Each year, as the summer movie season winds down, we get to hear the box-office analysis of the previous four months, and these days it tends to be more than just a who’s-up/who’s-down postmortem of the business of Hollywood. It’s become a way of reading the tea leaves of where movies stand in American life. Are they going great guns? Merely holding their own? Or slipping? The grand narrative the numbers of the last 10 years generally add up to is: slipping.
I don’t say this to be a negative nabob, but because it’s the stark reality that the powers of the movie industry are up against. We all know the larger trends. For years, higher ticket prices (and carny-barker gambits like 3D) have been working to compensate for the fact that movie attendance is gradually sliding downward. The international box office takes up a growing segment of the business, and in certain ways (though not all) that’s a good thing. But it’s still just offsetting the slow shrinkage of the domestic market. (MoviePass may or may not prove to be a successful business, but it has tangibly demonstrated that audiences are increasingly hostile to higher ticket prices.)
Then, of course, there’s the real story, the one that’s percolating beneath the numbers, and that is this: Are movies, in some inexorable way, becoming a secondary pop-cultural art form? Have they been trumped by the small screen in the renaissance age of television? This isn’t just an issue of how many people are watching what. It’s about what’s driving “the conversation” (these days, usually television), and about something that’s just as central but harder to pin down: how much people are actually loving what they watch.
In that light, a certain slice of the movie pie chart this summer tells a fascinatingly noteworthy — and encouraging — story. No, it’s not about smashing box-office records, though 2018 will undoubtedly go down as a very solid summer (up 11% over the last one), and if you extend your gaze back earlier in the year, when “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” and “A Quiet Place” ruled, the situation looks even healthier. So this year, at least, no slippage. Maybe even an echo of going great guns.
But while the matter of how well blockbusters do is fundamental to the life of the industry, I’m focused on a smaller group of numbers: the robust slate of independent films that have connected with audiences, in a decisive and passionate way, during the height of blockbuster season. True, the amount of revenue they generate — $20 million here, $40 million there, another $10 million over there — may not seem like much compared to the whopping numbers generated by the sci-fi/action/fantasy/franchise/ monster sequel mega-smash of the week. Yet the stubborn success of movies on that underlying tier adds up to a thrilling and highly significant story about what audiences now want to go out to the movies to see.
They want to see an enveloping drama like “Eighth Grade” (domestic gross thus far: $11.5 million), which plugs you into the experience of a shyly reflective middle-schooler trying to hold onto her sincerity in the wilderness of a mean-girl culture gone wildly digital. They want to see “Sorry to Bother You” ($16 million), a down-and-dirty surrealist fairy tale of African-American desire and ambition in a world overtaken by commerce. They want to see “Hereditary” ($44 million), a ghost story spooky and original enough to make the audience feel like it’s the ghost. They want to see documentaries (in droves!), to experience the fearless crusader spirit of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “RBG” ($13 million), or the extraordinary story of separated triplets on a karmic path in “Three Identical Strangers” ($10 million), or the weirdly timely and counterintuitive power of the goodness of Mister Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” ($22 million). They want to sink into the briny depths of racial animosity in “BlacKkKlansman” ($23 million), and they want to experience the glory of what diversity in entertainment really means by reveling in the narcotic banquet of glitzy over-the-top wealth porn and delicately intense and moving love story that is “Crazy Rich Asians” ($34 million).
Okay, that last example isn’t an “independent film.” But here’s why it belongs on my list: It’s one more drama told on a rivetingly human scale, and one that has drawn audiences like a magnet. That’s because they have a hunger, a desire, a need that has not gone away. They want to go out to the movies to experience the old-school definition of what a real movie once was, and still is. Are these movies “small”? Not if you go out to the movies to experience them. At that point they are, by definition, large.
The success of all these films, in its way, flies in the face of an insidious conventional wisdom, and it’s important that we listen to the message they’re giving us. When it comes to the issue of movies vs. television, a certain slam-dunk argument has come to dominate the discourse and a lot of people’s minds. You know it like a mantra, and it goes like this:
Serial television is the form of our time, because good serial storytelling, with its sprawl and detail, allows characters to acquire deeper, richer colors and dimension than they would in a two-hour movie. Because of the rise of serial television, going out to the movies has become unnecessary. It’s easier, and more appealing, to stay at home, where your screen is now plenty big enough, and you can avoid all the hellacious trappings that have become the mythological annoyances of the theater experience: the endless trailers and commercials, the talkers and popcorn munchers staring into their glowing phones, and the price (which can rise to $100 bucks for a family, once you throw in the oversize candy boxes and the barrels of Coke). If the choice comes down to the megaplex vs. Netflix, we all know, in 2018, who the winner too often is.
Mainstream movies are very much alive, but one of the results of the preceding mantra has been The Kneejerk Case For Spectacle. Simply put: It’s the argument that spectacle — special-effects fantasy, comic-book epics and multiverse space operas, over-the-top action-adventure flicks — is the one thing that still requires the sheer awesome size of the motion-picture screen. It’s the argument that spectacle, and spectacle alone, justifies the sheer bother (and expense) of going out to the movies. How many times have I heard people who actually like independent films say about a movie like “Eighth Grade,” “I want to see it, but it’s the perfect movie to watch at home.”
Here’s why it’s not actually the perfect movie to watch at home, and why the whole Kneejerk Case For Spectacle misses as much truth as it captures. Yes, a movie like “Avengers: Infinity War” was made, in an obvious way, for the big screen. You’ll miss out, perhaps, on a certain dazzling kinesthetic dimension of it if you wait to see it at home. Yet the notion that “small” movies are perfect for the small screen is, in fact, exactly the opposite of the truth. It’s precisely the intimacy of small movies — the human scale of them — that’s rendered large-than-life when you go out to see them at the movies. That’s the primal beauty of cinema, and always has been: It turns everything into spectacle. It takes life itself and makes it large.
These days, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are going out to the movies as a conscious and thrillingly cultivated entertainment choice. The freshly thriving repertory scene of New York City is a telling example. Where Film Forum set the standard for a long time (and still does), the scene has grown more fluky and adventurous with the arrival of Metrograph and the new Quad Cinemas, where I recently went to see an old Hammer horror film on a Friday night — a 1971 curio called “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde” — and watched it in a packed house. You can now see old movies at home like never before, yet audiences have proved to be stubbornly addicted to going out to the movies to see them.
And this summer’s run of indie hits tells a comparable story — though, if anything, an even more important one. It might have something to do with the times; these days, who doesn’t want to escape the news? It might have something to do with MoviePass; maybe those lower tickets prices helped to swell the ranks of audience members. But the truth is that for every viewer who wants to wait until something arrives on the small screen, there’s another who is eager to seek out a movie not merely for spectacle, but to feel the quiet thrill of being in an audience and sharing a space that can encompass that audience and the people on screen. It’s a privileged space — maybe even, in its way, a religious one. And you can only experience it when you go out to the movies. It’s a trend that just might keep an art form thriving.