Not that long ago, many Americans considered going to the movies to be a weekly pastime; it was an activity as commonplace as watching their favorite team. However, in the increasing rush to “event films,” superhero movies or otherwise, the number of pictures being released in any given year is down while the reliance on premium priced tentpole blockbusters—surcharging customers via 3D, IMAX, RPX, 4DX, or any other variety of add-ons—only grows. This change is why there is so much hand-wringing in the industry despite 2017 being the third best year ever for the North American box office, one in which ticket sales crossed $11.1 billion. While that sounds like a lot of money, the past 12 months also might have seen the lowest attendance in moviegoing in 22 years.
All of this is to say that Jodie Foster might have a point about superhero movies, or at the very least mega-budgeted blockbusters, ruining cinema in America. Indeed, the two-time Academy Award winner has been in the industry since childhood, growing up on the small and big screen before becoming one of the preeminent actors of her generation, as well as a producer and director. She’s even giving a try at helming science fiction, as she is making the rounds to promote her guest spot as director on Black Mirror Season 4’s “Arkhangel” episode. And it was during an interview with Radio Times’ magazine edition that she spoke very candidly about what she sees as the decay of moviegoing habits thanks in large part to superhero movies.
“Going to the movie has become a theme park,” Foster lamented during the interview. “Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking—you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth…. It’s ruining viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world.”
That’s certainly a loaded condemnation of what is currently the healthiest and most thriving genre in Hollywood. However, there is a clear logic to what she has to say of the current Hollywood model. As documented by The Hollywood Reporter, just 10 years ago in 2007, the six major Hollywood studios produced 150 movies a year. A mere decade later, 2017 saw the meager release of only 93 movies. This reduction in filmmaking has shrunk and consolidated resources amongst the biggest distributors of cinema in the world, reducing the number of opportunities for creative talent while increasing the expense and excess of a handful of annual blockbusters. This has occurred in large part because the studios need to minimize risk for shareholders, which has meant chasing what appears to be the safest guarantee of big returns. And while superheroes are currently the most popular visage of that, what we are really discussing is an obsession with intellectual property. Brand names.
Admittedly, it could be argued studios have merely responded to how moviegoers vote with their pocketbooks, and increasingly in a media landscape where Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu offer on demand alternatives at home, audiences have seemed to be voting for branded familiarity. But rather than using the desire for IPs to broaden audience interest in a variety of storytelling opportunities—like, say, an adult modern Western that just happens to star Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine—there has mostly been a rush to build expensive moneymaking “events” that will cause potential viewers to get off the couch and go to a theater by the millions. As THR’s state of the industry prognosis grimly noted, “Companies now must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and market the sort of event film that will persuade customers to hit the pause button on Netflix and other streaming services to visit an actual cinema.”
And the result has indeed been bigger box office openings—even if they’re artificially inflated by skyrocketing ticket prices—and a series of movies that are drowning in nostalgia. Consider that the 12 biggest hits of 2017 at the domestic box office included five superhero movies, four of which were sequels or reboots, four non-comic book related sequels, and two remakes. Not one original film amongst them (Dunkirk is currently at thirteenth).
While this might be simply studios giving audiences what they want, it also does seem to reflect a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even 10 years ago when superhero movies were just one aspect of the blockbuster landscape, some of the six majors had speciality divisions meant to make films for adults, some of which took off into the mainstream, like Paramount Vantage’s contribution to No Country for Old Men or Warner Bros. Independent’s Slumdog Millionaire. Both of those movies won Best Picture, yet both speciality labels are now defunct and abandoned. After each’s demise, their studios redoubled efforts to develop more “event” blockbusters like Transformers at Paramount and what became the DCEU at WB.
This consolidation of resources is likely only going to increase if the Disney-Fox deal is any kind of sign. Unlike the current state of Paramount and Sony, 20th Century Fox is in healthy shape, partially thanks to superhero movies like Deadpool and Logan. They also still have the Fox Searchlight division that produced the highly regarded The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri last year. But if and when Fox is absorbed into Disney, the role of Fox Searchlight in a media empire that has long ago diminished its Touchstone Pictures label in order to further invest in the acquisition and production of tentpole IPs, such as Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars, is a mystery.
This is not to say that all, or really any, of the Marvel or Disney produced Star Wars movies are bad. Quite the contrary in most cases. However, this goes back to Foster’s point: When so much of the industry is driven by the need to convince moviegoers they must see these event films, they further diminish the importance of moviegoing as an activity unto itself. If they must see The Last Jedi and Thor: Ragnarok, especially at the ever higher ticket prices that are raised to combat lower attendance, then why should they pay that steep fee for a smaller independent effort that will probably just be on Netflix in a few months?
By emphasizing to moviegoers they must see the theme park attractions on opening weekend, as if it were a holiday, everything else risks becoming irrelevant, and thus further cripples any incentive to take actual risks. In a completely rhetorical exercise, how often have you or someone you know said, “That isn’t a movie that I have to see in theaters?” If spectacle becomes the only thing moviegoers feel compelled to see in theaters, the doom of the studios’ industry is baked into the very cake they’re making.