking back at what’s being lost, like movie theaters, we should instead be looking ahead at what’s to come, even — especially — if much of that is still unknown to us. The 21st century was supposed to be the future!, but we had the shit scared out of us by 9/11, and we retreated into the comforts of a simpler time — one of Star Wars and Superman. But it seems we are finally on the verge, to paraphrase Alan Moore, of developing a culture relevant and sufficient to the times in which we are living, and not the ones in which we wish we still lived. We put up a good fight, but the times themselves demanded change, and now artists, with or without the support of corporations that control so much of our popular entertainment, are fulfilling their cultural obligation and expressing that change — they’re giving people the tools and perspective to deal with it in an emotionally healthy and culturally prosperous way. Because we’re just not gonna get that from Batman and Luke Skywalker and all the heroes of a previous century. Their service is appreciated, but their day is over.

      Sean

      • It’s exciting to look ahead. Unfortunately, where I live, we rely on satellites for all our connectivity and our services are incrediby slow and limited to the number of megabites we have access to per month. No streaming, no skype, no real time anything. Hopefully the technology will be here for me to enjoy the future of entertainment.

        I wanted to mention that I have a hard time reaching your site from my reader and from email. I believe your gravatar needs to be updated with your correct url address. Just guessing, but I think it’s sending me to an old address. Today it gave me malware warnings. Take a look at that; I think you may see an increase in visits.

        Have a great week 🙂

        • That’s a great point you raise, Diana — that part of the reason theatrical exhibition/home video/broadcast networks/cable channels aren’t yet obsolete is technological: Reliable video and audio streaming will need to become ubiquitous, and not just limited to the big cities and their suburbs, before the new content-delivery systems obviate the need for the old. Streaming has come a long way, certainly, but it’s easy to forget here in L.A. that not every market enjoys universally dependable service. Even the briefest glimpse of that little buffering throbber on a screen in New York or Los Angeles is likely to prompt indecorous comparisons with Third World living conditions!

          Thanks for bringing that aspect of the larger issue to the discussion. Like Jeff’s observation about out-of-control movie budgets, there are a number of factors helping determine, in ways big and small, the future of entertainment — how it’s produced, how it’s delivered, how it’s consumed, etc. — all of which makes predicting what comes next, and on what kind of timetable, a tricky proposition. But I do believe, within a decade, cinematic/televisional narrative is going to take a quantum evolutionary leap; the familiar structural paradigms (such as tentpole blockbusters, as we know them now) will be rendered vestiges of a previous age, like the epic poetry of ancient Greece.

          Thanks, also, for making me aware you’ve had trouble linking to the site; I’ll look into it right away. Please do let me know if, moving forward, you have continued issues; I greatly appreciate the technical feedback.

          Sean

  2. Great post! I’m glad you mentioned the 2007 Writer’s Strike as a point in time that heralded the rise of the branded IPs. I’m a pop-art painter, and in Nov. 2007 I packed up all the new artwork in my Phoenix, AZ studio and drove a U-Haul to LA for a scheduled art show, in hot pursuit of my dream. It was a disappointing trip, the Strike colored everything in town, everyone was worried about income, it seemed there was no room for anything new. Reading this post about the branded IPs helps me see the symbolism of the bad timing i endured, as something ‘new’ trying to penetrate a rigid mechanism.

    • The great irony of the WGA strike is that far from improving things for screenwriters (the issue du jour was DVD revenues), it in fact made things far worse; the industry has yet to bounce back from it. (That it was such a failed gambit for screenwriters but an unintended boon to the studios they were striking against is not a consequence most are emotionally ready to discuss publicly yet, even a decade later, hence the reason you see very little mention of it in all the post-summer box-office analyses being published.) But in the intervening years, Hollywood has flooded the market with endless, astronomically budgeted sequels/spin-offs/remakes/reboots (or any combination thereof), and the “magic formula” that was supposed to sustain them through the end of time crashed into a heap this summer. It could just be an aberration — we won’t know till next year, and the year after that — and certain brands, like Marvel and Star Wars, will surely continue to prosper no matter what (barring a precipitous drop in quality), but I’d like to think this summer signifies a saturation point with franchise recycling. How many times, after all, can you tell the same stories about Jedi and dinosaurs run amok and ghost exterminators before the well is dry? I have hope now that we are on the verge of finding out…

      I appreciate your reading and weighing in, Neptune Arts, and I hope you and your work are prospering at present…?

