Have you ever stood in front of a cinema complex, slack-jawed as you read the titles of the latest movies and the dreams and fantasies they promise, and thought to yourself, “I’d rather sniff nails than pay to watch any of these?” You are not alone. Have you ever wondered why old-time film critics, although sometimes pedantic, seemed knowledgeable and scholarly while the current critics, young YouTubers, and assorted criticasters seem kinda brain-damaged? It’s not a delusion, and you are really on to something.
You are not hallucinating, you are not an elitist, you are not closed-minded, you are not wrong: the film culture (and mass culture in general) of the last two decades has been utter shit. Look back at the things you really enjoy, those that people still watch, play, or listen even after so many years, and you will realize that many of them are pre-2000. No, you are not wearing rose-tinted glasses.
Since there’s a lot to rant about this, I will focus on a single hypothesis: since the late 90s, there has been a divorce between quality and popularity. I’m sure you could go further back in time, but at that point is where it becomes evident. Before the mid-90s, you could go see the top box-office success of the year, and there was a high chance that you would see a competent or even a great movie. Even if the movie was boring or not your style, at least the movie would be a proper movie.
These are the unadjusted gross domestic (USA) totals for the 50s according to filmsite.org:
1950: Cinderella (1950)
1951: Quo Vadis (1951)
1952: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
1953: Peter Pan (1953)
1954: Rear Window (1954)
1955: Lady and the Tramp (1955)
1956: The Ten Commandments (1956)
1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
1958: South Pacific (1958)
1959: Ben-Hur (1959)
For the 60s
1960: Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
1961: 101 Dalmatians (1961)
1962: How the West Was Won (1962)
1963: Cleopatra (1963)
1964: Mary Poppins (1964)
1965: The Sound of Music (1965)
1966: The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) and Hawaii (1966)(virtual tie)
1967: The Jungle Book (1967)
1968: Funny Girl (1968)
1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
1970: Love Story (1970)
1971: Billy Jack (1971)
1972: The Godfather (1972)
1973: The Exorcist (1973)
1974: Blazing Saddles (1974)
1975: Jaws (1975)
1976: Rocky (1976)
1977: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
1978: Grease (1978)
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
1983: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
1984: Ghostbusters (1984)
1985: Back to the Future (1985)
1986: Top Gun (1986)
1987: Three Men and a Baby (1987)
1988: Rain Man (1988)
1989: Batman (1989)
and 90s, when the modern blockbuster was born and so you can see the start of the DECLINE with Independence Day and Star Wars Ep 1.
1990: Home Alone (1990)
1991: Beauty and the Beast (1991)
1992: Aladdin (1992)
1993: Jurassic Park (1993)
1994: The Lion King (1994)
1995: Toy Story (1995)
1996: Independence Day (1996)
1997: Titanic (1997)
1998: Saving Private Ryan (1998)
1999: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
By the way, the underlined ones are the movies filmsite.org considers among the 100 best films ever made.
Do you notice something? Quality and financial success correlated quite well before the 90s. Now, I’m not saying all those movies were excellent, and some decades were a bit meh (the 60s) while others (the 70s and 80s) were excellent, but the correlation is there. Even if you don’t like something like Mary Poppins or Ben-Hur, I doubt you’d say they are SHIT movies. On the other hand, watch and despair as the new millennium dawns.
At first, it seems… OK-ish if you are into nerd stuff:
2000: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
2001: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
2002: Spider-Man (2002)
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
2004: Shrek 2 (2004)
2005: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
2007: Spider-Man 3 (2007)
2008: The Dark Knight (2008)
2009: Avatar (2009)
2010: Toy Story 3 (2010)
2011: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)
2012: Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
2013: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
2014: American Sniper (2014)
2015: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
2016: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
2017: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
The first thing that stands out is, of course, that now there are a lot of numbers. Before Star Wars, there had not been a single movie with a 2, 3 or… VII. The second sign of decline is that almost none are original stories. They are all derivative of something (nerd culture) which itself is derivative of other stuff (classic adventure and popular culture) which is a derivate of high culture (e.g. classic mythology > Classic Fantasy genre > SHIT)
You could argue that, ey, superheroes isn’t that bad a genre (you’d be wrong, though) but you have to admit that going from
1972: The Godfather (1972)
1973: The Exorcist (1973)
2012: Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
2013: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
is indicative of something… and that something isn’t good.
I’m not going to embark on one of those predictable commentaries about the low quality of the bestseller, or (they usually go hand in hand) the low taste of the American public. Oh, the taste is low indeed, but this time it’s not really all your fault. In fact, I’m going to say something you may not have ever read: Americans have/had pretty good taste and until recently they were almost a cultural elite in terms of production.
