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Should Studios Pull the Plug on Prestige?
Plus: a manic study in decadence and decline, assigned!
I wrote a longish piece about the impact of Avatar on the culture this week that made the following fairly basic argument: Avatar’s cultural impact can’t be measured in memes or cosplay or lines quoted but by how it altered the business landscape, and the way it altered the business landscape is by not only pushing studios even harder into the tentpole business (buoyed by 3D and large format surcharges) but also by convincing audiences that the only reason to go to the theater was for a big experience.
This does not strike me as particularly controversial, even if it is dissatisfying for the types who want to play Billy Eichner and scream “name a character in the highest grossing film of all time!” at people on the street. As proof that audiences aren’t showing up for adult pictures, I pointed to the absolutely disastrous box office hauls so far for movies as diverse as The Fabelmans and Tár and The Whale and Empire of Light and Babylon, pictures of varying sizes and star power and budgets, all of which have been mostly ignored by ticket-buying audiences.
Whether you want blame Avatar and its extravagant descendants for this decline or the change in release windows or the rise of streaming or Covid-19 or inflation or … whatever, facts are facts, and facts on the ground are bad. How bad? So bad that Kevin Goetz—the founder of Screen Engine ASI, the author of Audienceology, and a one-time guest of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood—is telling studios to avoid releasing these movies in theaters.
“Essentially: yes,” Goetz replied to a dumbstruck Matthew Belloni when the Puck columnist asked if he was hearing Goetz right when he said that studios should give up and direct everything to streaming for prestige stuff. “I am advocating event status on every studio-release movie. … Most platform releases: gone. Most.”
And look, it’s hard to argue with Goetz on purely financial grounds. Audiences aren’t aware of these movies and if they are aware of these movies aren’t sure when they’re coming out since the national publications blow all their PR during the New York and Los Angeles runs and if they do know when the movies are coming out they also know that they’ll only have to wait three weeks and they’ll be on VOD for the cost of a single ticket. Why bother going to the theater to see them?
It is, perhaps, pointless to struggle against this new reality. But without theatrical revenue it’s hard to see how prestige pictures really survive as a business model. And if studios aren’t making money with them, why bother making them at all? For trophies? Do shareholders care about trophies that audiences don’t care about? Perhaps the entire genre of prestige picture moves to Netflix and AppleTV and Hulu and Prime Video and the rest of the streamers.
But I’m not sure anyone in the industry wants Oscar to become synonymous with Best Made-for-TV Movie.
If you want to know what the Across the Movie Aisle gang thought was the best picture of the year, make sure to listen to this week’s episode. The divergences and convergences within our group are always interesting to track.
Babylon is a movie dedicated to excess, and while I’m not sure I loved it I did kind of love director Damien Chazelle’s dedication to the bit. It’s a little like watching a manic episode unspool in front of you, with its swooping and swirling cameras, jazzy score, and big, twitchy performances. I tried to work through what works and what doesn’t in my review.
Office Space has definitely had cultural impact, inspiring lots of quotes and memes and, uh, robberies?
Ted Gioia’s look at the recovery of Barnes and Noble is really interesting. Turns out people like having bookstores curated by people who love books and love selling books to people. Who knew!
This is a pretty stunning infographic:
There are few things in life I’ve been more certain about than the idea that Vince McMahon would return to the WWE the second people stopped paying attention to the sexual harassment payouts the company uncovered during a misconduct investigation. Coming back for one last big payday makes sense; if the WWE hits the open market it’s going to spark a bidding war between the streamers.
As you folks know, I quite loved Tár. I also quite loved this interview of director Todd Fields and star Cate Blanchett, at least in part because it drives home something I argued about the film, which is that it’s almost deliriously ambiguous.
Armond White did not love Tár, as evidenced in his “better than” list this year. I know some people out there aren’t a fan of White, but where else are you going to find a list that ranks Father Stu ahead of Everything Everywhere All at Once and My Son Hunter ahead of Armageddon Time?
Assigned Viewing: Boogie Nights (HBO Max)
Babylon feels like a silent-era remake of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece about the porn industry’s shift from film to digital, from theaters to home viewing, from pseudo-art to … something else. If you’ve never seen it, you should. And if you have seen it, well, no time better than now to revisit it. Especially since I have a feeling it’s going to come up on next week’s Across the Movie Aisle!