Spoilers: It’s that time of year again. The time when a summer movie blockbuster breaks all records imaginable and the “Hollywood is falling” doomsayers stick their heads out of holes in the internet like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day. So warning, if you want to browse the internet and be “surprised” by movie aficionados scolding America for ruining everything, do not read further.
Those of you who listen to our podcast know that I, John, can be a bit of a naysayer. I am the pessimism to the optimism that is my co-host Justin. I normally am great at finding the bad parts of anything good. For instance, on our next podcast episode I spend 15 minutes criticizing Jurassic World, a movie I think is probably the 2nd best movie of 2015, or like how I made it a weekly obligation to shit on Marvel’s Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D. which was only trying to be mindless entertainment and never strives to be Hamlet (although much like Hamlet, should die a horrible death).
However even I, a living breathing grump-a-potamus, look at what Mark Harris just wrote on Grantland and am forced to say “dude, lighten up.”
To be fair, Mark Harris does make his living on being a droopy-dog impersonator. Always scolding us like our mothers, telling us why we’re all awful for wanting more X-Files episodes or why Hollywood was awful for awarding 2014’s Best Picture Award to 2014’s Best Picture. To be even more… fairer… to Mark Harris, he is just the latest in a long line of Hollywood critics and insiders who say that we, the general public, are ruining Hollywood.
How are we going about ruining cinema, you may inquire? Let Mark Harris tell you:
“Twenty years ago, ‘blockbuster,’ at its most hyperbolic, meant a franchise big enough to give you a park. Now it means a franchise big enough to give you a world.”
“Even those not inclined toward doomsaying know that new financial models have multiple creative consequences. Jurassic World’s director, Colin Trevorrow, got his gig on the strength of a single calling-card indie movie, 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed (total domestic gross: $4 million). That’s extraordinary — if you’re Colin Trevorrow — but is it the best thing for either movies or directors?“
“So the Jurassic conversation, I’m guessing, will be less ‘What’s the next movie?’ than ‘How do we turn this into a semi-permanent enterprise?'”
Now, I know what you may be saying to yourself: “So?” First, whoa, calm down. Second, you ignorant pleb, you’re not thinking of the big picture. Instead of a Jurassic Park sequel every 3 years, Universal will make a Jurassic Park franchise with yearly Jurassic Park movies.
“So?,” you ask again. SO?! Let Mark Harris define the “so”…
“That attitude is endemic at studios right now, and its ripple effect is dire, because even aside from the fact that low- to mid-budget movies often define Oscar season, they are essential for directors. A system in which films like Looper or Insomnia are less and less possible is a system that is failing its audience and its talent.”
This is by no means a new argument. You can just google “Death of Cinema,” “Hollywood Blockbuster Bad,” or “I Hate Having Fun” to see any of the past ones. This sky-is-falling argument always revolves around the same point: the public going to see fun action movies is literally destroying independent cinema and good films. Which would, in fact, be a really terrible thing if it was happening…
Except it’s not.
“Oh it’s not?!”
my mom Mark Harris yells at me from the next room.
Ya, I say it’s not, but instead of hyperbole lets look at it via facts and see who is right. Have we, as Mark Harris suggests, ruined everything that was once great about Hollywood, by going out and being entertained by some mindless dinosaur rampage? Or are we, by supporting Chris Pratt and his dreaminess, just doing what we’ve always done: flocking together to see 1 to 3 big movies a year and then spreading out to each see a few different smaller movies that peak our individual interests?
Side note worth pointing out: Jurassic World, to date, is merely just a sequel and there has been no indication Universal has lined it up for franchise status ala Marvel comics or Star Wars. And to be perfectly clear, Mark Harris appears to be warning us of more than just “more sequels.” He specifically speaks of franchises like Marvel and Star Wars. However, he oddly also references Fast and Furious and Transformers, two other “franchises” that like Jurassic Park consist of only sequels and not a shared universe with other movies.