This is the all-time domestic (American) TOP 10, adjusted for inflation:
- Gone With the Wind (1939)
- Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
- The Sound of Music (1965)
- E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
- Titanic (1997)
- The Ten Commandments (1956)
- Jaws (1975)
- Doctor Zhivago (1965)
- The Exorcist (1973)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
It may not be everyone’s ideal film library, but it’s good. Also, it’s old, with only Titanic being somewhat modern. This, on the other hand, is the all-time GLOBAL TOP 10:
- Avatar (2009)
- Titanic (1997)
- Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
- Jurassic World (2015)
- Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
- Furious 7 (2015)
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)
- Frozen (2013)
- Beauty and the Beast (2017)
None of this can be considered a worthy cultural product and almost all are painfully recent. The most they can aspire to is to be mildly entertainment and then be forgotten in a year (like Avatar.) And I’m not sure about the entertainment bit.
That list is what all the Big companies are aiming for. That’s their model of the movies they have to make. Mix them all up together, and the abomination that will arise will be a good template for the contemporary and future blockbuster.
I don’t think I need to explain this in detail because it’s self-evident, but here it goes: the global film market and the modern blockbuster produce shit. This is a more detailed breakdown, via boxofficemojo:
|3||Star Wars TFA||BV||$2,068.2||$936.7||45.3%||$1,131.6||54.7%|
|8||Harry Potted and the Deadthly… part 2||WB||$1,341.5||$381.0
|10||Beauty and the Beast (2017)||BV||$1,263.5||$504.0||39.9%||$759.5
As you can see, the majority of the money comes from “Overseas,” Star Wars being close to 50/50… but they are trying to correct that.
If you have seen the latest blockbusters and you have felt the nagging impressions that this movie was not made for you, you are right, you are probably not the audience — it’s just that nobody bothered to announce this fact.
I have read many people from the conservative side wonder why would anyone ignore “half the audience.” It seems an irrational decision, and indeed it is sometimes, but as the numbers above say… you are NOT half the audience. In fact, depending on how restrictive your definition of “conservative” is, the smaller they become in terms of their global influence and market share. And since there are few or none conservative critics dealing with popular culture, and there’s basically no penalty in mocking them, there’s still less of an incentive to cater to them. And don’t forget that most of Holywood is very liberal, which means they actively despise that audience anyway.
This has important consequences for the cultural aspect of this form of global entertainment — for we have global entertainment, but not global culture. Nobody will be inspired or uplifted by these recent movies.
Studios churn out simplistic entertainment for the average movie-goer from XXI century, someone so abused by the trash they have seen during the last decade that they don’t care anymore and can’t tell the difference between a diamond and a turd. Besides, you can’t really make a long-lasting cultural product when you are trying to appeal to an indefinite and potentially imaginary “global” audience. Different cultures still have different aspirations and ideals, different visions of what a man or a woman should be, about what “heroism” (if anything) means, about the future, the State, the role of religion, etc. You can’t average all that unless you downgrade it into, well, a snore-fest like the superhero movies. Note the number of movies that rely on flashy magic and superpowers.
My point is: you have been replaced. If we assume a 25-year-old man as the ideal target, that man or woman is someone who started going to the cinema to watch movies when he was 7 or so. This means his first blockbuster was something like Star Wars EP1 or the first Harry Potter. Meanwhile, someone born in 1970 may have seen Jaws, Rocky, or Star Wars: ANH. The difference in cultural expectations and taste are naturally striking. And then you have the “critics” in the media who are also young and whose range of cultural references is equally small. When they write articles about what Harry Potter has to say about the Trump “regime,” they are not trolling you (well, the editor probably is) — they really are that dumb and ignorant.
And what is that audience they all try to please? For global blockbusters, it’s a non-American audience (although one that recognizes its pop culture references,) young, urbane, “millennial” (at least in the West,) slightly Asian, and very, very female.
The biggest emerging market is not China, India, or places like that — it’s women. Or, at least, that’s what Big Business, Wall Street, and The City believe. Not only do women control their own budget now, they usually control/approve their boyfriend and husband’s spending, and they are the biggest… everything, really: they are the biggest (liberal) voting block, they hold the majority of academic degrees, they dominate social sciences/communication/journalism, etc, they basically control global consumption, single women earn more money than their male counterparts, and female critics (i.e. feminists) wield career-destroying powers while their male counterparts account for jack shit.
“and executives are realizing that women are the greatest untapped and abundant natural resources left on the planet.”
Naturally, expect a much more “feminized” culture as everybody, from car designers to big banks, tries (futilely or not) to tap into that… natural resource. It’s a rush, really, like the gold rush but for women’s purses. And close to a billion women from the developing world will enter the formal economy in the next decades. We are talking about TRILLIONS in financial transactions, health insurances, education, technology, and consumption (which includes entertainment, and this new generation of eager-consumers with vast disposable income and free time has little to no knowledge of the previous entertainment they usually decry as “problematic.”)
