As the pandemic rages into its third year—THIRD! YEAR!—Hollywood continues to fret about the box office and movie theaters. The billion-dollar success of Spider-Man: No Way Home has some cheering that theaters are back, baby, but others take a more measured view. In The New York Times, Kyle Buchanan points out that “Marvel’s rising tide has not lifted any boats”, which is true. Film is not the publishing industry, where the reliable, billion-dollar success of the romance genre allows publishers to take risks on less mainstream titles. But in the film industry, Marvel’s success buoys no one but Marvel, and as Disney is patently uninterested in non-mainstream appeal, it’s not like they’re shuttling any of that Marvel cash over to more indie-minded productions. They’re basically keeping “20th Century Studios” and Searchlight on life support as a means of appeasing filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo Del Toro, and the Marvel money is going right back into the Marvel machine.
Sorry to be all doom and gloom! But as Spider-Man continues to rack up dollars despite the Omicron surge, there’s a lot of “state of the industry” pondering going on, but it’s a really simple conversation. People will go to the theater if the film feels like an event, the end. That was the trajectory of cinema prior to the pandemic, it is now the realized state of cinema. West Side Story is a classic crowd pleaser from one of the crowd-pleasingest filmmakers of all time, based on a beloved classic musical, itself based on one of the most enduring stories in Western literature, and yet it’s bombing at the box office. Everything about West Side Story should sell tickets…except it didn’t feel like an event.
Of course, the pandemic is a factor, and no one is saying it’s not, but it’s equally obvious that if the movie feels special enough, audiences will turn out, pandemic or no. Even the other Marvel movies released in 2021, some opening in better conditions than Spider-Man’s mid-surge release, haven’t done as well, suggesting they didn’t come across as special enough to make the theater a necessary trip, either. Audiences are getting picky, which is going to put even more pressure on movie theaters.
Here’s my fear: between Eternals and Spider-Man, all the wrong lessons are going to be learned. I know I came down harder on Eternals, but I can appreciate the ambition and scope of that film, of the attempt to deviate from the formula, even if it didn’t entirely pan out. Spider-Man, meanwhile, satisfactorily pays off a three-film arc, but it is also adhering firmly to the MCU formula. Since only one of these movies made a billion dollars, though, guess which one the industry will attempt to recreate? Especially since that billion dollars came amidst a goddamn worldwide pandemic that makes so much of daily life precarious. People risked serious illness for Spider-Man! Everyone’s going to want that lightning in a bottle, and whatever chance for more risk-taking and artistic expression Eternals represented in tent pole filmmaking will never be seen again.
Anyway, despite Spider-Man’s success, the film industry is still very much in turbulence, especially if you think movie theaters are and always should be the primary way to watch movies. If anything, Spider-Man’s success paints a grim picture for every other movie not Spider-Man, or just like Spider-Man.
PS: WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS are “exploring a sale” of the CW Network, which has reportedly never turned a profit since it was formed in 2006, despite being the home of several hit shows with particular youth appeal, just in case you thought the state of broadcast TV was any better. It’s not!
Live long and gossip,