2023 Has Been a Great Year for Movies (So Far!)
Plus: Greta Gerwig’s best movie, assigned!
It is always a mistake to draw broader inferences about audience tastes from a handful of films released over the two or three months you’ve most recently lived through. Recency bias is a hell of a drug, and we should all avoid its intoxicating pleasures.
And yet! I can’t help but feel as though we’re living through a very interesting moment in Hollywood filmmaking. The biggest story of the year, obviously, is Barbenheimmer’s unexpected box-office dominance. How dominant has this duo been? Before the debut of Barbie and Oppenheimer, the domestic box office was up about 10 percent year-over-year. Since then, that rate of increase has doubled: the box office is now up 20 percent year over year. And the number is only likely to increase this weekend, as Barbie and Oppenheimer are holding well while Meg 2: The Trench and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem both look to open decently.
The overperformance of Barbie and Oppenheimer is great because they’re both originals (decades of Barbie IP awareness notwithstanding) and they both have distinct, unique looks to them. They’re joined by Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and John Wick: Chapter 4 in this: yes, both are franchise entries, but also, both have this incredibly unique style to them that wowed audiences and earned both a place in the year’s ten highest-grossing films (so far). If audiences show up through the summer doldrums to the stylish Mutant Mayhem, it’s one more piece of evidence that audiences are looking for something new, something different, something visually distinctive. Consider also that the only comic book movie that’s come close to performing up to expectations is Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3, and that movie too has a distinct visual sensibility driven by director James Gunn’s weird perspective on the world.
The indie scene is vibrant, even if the box office for prestige pictures remains a bit smaller than pre-pandemic times. Asteroid City, Past Lives, and You Hurt My Feelings are all contenders for many top ten lists. Talk to Me’s $10 million opening demonstrated yet again that cheap horror is a pretty good way to make money, given that A24 picked up the title for just $4.5 million. The indie Christian outfit Angel Studio’s Sound of Freedom is the most shocking hit of the year, grossing $155 million and counting. There’s a real diversity at the multiplex for the first time in a long time, and that’s helping drive business all over the country.
The year’s failures are also heartening, in their own way. Audiences are simply not showing up for much of1 the CGI glop they’ve been spoonfed over the last decade: movies like The Flash, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and Fast X in the numbers studios hoped for or would sustain their oversized budgets. The collapse of the Chinese market combined with domestic boredom means that studios are going to have to think long and hard before greenlighting a nine-figure snoozefest that skates along on pre-awareness and big explosions. Franchise fatigue is real, and while I’m a little sad to see Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning: Part One fall prey to this syndrome, it’s a small price to pay if it means franchises start looking for big new ideas to chase down.
Things are looking up, is what I’m saying. Which is why it’d be a real shame if, say, studios decided to stifle this momentum by, I dunno, pulling a bunch of releases from the back half of the year because, you know, the actors have gone on strike and aren’t allowed to promote their work.
One reason why the bigger budgeted stuff is failing all over: the Chinese market is no longer a good place to make money. The Wall Street Journal’s Erich Schwartzel and I discussed why that market has closed on The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood last week.
On the whole strike/theatrical question, I explained why things are feeling a little like Covid Redux in the Atlantic last weekend.
I reviewed TMNT: Mutant Mayhem, Talk to Me, and They Cloned Tyrone this week. There’s lots of good stuff out right now!
The overall number of subscribers for Warner Bros. Discovery’s various streaming services dropped in Q2 of 2022, which makes sense since there were probably a fair number of households that subscribed to both HBO Max and Discovery+ (like, say mine) and now subscribe only to Maaaaaaax.
Ryan Faughnder talked to an exec who runs a chain of independent movie theaters in the Midwest and asked about the performance of Sound of Freedom; this exec said he hadn’t seen any of the empty theaters some folks have reported. We’ll have more on this movie in tomorrow’s podcast.
RIP Mark Margolis, who delivered one of my favorite performances ever in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi.
Assigned Viewing: Damsels in Distress (Hulu)
Our first repeat assignment! Director Whit Stillman’s under-appreciated 2011 title about the goings-on at an East Coast university starring Greta Gerwig, director of this year’s smash hit Barbie, is back on Hulu and if you’ve never seen it, you really must. I insist. I’ll be honest, I’m a little ambivalent about a lot of Gerwig’s work, but she is so good and so funny in this movie—working in a mode I like to think of as deadpan sincerity as Violet Wester, who runs a suicide prevention center on school grounds with her friends—that I’ll always be willing to give whatever she does a shot.
The one real exception to this statement, at least domestically, is The Little Mermaid, which is going to near $300 million in North America despite being and looking terrible.