      Sean

  3. This was a brilliantly written article, and it certainly shed light on the trends and changes occuring in the visual entertainment industry. (We mustn’t forget the impact YouTube is also having on media consumption.)

    Though this doesn’t necessarily contradict or support your argument, I would like to mention the film Hell or High Water. Though it has hardly enjoyed any success by big entertainment standards, it is a new story beautifully crafted and executed, and those who have seen it are lauding it as possibly the best film of the summer. If such new films, though few and far between, continue to be produced, doesn’t that still provide a glimmer of hope amid the grimmness of what appears to be a failing Hollywood industry? I’m certain you’ll mention the fact that such films as mentioned above would instead find greater—and more appreciative—audiences if released on a streaming platform, a fact of which I’m well aware. But perhaps these gems among overstimulated sequels and ill-conceived algorithms are only appreciated because they are a brilliant alternative to the fodder?

    I’m not sure I made any sense, nor am I quite sure I made a point. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. It leaves me with much to ponder!

    • Mariah:

      Sincerest apologies for the late approval of your comment! It was somehow sent to the spam folder, and slipped my attention till just last night! I appreciate that you joined the conversation — please know that — and hope you’re not put off from commenting on future posts!

      YouTube has had a tremendous impact on the way we consume media, particularly late-night talk shows: Notice the way bits on Fallon and Kimmel, etc., are now produced as compact, self-contained segments intended to go viral. It’s no longer about who has the highest ratings; it’s about who has the most hits. These days, if you’re not “trending,” you’re not (perceived to be) affecting the Conversation, as it were. That is in many respects a manifestation of our state of “present shock,” to borrow Rushkoff‘s term for it: We only have a few moments’ attention to pay to something before we get pulled away, by the next urgent ping!, to something else altogether; that’s the “hyperlinked” reality in which we now live, and that’s what is reflected in postnarrative fiction. I yearn for more in-depth, long-form content, which is why I’m such a fan of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

      I haven’t yet seen Hell or High Water, but I’m aware of the reception its getting (98% on Rotten Tomatoes), and that it has, to date, earned $20 million on a $12 million budget (and sure to make more as good word of mouth continues to spread, and more still if it gets Oscar attention). This goes to a point Jeff Ritchie raised directly beneath your comment: that Hollywood needs to get back to sensibly budgeted genre fare. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was made for $18 million; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) cost $185 million, and, for my money, doesn’t look nearly as authentic! And that’s not merely a matter of inflation; that’s overspending. What did all that extra money go toward? Certainly not a better production.

      As the cost of tentpoles has risen — and as their returns are now diminishing — I think the market is going to force a shift back to “smaller” genre pictures with inventive stories and reasonable price tags, like Green Room, Midnight Special, and Hell or High Water. Those films don’t get the marketing push of big-ticket blockbusters like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, which only goes to show how dysfunctional Hollywood has become: The studios’ efforts are spent trying to sell audiences on pieces of shit rather than investing in good movies and trusting that word of mouth will play its part. But the latter strategy requires patience and a long view, and studio execs are addicted to the “crack high” of huge opening weekends (which has pretty much been their M.O. since the release of the first Batman in 1989).

      But I genuinely believe — and only time will tell if I’m right — that that unsustainable business model is finally in terminal meltdown. I just don’t see how Hollywood can continue to overcrowd the marketplace with overpriced tentpoles that are selling fewer and fewer tickets and continue to stay in business. Back in the day, a movie like Raiders would get released, and it might stay in theaters up to a year, cultivating an audience and making its money over the long haul. And if you look at the success of a Netflix limited series like Stranger Things, it follows a very similar paradigm, even if the distribution medium has changed (from 20th-century theatrical exhibition to 21st-century streaming services). And I suspect, moving forward, you’re going to see more Stranger Things — ambitious stories produced on practical budgets that foster their followings over weeks and months — versus costly “tentpoles” that rely on CGI spectacle over satisfying storytelling and have become, of late, rather risky financial propositions.

      We shall see…

      Thanks, Mariah, for reading and joining the discussion, and apologies again for the delayed posting of your comment.

      Sean

  4. Not sure this post went through when I first wrote it. If this ends up being a repeat post, my apologies!

    This was a brilliant written article, and it certainly sheds light on the trends and changes occurring int he visual entertainment industry. (We mustn’t forget the impact YouTube is also having on media consumption.)