Concerning mass culture and entertainment, a domain that America dominates and then exports, it may or may not be a misguided rush, a bubble even, but watching the behavior of many businesses, it’s obvious they believe it’s the Next Big Thing. They also have decided that the old fans (traditionally male or boyish) are not really worth the effort anymore and they are more trouble than it’s worth. Besides, they are experienced (which means they can’t be pleased easily) but also old, so they are not going to keep buying trash forever, aren’t they? These old farts are also oddly anti-consumerists since many already bought all they need, and they have a tendency to share stuff, build fandom communities that look back at the past and talk a lot but buy little, and they complain a lot about enlightened practices like DLCs, preorders, and the corporate armies of churnalist, shills, and commentators.
In other words, if you don’t like your consumers… make new ones.
I will make some predictions now. This is what I believe will happen to this global mass entertainment in the next years:
1.The big blockbusters and AAA games will become increasingly Frankensteinian in an attempt to appeal to people from widely different culture and worldviews. It may not work, and it’s possible that emerging nations will start making their own national entertainment (e.g. a Chinese Star Wars,) bypassing Western companies (which may be accused of engaging in propaganda or something like that.) In any event, until that happens, the movies will keep looking as if an AI doing behavioral analysis designed them, something that in a few years may become true.
2.The disparity between quality and popularity will grow larger. Most movies are already forgotten one or two years after they are released (e.g. Avatar,) and this tendency will not stop. They’ll have no long-lasting cultural impact and, therefore, no successors. They are/will be sterile, like the culture that spawned them.
3.Movies and their surrounding subcultures will become more endogamic and cannibalistic, indulging in derivations of a derivation of a derivation of a… etc. Sequels, soft-reboots, remakes, movies based on books about video games based on movies, and so on will continue dominating the market. This well will be milked dry until it stops being profitable. With any luck, someone with enough intelligence will still remain then, and he will start buying IPs from indy and smaller authors in an attempt to revitalize the market.
4.Big companies will engage (directly or indirectly, and even more so than now) in “cultural wars,” using shills, commentators, bots, review manipulations, and bribes to game popularity algorithms, squash the competition, and to shield themselves from what will become increasingly noticeable: that what they produce is garbage.
5.Mass culture will become more feminized. I don’t know how women will react, though. Many (the young ones) may embrace the constant adulation, but some will react with disgust and realize they liked those “masculine” movies of old more. There’s also a mismatch here because the female critics the producers are trying to please, sometimes out of fear (i.e., feminist,) are not a good representation of the average woman.
5a.We may even see cultural products that will be marketed as specifically “male” or “female”. Some companies will try to juggle it all at the same time, with one of their studios making more traditional movies and another for all their SocJus needs. This will create the bizarre situation of, for example, a journalist working in a newspaper owned by Disney, adulating a (crappy) Disney movie while making fun of the fans that don’t like it, without realizing that what these other fans enjoy may have been created by a smaller studio also owned by Disney.
6. I see no cultural renaissance in the short or medium term, at least not in the mass market. Quality shall be found in smaller markets and specific niches, and it may take years (if ever) for it to be noticed by the general public. In fact, I expect to see public intellectuals (especially of a conservative bent) panning mass entertainment as basically “degenerate,” like pornography, or even as a perverse, emasculating “globalist” influence. Some may use this as an opportunity to call for a return to a more traditional model of masculinity for young boys, like in the XIX, where reading “novels” and engaging in such consumerist pastimes was considered a women’s thing anyway. I doubt it will be successful, though, but unlike other attacks on mass culture, this may actually come from below, from ex-fans.
7. Nerd culture is dead. It was born from a confluence between D&D, the Fantasy boom from the 70s, science-fiction, and then video games and the strange success of the superhero movies, but now has become a soulless, self-referential corporate husk. In fact, I can predict the day it will officially die: March 29, 2018. That’s when Ready Player One will be released, and that day many old-timers will give up on this subculture and won’t look back.
The good news, though, is that perhaps this will accelerate the demise of the current “nerd” craze and we can return to being despised weirdos and the film industry to make real movies again. At the same time, if the crash is hard, the Commentariat may start losing their valor and realize that this cultural domain is simply too embarrassing and undignified and will leave to find greener pastures to problematize (not that there are many left, though.) Perhaps not even the best shills will be able to find the necessary strength to write articles about how the backlash against RPO is a sign of white supremacy, gamers’ entitlement, or whatever clickbait garbage is on the rage now.
A man can dream.