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Why Good Films Are Failing at the Box Office in Awards Season

The other day I found myself sitting in a movie theater watching Bradley Cooper skillfully orchestrate a gourmet dinner. And I was getting hungry.

I was also getting curious. I was alone in the theater watching a new movie called “Burnt,” starring Cooper and Sienna Miller as expert chefs. While I truly enjoyed the movie, I found it daunting that no one else would pay to see it.

But why? Lately, I’ve paid to see several quality movies that have failed to find audiences, all in an effort to come up with some reasonable explanations. Too many specialty pictures simply aren’t performing. So let me review some theories:

  • Distributors are blowing it by mandating that every “smart” movie has to come out in a tight corridor in the fall; there’s too much to see in too short a time. It’s autumn, and prospective filmgoers are also involved in football, school activities and Donald Trump.
  • Cannibalization. Films geared to a specific audience are on a collision course. Hence “Truth,” “Trumbo,” “Spotlight,” “99 Homes” and “Our Brand Is Crisis,” all dealing with social and political issues, are set up to compete for media attention. It’s also true of a number of ambitious films aimed at women, such as “By the Sea,” “Carol,” “The Danish Girl,”  “Brooklyn,” “Suffragette,” “Miss You Already” and “Learning to Drive,” most of which have been shoehorned into a short number of autumn weeks. It’s a Darwinian strategy that results in minimal survival.
  • The stars have lost their drawing power, but so have the genres. Studios used to bank on big names to open pictures, but the star system worked best when stars were matched with genres. John Wayne opened Westerns, not pro-Vietnam propaganda movies. Most of today’s stars, like George Clooney or Sandra Bullock, try to distance themselves from genre films, and Daniel Craig bitches about being typed as James Bond. The new Angelina Jolie movie is a classic example of playing against type: She and husband Brad Pitt are cast as middle-aged lovers suffering from ennui as they observe the mating habits of a hot young couple. The great Fred Astaire once confided to me, “I don’t resent the fact that I’m extinct, but I resent that my genre (the musical) also is extinct.”
  • The current crop of movies seems somehow diminished by the media fixation on the present “golden age of television.” The water cooler conversation — online version — focuses on binge-watched digital shows, or even an evanescent YouTube act. During the summer, the kids put that all aside, and respond faithfully to their must-see Marvel Comics movie opening. But come fall, their parents aren’t as ready to leave the house.

There’s merit to all of these theories, to be sure, but it’s also arguable that they’re basically a rerun of analyses posed in the ’50s and early ’60s. That moment witnessed the ultimate cord-cutting: Hollywood’s once-loyal “habit” audience suddenly stopped going to the movies. More than half the audience simply vaporized —  due to an earlier golden age of TV.

What happened next is well recorded. Excitement was regenerated by a mix of socially relevant films like “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider” and “Carnal Knowledge,” with many featuring stunning theatrical experimentation. Audiences rejoiced at a new excuse to buy tickets. And exhibitors, even in the mid-’70s, welcomed the fresh product and fostered it. “Jaws” wasn’t booked against another shark film. Lucas didn’t find himself fighting off Spielberg. It seemed as though a new cinematic community had been born.

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To be sure, the major studios were not solely responsible for generating this revival. By the mid-’60s, most of the old-line studio chiefs had been tossed out and, by the end of the decade, most of the studios were on the brink of bankruptcy.

Still, films got made, albeit with sharply limited resources.

It’s a moment that seems particularly appropriate to note, now. After all, a new “Star Wars” epoch is dawning.

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