    Though this doesn’t necessarily contradict or support your argument, I would like to mention the film Hell or High Water, which premiered in August. Though it has hardly enjoyed any success by big entertainment standards, it is a new story beautifully crafted and executed, and those who have sen it are lauding it as possibly the best film of the summer. If such new films, though few and far between, continue to be produced, doesn’t that still provide a glimmer of hope amid the grimness of what appears to be a failing Hollywood industry? I’m certain you’ll mention the fact that such films as mentioned above would instead find greater—and more appreciative—audiences if released on a streaming platform, a fact of which I’m well aware. But perhaps these gems among overstimulated sequels and ill-conceived formulas are only appreciated because they are a brilliant alternative to the fodder?

    I’m not sure I made any sense, nor am I quite sure I made a point. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. It leaves me with much to ponder!

  5. I was thinking about Ghostbusters and how these big movies are having to make so much money to turn a profit. I feel like part of the problem is that WAY too much money is being thrown at franchises that don’t necessarily need it. Did Ghostbusters really need a $144 million budget? It’s worldwide box-office total was about $224 million. For many films, that would be a resounding success. But studios pump ungodly amounts of money into the production AND marketing, essentially shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to earning back their money. No movie should have to make $800 million to break even.

    • There’s no question, Jeff, that budgets have gotten absolutely out of hand, an aspect of all this I didn’t have time to explore in this post. Take Star Trek Beyond: It had a production cost of $185 million (not counting marketing). For what, exactly? I’ll admit I haven’t yet seen it, but I know as a lifelong fan that some of the best Star Trek stories (from TOS and TNG) took place on enclosed sets with phony-looking, painted alienscape backdrops and papier-mâché boulders, yet no one cared because they were so intellectually thrilling and thought-provoking. The new movies spend all their money on spectacle (that’s J.J.’s influence), when Trek was always really about the cerebral, the philosophical. The original productions didn’t have budget, but they had soul.

      Interestingly, Paramount spent way too much money on Star Trek: The Motion Picture back in the day, and the budget was severely slashed for Star Trek II. The second movie turned out to be a massive hit (and is widely considered the best of the series), and yet the budget was again cut for Star Trek III. That was a hit, as well, and yet they took another budget cut on Star Trek IV. And despite the fact that IV was the highest grosser of the series, once again they were forced to work on a downsized budget for both V and VI! That’s how it used to be done: You got less money with each successive installment, not more, because it was understood that sequels seldom generated as much revenue as their predecessors. And when you don’t have a money hose to wash away your problems, you’re forced to get very inventive: Look at the way Star Trek VI, the original cast’s swan song, is a locked-room murder mystery set aboard the Enterprise! So you’ve got a compelling whodunit that doesn’t require epic space battles, and on top of that the movie wasn’t merely entertaining but also culturally relevant because it was a metaphor for the waning days of the Cold War. And there were more layers still, as the filmmakers had Kirk and Spock (whom we’d followed for a quarter century at that point) wrestling with feelings of obsolesce, so there was rich characterization, too. And all for bargain-basement prices!

      But, when they can make credible epic fantasy worlds like the one seen on Game of Thrones on a TV budget, there’s no excuse for movies like Ghostbusters and Star Trek to cost so much f*cking money. What’s it all being spent on? And that’s why I think we’re going to start to see a return to “smaller” genre fare, like Don’t Breathe and Lights Out (and even Stranger Things). I think we’re going to once again move away from a model in which huge sums are spent on “sure things” (which have become less sure than ever) in favor of investing in original, sensibly budgeted genre projects. I think the invisible hand of the market is going to force a course-correction with respect to the kinds of movies being produced — and certainly the money being laid out for them.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, pal!

      Sean

      • There has also been a shift to where every summer movie has to be an “event” where oftentimes a “smaller” story would be even a better fit for the characters. I’d like to see the MCU explore this. For example, if Black Widow ever gets her own movie, it should NOT be a huge spectacle-driven affair. It should be a ’70s-esque spy thriller.

