Let’s start with a list.
Here are the movies currently playing at my local independent movie theater: Blue Jasmine, Before Midnight, The Attack, Fruitvale Station, and The Way, Way Back. Earlier this summer, it screened The Bling Ring, Frances Ha, and Much Ado About Nothing. Tastes may vary, but I saw most of those, and they were great. These are the kind of exciting, original films that grumpy critics like to complain Hollywood isn’t interested in these days. Well, it is, but you have to know where to look. It’s a trend that began last year, when movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister, Robot + Frank, and Take This Waltz were released in the summer months.
How did this happen? How did summer, supposedly the season of mindless popcorn movies, become a venue for our most brave, original filmmaking?
One thing is clear: these films are filling some kind of void left by the artistic failures of the studio system. A million thinkpieces on this subject can’t be wrong: budgets are getting bigger and the foreign market is getting larger. As a result, studio executives are afraid to take a chance on original voices, and movies are getting more formulaic. Sequels and movies with “pre-awareness” rule the day. To be fair, this strategy really worked for a while: in 2011, 9 out of the 10 highest grossing movies were sequels, and you had to go all the way down to #14 to find an original property (Bridesmaids).
Still, it’s not like the small, arthouse movies listed above are earning that kind of cash. They make back their budgets in their theatrical runs (and if they get nominated for an Oscar, they make a whole lot more), but we can’t argue that movies like Fruitvale Station and Blue Jasmine are pulling in audiences who would normally go see The Lone Ranger because the numbers just don’t bear that out. In other words, the gap between what those movies were supposed to earn and their actual ticket sales can’t be made up with the combined grosses of the film’s listed above.
Ultimately, I’m not sure audiences are so disillusioned with blockbuster movies, but I think the talent is. Small, independent films are where successful actors and directors go to cleanse their artistic palate after spending some time in the studio system. Consider these examples from 2013:
- Joss Whedon couldn’t handle doing two Avengers films back-to-back, so he got his friends together for a week and made Much Ado About Nothing, bringing his talent for working with ensemble casts to a strikingly original adaptation of the classic Shakespeare comedy.
- Cate Blanchett basically dropped out of Hollywood to do theater in Australia, but she was lured back by Woody Allen and gave the performance of the year in Blue Jasmine.
- Ethan Hawke has starred in lots of successful studio movies , but he keeps coming back to the Before series, where he has far more creative control.
- Sam Rockwell has shown flashes of studio stardom in Charlie’s Angels and Iron Man 2, but he consistently finds time to work in independent films like The Way, Way Back.
- Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring) and Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha) have basically avoided the studio system altogether.
While each of these films has been lauded by critics and audiences alike, the big studios have had one flop after another this year. Beyond the most prominent catastrophes like After Earth and Ranger, there are many others that only slightly underperformed, like Pacific Rim, Oblivion, and Pain and Gain. This litany of failures have left many in the industry searching for answers, and some have wondered if it will lead to a shift in priorities.
Maybe this will happen, but I won’t expect Hollywood’s sequel-itis to disappear anytime soon. After all, Sony has got Spider-Man movies lined up until at least 2018, and Marvel is already planning for 2021. Even if industry starts investing more heavily in original properties with mid-range budgets ($30-$50 million), it will probably be a few years until those movies come to fruition. If and when that happens, I certainly won’t be complaining.
But the thing is – I’m not complaining now. Despite the disappointment I’ve encountered at the multiplex this year, I’ve barely had time to see all the independent movies I wanted to see this summer. It’s been a great year for filmmaking so far, and we haven’t even gotten to the fall when prestige pictures from Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuaron, Paul Greengrass, Alexander Payne, Spike Lee, George Clooney, David O. Russell, and the Coen Brothers will be released.
There is this question that keeps running through my mind this summer. It runs counter to conventional wisdom on the subject, and it might be too early to ask, but I’m going to put it out there anyway: could 2013 end up being one of the great years for movies? And if so, is it possible that Hollywood is working just fine?