I didn’t want to get into the ” Marvel movies are taking over the multiplex” argument that Martin Scorsese has reignited while promoting The Irishman. He was right to take his 3.5-hour, $140 million mob drama to Netflix. There’s no way that movie as it exists would have broken even in our conventional theatrical system. That’s as true today as it was 30 years ago. Marvel/DC superhero movies are indeed dominating the box office, representing 25% of the current domestic marketplace. Audiences have always gravitated to the big-n-splashy event movies, like Star Wars in 1977, Stargate in 1994 or Thor in 2011. Superhero movies now represent, give or take Jurassic World or Mission: Impossible, the biggest of the blockbuster offerings.
Yes, Wonder Woman is better than King Arthur, Black Panther is better than Tomb Raider and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was better than Men in Black: International. What’s changed, whether the filmmakers and artists realize it or not, is that the audience that once showed up for everything beyond the tentpoles, the romantic comedies, the crime dramas, the action thrillers and the melodramas, have comparatively abandoned the multiplexes in favor of at-home/VOD/streaming options. It’s not that everyone wants to see Aladdin, but that the folks who once would have seen Booksmart instead of Aladdin or as well as Aladdin now either ignore Booksmart in favor of a Netflix show or wait to catch Booksmart on VOD or streaming.
It’s frustrating to see a movie that we championed when it was in theaters, like (for example) Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor, do okay business ($97 million worldwide) only to be “discovered” only when it’s available for free on Hulu, Amazon and/or Netflix, with folks online wondering how loud why nobody told them how good it was. We did, you just didn’t want to leave the house and pay the $10 ticket price to see it in theaters. Yes, Hollywood spent too much time and money on globally friendly, four-quadrant fantasy franchise blockbusters to the detriment of everything else. Contrary to popular belief, Hollywood still puts out original, adult-skewing and/or high-concept movies into wide release every week.
If you don’t want to see Ad Astra, The Kitchen, Gemini Man or Brightburn in theaters, you don’t get to argue that Hollywood doesn’t make them anymore. You don’t get to ignore Fox’s entire 2018 slate ( The Hate U Give, Bad Times At The El Royale, Love Simon, etc.) save for the superhero sequel ( Deadpool 2) and the musical biopic ( Bohemian Rhapsody) and then complain that Disney isn’t letting Fox make Fox movies. Vote with your wallet. Yes, 20 years ago, you didn’t have YouTube, Netflix and social media as a cheaper, more convenient entertainment option. Movie ticket prices have increased along with inflation in a way that real wages and other forms of entertainment have not.
The video games that cost $60 in 1991 still costs $60 in 2019, while the average movie ticket (so says Box Office Mojo) went from $4.21 in 1991 to $9.01 in 2019. Gas is more expensive. Concessions are more expensive. Moreover, the given weekend’s theatrical output is no longer the only game in town or the biggest-n-splashiest offering when it comes to high quality (and/or buzzy) filmed entertainment. Once the at-home video game consoles caught up to most arcade games in the early 1990s, the arcades as a regular institution died a swift and brutal death. When the Super NES version of Street Fighter II looks and plays as well as the arcade version, well, that’s the endgame.
While Scorsese and those like him compare the modern MCU to theme park rides, the better comparison is the video game arcade. When TV, be it streaming or cable, can provide original filmed content that approximates the vast majority of what the major studios and indie boutiques offer in theaters, in 1080p video, surround sound from the comfort of home, that’s less of a reason to go to theaters. Audiences still go to theaters in about the same numbers they always have. But they are spending a much percentage of their money on a smaller pool of films, specifically the big-scale blockbuster offerings (usually superhero/fantasy films) which offer that which they can’t get at home.