        • Seeing how the MCU has basically pioneered the 21st-century “multimedia universe” (to the envy of every studio in Hollywood), I suspect Marvel will thrive in a paradigm in which theatrical exhibition of movies is a thing of the past. They will expand their empire by utilizing, as they have, all of the content-delivery platforms at their disposal (be it theatrical distribution, network television, streaming services), and I suspect they’ll continue to innovate narratively, as well, by mixing “event” stories (like Civil War) with genre experimentation (the way The Winter Soldier is a seventies-style espionage triller and Guardians of the Galaxy a swashbuckling space opera) and cross-pollinated, serialized television (the Defenders franchise on Netflix). That’s how Marvel became such an “out-of-nowhere” media juggernaut: by having the vision to see the culture was shifting and the wherewithal to get in front of the marketplace — with impressive success. Marvel, I imagine, is going to prosper (financially and creatively) for years and years to come; it’s all the other studios, still wed to an outdated way of telling stories and producing movies, that will be playing a desperate game of catch-up…

  6. I think Hollywood’s lack of originality is starting to trouble me. Everything you have written about in this terrific piece is what I have been thinking for several years now, Sean. Why do we need all these super hero movies? Perhaps because ordinary people doing extraordinary feats just aren’t that interesting anymore. We live in a culture where everything has to be enhanced or made better. Do we really need a Blair Witch reboot? Wasn’t the first one over marketed enough? I am beginning to think (like you mentioned) that the small screen is paving the way for thought provoking entertainment. Thanks for the food for thought!

    • Thank you, Susan! I’m glad you found the piece so worthwhile!

      As creatively bankrupt as Hollywood is, they’re only, to be fair, responding to the public’s insatiable demand for nostalgia. As I mentioned in my response to Diana’s comment, we long for the simplicity of the bygone analog world — the one that moved in a predictably straight line (with beginnings, middles, and ends) before our always-on telecommunications technologies turned us all into 9-1-1 operators fielding a never-ending incoming stream of “urgent” texts/phone calls/e-mails/status updates from every direction (per Douglas Rushkoff). Ping! There’s the phone again. Let me see what it — Ping! Ping!Ping!Ping!Ping!Ping!

      We’re stressed out from all that, and, if that wasn’t enough, we live in a perpetual state of anxiety since 9/11, so we’ve understandably retreated into Star Wars and Ghostbusters and Star Trek — and all the comforting fantasies of our analog-era youth. This is something I wrote about at length this past May.

      Superheroes are part of that fantasy, too, but they fill a specialized need. Here, in the Digital Age, we no longer feel we have control over the world around us. Worse that that, we feel existentially imperiled: Terrorism and climate change threaten death and destabilization on a global scale; digital technologies keep us more socially engaged than ever with endless tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram pictures, yet we’re losing the intimacy of actual human contact with one another as we conduct the majority of our interactions from behind a computer screen. And we don’t know what to do about any of that. Superheroes, therefore, are the ultimate expression of our yearning to take control of the technological, environmental, and geopolitical maelstrom in which we find ourselves ensnared. Acknowledging that, though, I suggest we all take a closer look at our favorite wish-fulfillment fantasies, examine what wishes they fulfill, and then see if we can’t do that on our own without them — and then we’ll no longer need to venerate children’s characters just to feel vicarious empowerment anymore. (For more on my thoughts about superhero culture, see this post.)

      All that said, the current state of the movie business is owed to a confluence of complex economic and sociocultural circumstances that I’ve spent the last several months studying and discussing here on the blog. If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d have said there was very little hope for change in the offing, but after this summer’s string of critical and box-office disappointments, I wonder if perhaps a shift — and even an evolutionary leap — is on the way. Time will tell. Keep supporting the movies/programs you like, and the culture will ultimately take control of the marketplace…

      Sean

  7. An excellent article that’s just as thought-provoking as everything else on your website. One point that stuck with me was this:

    “finality is nonetheless hardwired into our very apprehension of reality”

    I believe this is the reason why the self-contained begining-middle-end Aristolian narrative will always be appreciated and to a large extent experience a resourgance in response to presentist stories.

    Also, a perfect example of the current transition into presentist narratives is JK Rowling’s Harry Potter ‘world.’ The original seven novels (which comprise what is possibly my favourite series of all time) were remarkably self-contained narratives (both in each book and in the series as a whole). The hugely satisfying resolution at the end of book seven illustrates what I think is the superiority of the Aristolian model.

    Unfortunately, Warner Brothers and the Powers that Be have turned ‘JK Rowling’s Wizarding World’ into a franchise. Despite the series being an example of a wonderfully self-contained story, this ‘World’ is being prised open, the ends are being torn off and fans are being FLOODED with content (5 Fantastic Beasts movies, new information on Pottermore every week, new eBooks, the Cursed Child play). Similar to with Hollywood, I think that fans’ insatiable appetite for new content is partly to blame for this, but I for one hope Rowling realises that this flood of new ‘cannonical’ information isn’t the way to go.

    • Wow, thank you, Jed, for the very kind words and thoughtful response.

