The “New York Times’” writing on film trends is idiosyncratic. While the lead film critics often spend more and bigger words than are necessary to make their points, as in intellectual self-congratulation, it’s rarely easy to slight their insights, even though reporting is rarely involved. On December 26th, their Brooks Barnes wrote about “Hollywood Moving Away from Middle-brow” movies, and having opted to improve its bottom-line and culture in the process. He thinks it’ll focus on new, original voices.
The problem is that he relies on 2010′s box office numbers and infers that the implied strategic trend will be stable. That’s a lot of faith to invest in a brief dip in box office profits for a small portion of titles. It’s premature.
Now those cinephiles, who routinely avoid the middle-of-the-road movies, have yearned and awaited a return to this “trend.” If he’s correct, that’ll be splendid. Some people are frustrated by those movies that merely serve viewers who want to “relax, laugh, and empty their minds” as a French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, recently described to the “Wall Street Journal” the European and in-turn the masses’ interests in different though related questions.
After the recent flopping of high-concept films and the triumphs of higher quality ones, he wrote, “As a result, studios are finally and fully conceding that moviegoers, armed with Facebook and other networking tools and concerned about escalating ticket prices, are holding them to higher standards. The product has to be good,” Barnes said. And as morose as it is, this urgent sensibility too will pass. It’s a recurring attitude and posture that defies the masses’ desires.
This is merely one of several opinions of which he is certain, but with weak and meager evidence. This is disappointing. Commenting on this presumed about face in film tastes, according to Mr. Barnes’ reporting, ‘“We think the future is about filmmakers with original voices,”’ said Amy Pascal, Sony’s co-chairwoman. ‘“Original is good, and good is commercial.”’ That doesn’t even make sense. That circular reasoning flops like people used to say “Ishtar” did 20 years-ago.
According to Mr. Barnes, 2010′s box office is projected to fall less than 1% to $10.5 billion. While that sum is enormous, reflecting nothing of the lives of anyone we know, proportionally, it doesn’t even amount tip money. According to imdb, at least 70 percent of those top 30 titles from 2007 through 2010 were studio-made star vehicles with the “quality” ones, which emphasized story over pyrotechnics, amounting to maybe five or six out of that 30. While a “quality” film experience, as with beauty or even intelligence, is in the eye of the beholder, here’s a go at critiquing the meat or soul of Barnes’ argument.
In 2007, according to imdb, those “quality” films were “Ratatouille,” “Juno,” “American Gangster.” In 2008, those were “The Dark Knight,” “Quantum of Solace,” “Wall-E,” “Gran Torino,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” At best those amount to 20% of that year’s 30 best titles. From 2009, “Public Enemies,” “Inglorious Basterds,” and possibly “Avatar,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” That bodes no 2011 indie film boon, or at least neither a compulsion nor an impulsion toward it. From 2010, you might concede that a few more from the top 30 emphasized “quality” than in prior years, with “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The Town,” “True Grit” and “The King’s Speech.” That’s the film-goer’s call. Does this slightly taller list of substantial films show a trend, a reliable, strategic increase?!
Maybe that fact skipped Mr. Barnes’ mind as he considered the crevasse between insipid middle American appetites and the discriminating ones which typify indie film-lovers? According to the Motion Picture Association of America in 2005, that audience accounts for about 15 percent. Middle-of-the-road movies account for more than (this ain’t scientific) 3/4′s of the titles put out in wide release (2,000-plus screens). He gives meager compelling or reliable reasons for us to buy his argument. The main problem, and the mass cultural reality is that, just as money rules the world, or most of ours, Hollywood is itself a beacon of that.
Hollywood veered toward the new, original voices two generations ago, when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were striving and toiling to establish themselves, around the time of 1973′s “American Graffiti.” Theirs was the film school generation of 20th-Century film lore; Hollywood played with them, Martin Scorsese and several others, and kept those who made and kept making money. But there after, they discovered and clutched the blockbuster.
The phenomenon was described pithily in a more than 10-year-old episode of “Law & Order,” that took place in Los Angeles. The line is “we don’t make anything we haven’t seen before.” It’s terrible and repulsive if you presumably want to be engaged in a cinema or film experience and not to just check-out as the French philosopher acknowledged before. The meager if also middle-class sliver of society that subscribes to public radio is probably part of, if not the heart, the indie crowd.
Bottom-line is that his argument is silly without stronger reporting, compelling data and quotes that speak specifically to the situation. Mr. Barnes’ essay is disappointing and lazy. It matches the French verb “essayer’s” definition, which is “to try.”