Once the home consoles surpassed the conventional arcade content, consumers only went to arcades for nostalgia or immersive, can’t get this at home experiences, like driving games, shooting games or, in a cruel irony, arcade-sized versions of smartphone games. I still see something similar happening to movie theaters in the next decade. Disney+ is promising Star Wars and MCU content on par with the theatrical features, and the streaming wars are going to create a rush of high-budget, star-driven originals that will continue to further approximate (if not surpass) what is available in theaters. The very things that are currently “missed’ in theaters (the character-driven, adult-skewing, star-driven dramas and comedies) are the very things thriving on TV and streaming.
Couple that with a theatrical moviegoing audience no longer willing to follow movie star into the theater for an original and/or high concept, now craving familiar characters and familiar franchises above all else, and you have prestige filmmakers looking at the landscape and decrying all the superhero movies. The sub-genre, the comic book superhero movie, makes up maybe 7% of the annual wide release output while creating 85% of the media conversation. Theaters don’t care as much because a popcorn costs the same for Avengers: Endgame as it does for Blinded By the Light. Comic book superhero movies have also, over the last decade, approximated almost every genre.
We’ve seen westerns ( Logan), samurai melodramas ( The Wolverine), crime thrillers ( The Dark Knight), teen coming-of-age comedies ( Spider-Man: Homecoming), spy movies ( X-Men: First Class), political thrillers ( Captain America: Civil War), hard sci-fi ( Captain Marvel), outer-space swashbucklers ( Guardians of the Galaxy), undersea adventures ( Aquaman), kid-friendly horror movies ( Shazam!), animated epics ( Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse), body horror flicks ( Venom), heist flicks ( Ant-Man), sword-n-sandal actioners ( Thor: Ragnarok) and self-satirical comedies ( Deadpool).
And now, in the guise of Todd Phillips’ Joker, the kind of straight-up character study that wouldn’t have even been a hit in the 1970’s, is breaking records for an R-rated movie. Nobody is forcing moviegoers to only see Disney movies or only see MCU flicks. Audiences are still going to theaters and seeing a wealth of genre movies with big stars, strong production values, richly developed characters and a dash of real-world topicality. It’s just that they are getting most of their cinematic diet from the handful of major superhero flicks, along with a few animated features, high-concept horror films, live-action musicals and periodic breakouts like Hustlers. They are getting the rest from VOD, TV or streaming.
Hollywood still offers a couple wide release movies in most weeks, but audiences are voting with their wallet. This isn’t about Parasite or Pain & Glory not playing anywhere near you, as that’s not a new problem. It’s not Disney forcing audiences not to see the movies offered by Sony, Paramount or Lionsgate. It’s not Marvel brainwashing folks into only seeing superhero movies, nor is it movie theatrical flooded with a dozen MCU or DC Films flicks with no room for anything else. It’s all the result of a handful of concurrent events and factors which occurred over the last decade or so, much of it during a recession, which combined to create this grim “new normal.”
Hollywood spent a decade chasing the global successes of The Mummy, Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean. They spent five years after The Avengers trying to create cinematic universes. They tried to wean their consumers off physical media. Audiences went from being willing to see a movie in theaters and then buy the DVD for $15 to just waiting until they could rent that movie for $5 or wait until it was free via a subscription service. Concurrently, Netflix and cable flooded consumers with high-quality dramas and comedies with feature-film-worthy production values, adult appeal and the kind of onscreen and offscreen diversity that a “needs to appeal to the entire world” theatrical marketplace can’t touch.
HDTVs and surround systems became affordable and reliable, creating the ability to stream a theatrical release 90 after opening day in a high quality format with none of the risks of theatrical moviegoing. The real-world horrors of the last several years have rendered moviegoers unwilling to spend movie theater time/money for anything, save for horror flicks, that isn’t fantastical escapism. The current situation facing Hollywood is not the fault of Disney or Marvel. Disney releases fewer movies than any other major studio. The combined output for the Marvel and DC accounts for 5% of a given year’s wide releases. The problem remains not what Hollywood offers to moviegoers in multiplexes but rather what moviegoers choose to see in theaters.