      We’re at a point in our history right now where we long for finality — for resolution — in a world that no longer provides it, one where, per Rushkoff, “without cause and effect, without origins and goals, you start to go, ‘When is this going to end? When is there going to be peace? When am I going to get to just unplug and relax?'” That anxiety is reflected in our presentist fictions, particularly the apocalyptic stuff, like The Walking Dead, and we have to recognize that that is resonating in ways the hero’s journey simply isn’t anymore. But, on the subject of the languishing Aristotelian narrative, Rushkoff has this to say:

      “There’s still room for traditional stories. It’s just that we have to almost consciously reintegrate those stories and understand that they’re just one way of seeing the world. Right now, there aren’t really any of them because we’ve woken up from 2,000 years of it. We were fools. We don’t want to be fooled again in that way, so when the narrative gets broken, whether it’s by 9/11, or the Internet, or the collapse of the economy, we look back and say, ‘Those great narratives of the 20th century, most of them were lies.’ Yeah, Martin Luther King Jr. was cool and I guess Gandhi was cool, but most of these things, like Nazism and communism and capitalism, and all of the ‘isms,’ were all really manipulative stories. Advertisers abused the stories so much that we don’t want to surrender our trust to anyone. We don’t trust the storytellers anymore, except in very few circumstances. Even our movies are all about time travel and moving backward because we don’t want to just go down that single path. But I do think that as we get a little bit more comfortable, or maybe as we get uncomfortable in a purely digital world, we will start to ache again for these more prescriptive narratives and, hopefully, turn to trustworthy storytellers to do it.”

      I agree with you: Harry Potter is a classically structured hero’s journey — a Superhero story, by Save the Cat! metrics — that is now, like Star Wars, being retroactively expanded to encompass a much larger fictional universe than the one we initially got a glimpse of. Part of that is certainly owed to corporate avarice (although, hey — at least Harry Potter is an original franchise from the turn of the millennium, as opposed to all of the above), but part is a reflection of how we consume stories now in a “postnarrative” world in which the hero’s journey doesn’t resonate the way it once did:

      “When we do [consume fiction], much of it is this ongoing odyssey format, like Game of Thrones, or a fantasy role-playing video game. You’re no longer watching the protagonist: Now you are the protagonist, making a series of choices in a story that gets more open rather than more closed as it goes along. There is no ending.” (ibid.)

      So, when you consider the ongoing initiatives to expand the Harry Potter franchise — particularly the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions — there is an attempt being made to make the particular world of that fiction more, shall we say, experiential, because that’s how audiences want to consume their fiction these days; they want a world-building experience, one in which they can play an active, even effectual, role. Because, as I noted above, Rushkoff observes that conventional narrativity has been “replaced by something more like putting together a puzzle by making connections and recognizing patterns.”

      Even the recent HBO hit Westworld betrays this intention: The “world” presented in that series is a literal operating system “whose codes and intentions are unknown to the people living inside them” (the hosts, anyway). We’re not following any one plotline, but a series of intercutting narratives (as they are called in the series itself) in which the vast ensemble of characters tries to either figure out or take advantage of the “rules” of their environment. It’s all something to be puzzled out. (And the show’s website even invites the viewer to participate, because, as Rushkoff says, you are the protagonist these days.)

      Because, ultimately, we are a culture that can no longer get a grasp on “the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” per Watchmen scribe Alan Moore, and, as such, we have turned our attention to stories that either provide a back-to-basics fantasy (like The Walking Dead), or ones that offer an immersive exercise in world-building, like Game of Thrones and Warcraft — and now, yes, Harry Potter, too. Is this an ill-advised move on Rowling’s part? Hard to say. If what she’s doing resonates with audiences worldwide, as it seems to be, then perhaps we ought to ask ourselves what we get out of sifting through the minutia of every corner of the “Wizarding World” she’s created. Alan Moore suggests that the adult fans of superheroes have given up on understanding the world around them, and “have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics.” I’ve argued in favor of that position. So, for me, as much as I hold these corporations (and the Gen X filmmakers only too happy to accommodate their nostalgic agenda) responsible for retarding the culture by rehashing the same old stories, I think we should examine the kind of media they’re producing — the stuff we’re consuming — and ask ourselves what it says about us. Because if we’re going to insist on funneling all our interest and attention into the fictive worlds of Harry Potter and Star Wars and Marvel, what in the meantime is going to become of our actual world, so desperate for and deserving of the same meticulous, fanatical consideration?

      So grateful, Jed, you took the time to stop by and join the conversation. Please come back again!

      Sean

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