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A few days ago, I saw a tweet proclaiming “2023 is the first year Disney hasn’t had a $1bn movie since 2014.” The person quote-tweeting that insight had added the caption: CINEMA IS HEALING.
But is it?
Much was made over the summer about the Barbenheimer phenomenon, and, particularly, the first part of that portmanteau. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was an unusual billion-dollar movie in some ways — it is aimed predominantly at women, for example, which makes it all but unique in terms of movies hitting that milestone (Titanic, though it has a stronger legacy amongst women viewers than men, was very much marketed as a disaster movie from the director of Terminator) — and not in others. In relying upon a highly marketable pair of leads (Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, both of whom are billboard-ready stars with multiple films passing the $100m mark) and existing intellectual property (IP), its success hardly went unanticipated.
The other movie to pass $1bn globally this year (yes, there have only been two) wasn’t Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s fragmented epic about the invention of nuclear warfare, but the animated Super Mario Bros. Movie. Based on the video game franchise, which is, like Barbie, predominantly aimed at children, Super Marios Bros also demonstrated the importance of a bankable lead (Chris Pratt) and a clear piece of IP.
There are two major questions that emerge, and interrogate the idea that cinema is healing. The first is whether we want to live in an ecosystem reliant on extant IP. Look at the list of billion dollar movies in the past five years and see if you can pick out the ones that were conceptually original at time of launch: Barbie, Super Mario Bros, Avatar 2, Top Gun 2, Jurassic World 3, a Spider-Man, Avengers: Endgame, Lion King, Frozen 2, another Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, Joker, a Star War, Toy Story 4, Aladdin, Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Jurassic World 2, Incredibles 2, and Aquaman.
The correct answer is: not a single one. And I could go on another few years, if you have the time: a Star War, Beauty and the Beast, a Fast and Furious, Despicable Me 3, a Captain America, another Star War, Finding Nemo 2, and *ding ding* Zootopia. That film, called Zootropolis in the UK I believe, is the last piece of original IP to pass the billion-dollar mark.
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The second point is whether the schadenfreude illustrates any trend beyond that immediate headline. The failure of Disney at the box office in 2023 — and it is a marked failure, with a couple of calamitous projects like Ant-Man 3 and The Marvels — is a blow for the world’s biggest entertainment company. It does suggest a critical and commercial fatigue with the superhero industrial complex (their Marvel output continued apace this year, even if there was no Star War to rely on) but it is also part of a growing trend away from the multiplex. The №10 ranking film of 2023 — Ant-Man 3, coincidentally, with $476m — would have been only the 16th most lucrative film in the last pre-pandemic year, 2019. In that year there were also nine billion-dollar movies. And for a starker comparison yet, compare the 100th biggest box office of 2019 — Happy Deathday 2 U, $64.6m — with the 100th of this year, The House of No Man, $19.5m. 200th? Greta, $18.6m vs The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, $5.8m. For smaller movies, cinema is becoming an increasingly tricky space in which to make a profit.
So, my fear is that cinema is not healing, in fact it’s slowly dying. But I suppose that what the flippant tweet really meant is that the cultural hegemony of lowest common denominator crowd-pleasing blockbusters is waning somewhat. Again, I’d find that argument more compelling if the Top 10 films of the year, so far, didn’t look like this: Barbie, Super Mario, Oppenheimer, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, Fast & Furious 10, a Spider-Man, The Little Mermaid, a Mission: Impossible, Elemental, and Ant-Man 3. Of those, only Oppenheimer and Elemental are original titles: the former benefitting from the scorched earth summer schedule imposed by Barbenheimer; the latter succeeding out of the perception of a Pixar multiverse (Pixar being, of course, a Disney subsidiary). The next highest grossing original property is Sound of Freedom (№20), with a taking of $247m. This is a film I’ve never heard of but is apparently a QAnon adjacent horror movie starring Jesus Christ himself, Jim Caviezel.
If evidence exists that the cinematic climate is now more amenable to independent cinema than it was a few years ago, I have yet to find it. What I see is an industry struggling to arrest a seemingly-terminal decline. Both of the world’s two biggest cinema chains — AMC and Cineworld — have been cutting screen numbers heavily in recent months and years. This is the thing that has the most impact on independent and diverse cinema. With fewer screens, you will certainly see depressed box office results for Disney, but you’ll also see fewer and fewer unusual, offbeat films being given a shot at theatrical distribution.
Like it or not, the success of independent, thoughtful cinema is inextricably linked to the success of companies like Disney. They are not bellwethers, but the actual weather. Without those profit margins, the industry cannot begin to slow its descent.
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