The slow death of cinema

A rambling treatise on the sad state of modern entertainment, in an attempt to answer the question “Why are movies so shit these days?”.

Is TV garbage? I can barely pay attention to TV these days, and the last movie I saw in the cinema was such an abomination that I haven’t been back. Ever sit down after a long day looking for something to watch, and scroll through dozens of movies that all look the same? The actors seem like carbon copies of each other, the movies all share the same basic plot, and if we actually decide to turn it on, half-paying attention as we scroll through our phones, we are left with the same weirdly out-of-place action sequence that leads to a predictably unsatisfying denouement?  How did we get here?

First of all, the internet screwed us.

The global proliferation of high-speed internet was the catalyst that sent streaming services into hyper-growth. In the space of a couple of short years,  the catalogues of movie studios were available instantly, and DVDs and Blue-ray discs were solely the refuge for nerdy cinephiles. Between 2006 and 2019, the ownership of DVDs declined by 86%.

The obvious benefits to you and I as the end user is that you don’t need to go to a physical store to pick up the movie you want to watch – everything is available at the touch of a button, and you can easily search through thousands of movies to find something to watch. The disadvantages are more subtle, and take the form of second-order effects down inside the murky guts of the movie production pipeline.

As Matt Damon explained in a conversation as he casually munched on hot wings, the death of DVDs had the unintended consequence of also curbing the movie studios’ appetite for risk. The bulk of money made on a lot of movies pre-2007 was the DVD sales which happened 6 months after the movie had finished its run in the cinema. Your average movie fan might wander into a store, see the DVD version of a movie that they didn’t catch in the cinema and pick up a copy. Each DVD had egregious margins, and backfilled the studios’ massive up-front costs for production, marketing, and distribution.

Secondly, the studios screwed us. Or rather, we screwed ourselves.

Without these DVD sales, the studios’ window for risk was narrowed considerably – each movie had to recoup its cost at the cinema in a short few weeks, as streaming services weren’t going to pay anywhere near the money that would usually be collected from DVDs. If you’ve ever wondered why we’re seeing 37 sequels to “The Fast and the Furious”, or a movie about a minor Marvel superhero that you’ve never heard of – this is the basic reason. Movie studios want all blockbusters, all the time. The rare exception are auteurs in cinema such as Christopher Nolan and Taylor Sheridan or Shonda Rhimes in TV, who have such a unique vision and a rabid cult following that they’re essentially handed unlimited budgets and full artistic control to go and just create what they will. There are only so many of these unique creators to go around, and they can usually only work on one project at a time.

Imagine taking a neural network and populating its basic data pool with what makes a blockbuster movie. The most successful movies of the last 15 years all have been franchise pieces such as Star Wars, the Marvel Universe, and Batman. If you look at the list of the highest-grossing movies of the 2010s, they’re all part of a franchise, or are remakes or sequels. Feeding this data about what the people want into the machine, we get more of the same, repeated infinitely.

Next, culture screwed us.

So, now we have a machine that generates one basic type of movie. But it needed some tweaks – and that was happily provided by the loudest members of our society on both sides of the political spectrum. More diversity in terms of representation of actors of different gender and actors of color was long overdue. Next came gender identity and sexual preference, presumably a welcome change for a minority that hadn’t seen many of their contemporaries in movies. More movies centering around minority stories of various flavors were made, and won the appropriate accolades. Then it started to get a little weird.

Movies that selected actors to portray a character different to those that the source material described as being of a certain culture or race were faced with massive backlash, this vitriol often directly aimed at the actors themselves. It has to suck to be given your big break and have it pulled out of your hands because a director or screenwriter made a decision that the general public thought unforgivable.

At some point, this combination of societal pressure and the movie machine decided that a movie wasn’t complete without one or more of all of these categories being included. Representation matters, but suddenly every possible group was being shoe-horned into story lines where there is no relation to the underlying plot, where it’s incongruous with the time period, or where it just feel like a non-sequitur.  Is it even permissible to question this trend in modern society? Do the members of typically under-represented groups put on a movie and think “This seems a little out of place?”. In biopics, we are also faced with calls for actors to only be of the race, culture, or creed of the original person being depicted, despite the entire movie being made to lionize that original person.

Additionally, studios have bowed down to a fractional minority of society that cannot tolerate any sort of stress. We have gradually been delivered to a place where we can’t allow the audience to feel any sort of confusion during the movie, and any tension needs to be safely defused before it causes anyone discomfort. In a nutshell, studios have taken the two main strategies of an excellent screenplay and have blunted them to the point of uselessness. Enter the screenwriters.

Editors and Screenwriters screwed us.

Ok, we’re ready to make a movie. It’s a remake of a sequel and it has an underlying message that promotes several different types of marginalized groups, each represented by a suitable actor.  We’re missing one character though. We need someone to take care of all that tension in the plot. This character is typically (though not always) a male actor, and is normally portrayed as a useless clown. They’re a minor friend of the protagonist, or they work with them or some similarly very tangental relationship. They’re not particularly close to the protagonist due to the fact that this character is usually a complete loser. They’re disheveled in appearance, weak, unreliable, and scared of everything. They have one really important job thought – their purpose is exposition and tension breaking. Let’s call them “The Hand-holder”.

Does it look like the plan isn’t going to work? The Hand-holder will appear and make a wisecrack about it, dissipating the tension in the scene. Does it seem like there’s too much going going on? The Hand-holder will have a few lines where they sarcastically recap everything, usually as a whiny monologue. The whinier TheHand-holder is, the more courageous the hero looks. Every modern movie seems to have this character, or if you really want to make it easy for the audience, you might double down and also  cast a helpful actor such as Ryan Reynolds who have baked it right in to their entire repertoire. You can always rely on his character to make some sarcastic explanatory wisecrack to make sure the audience don’t have to think too long, usually right before he tries to sell you gin or mobile phone plans. The effect is that the audience is continually pulled out of the story, each scene is no longer a greater part of a whole but a series of almost unrelated skits that have been loosely knitted together.

Either the average audience member is now entirely accustomed to this style of cinema, or I’m being trolled in this reddit snippet:

Finally, advertising screwed us.

Ryan Holiday’s 2012 book on outrage marketing was the watershed moment for this increasingly aggressive form of marketing to become mainstream. I liken it to the US military’s “School of the Americas” which would send US contractors over to third world countries to describe to them in precise detail enhanced interrogation and torture methods, but with a wink in their eye that said “But none of you upstanding fellows would ever resort to tactics like that, would you?”.

Now, every movie is accompanied by some sort of “Controversy”. Is it a remake? Maybe we can find some problem that the original that we needed desperately to fix. Is there just not enough attention focused on the movie? Maybe we need to create some sort of fake drama between cast members? Every new movie that comes out seems to have some petty drama or outrage associated with it that seems important at the time, but in the light of a few years distance is recognised as just an inventive form of advertising.

Maybe this is all just the ranting of a cynic, but I look forward to our drift towards an entertainment landscape that mirrors Mike Judge’s classic “Idiocracy”.

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