Three stories this week get to the heart of the question. First, the BBC polled critics worldwide and asked them what were the best 100 movies made so far in the 21st Century. Look at the list and you see something striking – the top 10 films collectively took in $213 million, or, as Barry Hertz observed in The Globe & Mail, about $50 million less than Suicide Squad made in two and a half weeks this summer. Of course, you say, mass-appeal blockbustery entertainment is supposed to find bigger audiences than art. But blockbusters can’t be art? A list of best movies of the 20th Century shows much closer convergence between box office and critical opinion.
Hollywood’s artistic model is based on making money. In recent years that model has cleaved in two. At the top end “critic-proof” story franchises like The Avengers, Spiderman, and Hunger Games rule, making hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. The bets on success are big but the possible returns so huge, these are gambles that have been worth making. Low-investment tiny-budget art films still bump along, their investments small enough that box office failures are survivable. It has been widely observed that the middle has fallen out of the model – that is, mid-budget movies that aren’t reasonably sure of making back their money are too much of a risk and are no longer being made.
This summer, though, even the blockbusters seem to be failing to find audiences.
These movies didn’t just fail; they almost seemed to never exist in the first place, having been dismissed or disposed of almost immediately upon impact. And even if they did do OK for a weekend or two, they never reached beyond their predictable (and increasingly stratified) core audiences. Instead, they were dumbo-dropped into our ever-expanding cauldron of content, where they played to their bases, while everyone else turned to the newest video game, or the latest Drake video, or some random “Damn, Daniel” parody.
At the high end of the model, Hollywood’s sure-thing audiences have started fading. So-called core audiences are no longer sufficient to propel an expensive movie’s success and critics that no longer matter also no longer seem to care. There was a time not so long ago when movie critical and popular taste were more closely aligned. Now movie criticism looks a lot more like criticism in other arts, often with chasms between popular and critical taste.
So is the gap between critics and audience just a sign that movies have matured as an art form and that critical taste of those who are really paying attention inevitably diverges from mass taste? Or is it something different?
Two possibly unrelated observations:
- I was watching synchronized diving during the Olympics, getting increasingly irritated at the TV commentators who repeatedly pointed out how this heel or that toe was turned slightly wrong. These egregious faults evidently made a huge difference between whether a dive was a success or not. After a bit I turned the sound off, not just unconvinced but thoroughly annoyed at a grading system that seemed beside the point. A bit later I changed the channel, because, of course, one dive looked pretty much like another.Watching pole vaulting, however, was unexpectedly captivating. Suspense, anticipation and then… no question whether the athlete had made a successful jump or not. Thrilling. Of course I don’t know a thing about either of these sports, they’re all top athletes, and I’m unsophisticated. But unless critical judgment is aligned with values an audience understands, the critical judgment is meaningless to that audience and critics lose their value. So how well do critics make their case not just for or against a work but also for the importance of the values they’re judging by?
- Instead of a quality problem maybe Hollywood studios have a scale problem. Perhaps the scale of what’s possible has outstripped the scale of what’s desirable or optimal, and just because one era supported movies that cost $200 million doesn’t mean that another era will. Today’s high-end movies work if they’re critic-proof and there’s already a built-in audience. At the low-budget end, films are successful only if critics embrace them. These are movies without big marketing budgets or wide distribution and they have to depend on critical buzz to find an audience. Not that they’ll ever earn on the scale of the blockbusters, as demonstrated by the BBC list. But there is enough of a reasonable expectation of return that these movies are still being made.
So what determines the scale of a movie? No one is making a picture that costs $1 billion. That makes no sense, even by blockbuster standards. Blockbusters are not, by definition, bad movies; they are calculations of a potential market set against the cost of appealing to that market. Low-budget films are not, by definition, good movies; they are a calculation of a potential market set against the (significantly lower) cost of appealing to that market. Whether either succeeds depends on how well the market calculations were made. And artistic quality? One counts on critics having no power. The other counts on critics being able to convince. But the growing gap between popular and critical successes is becoming an increasingly bigger problem, not just for the art of making good movies, but for a business that seems to have severed the connection between quality – however that is defined – and judgments of that quality.