I am slightly confused and not entirely sure how Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor being in the same “franchise,” but literally having nothing else to do with one another, makes any difference. I certainly don’t know how it’s any different than the sequels Hollywood has been obsessed with since the 1980s. I don’t know how franchises specifically, instead of sequels, will destroy Looper specifically. But let’s just see if Mark Harris’ assertion is correct first and worry about the exact effects later, if they actually exist.
Let’s start off with the premise that the “franchisification” of Hollywood is what is ruining cinema. Mark Harris’ point appears to be that unless a movie can fit into a franchise it won’t be made. Mark Harris points to Looper’esque movies as the main causality of this phenomenon. His argument more precisely is that post Jurassic World if a movie can’t make $1 billion dollars and be turned into 12 other movies with 3 spin-offs, it can’t and won’t be made.
To reduce bias, lets science the shit out of this.
We will compare the top 100 movies from a post-franchisification year (2014) to a pre-franchisification year (1994). If Mark Harris’ theory is correct then in 2014 we should see a large shift towards blockbusters over what we see in 1994. To show whether that shift exists, we will take the “mean” of the top 100 movies’ gross revenue of each year. The mean is just the total sum of the top 100 movies gross profits divided by 100.
Theoretically, the more blockbusters there are and the less “Loopers” being made, the closer the mean should be to the top of the top 100. Alternatively, the more films Americans see that aren’t blockbusters and are mid-sized movies (the ones Mark Harris says will no-longer exist because you literally killed them, you monster) the closer the mean will be to the bottom of the list. In a Mark Harris’ perfect world the mean should be at 50, with studios striving to make mid-sized films that are truly the bastion of all civilized culture. It’s not a perfect test but it’s what we have available to us on our limited budget, which is nothing, and it will do the job.
Before you say “but are the top 100 movies reflective of all movies?” yes, yes they are. Americans, on average, only see 5 movies a year in theaters. Furthermore, Mark Harris’ argument is that since you went to see Jurassic World you won’t in the future be able to see movies like Looper. Looper was the 45th highest grossing movie of 2012. Accordingly, the top 100 is a perfect reflection of what is actually being made, what this argument is about, and what people want to see If, using 2012 as an example, a movie didn’t make more than The Five-Year Engagement (the 100th highest grossing movie of 2012) maybe audiences just don’t want to see it and it isn’t a great loss if it doesn’t get made.
So let us begin:
In 2014 the top 100 movies made a combined $9.58 billion dollars in the theaters. The mean of the top 100 movies was therefore $95,847,571. A movie making the mean would have been the 34th highest grossing movie of 2014.
Of interest, although really providing no true insight, the movie closest to the mean (and accordingly the “average” movie of 2014) was Non-Stop, a one-off movies that had no franchise potential.
In fact the 10 most average movies of 2014 or movies closest to the mean (5 above and 5 below) were:
300: Rise of an Empire
The Maze Runner
Edge of Tomorrow
Heaven is for Real
The Imitation Game
Dumb and Dumber To
That’s 1 remake, 4 sequels or movies that are part of a series (and that’s being generous as no one initially thought The Equalizer would get a sequel when it was made), and 5 original stand-alone films.
Now let’s travel to 1994. Bill Clinton was President, The Sign by Ace of Base was blasting on the airwaves, and OJ Simpson absolutely killed his wife and her friend.
The top 100 movies of 1994 made a combined $4.6 billion dollars. The mean of the top 100 movies was $46,097,407. Thus a movie making the mean would have been the 30th highest grossing movie of 1994. Again, in 2014 a movie making the mean would have placed 34th.
Wait… what? This means in 1994 the biggest grossing movies took a larger chunk of the top 100 revenues. TL;DR = 1994 was more blockbuster heavy than 2014. And interestingly 1994, according to our crack research staff, was 18 years before Avengers came out and literally ruined everything we ever loved about cinema. So far Mark Harris’ argument isn’t making sense.
Let us dig further. The 10 most average movies of 1994, or movies closest to the mean, were:
Natural Born Killers
Angels in the Outfield
When a Man Loves a Woman
The River Wild
D2: The Might Ducks
City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold
The Jungle Book
Beverly Hills Cop III
Accordingly of the top 10 most average movies of 1994, we had 3 remakes, 4 movies that were a sequel or the first movie in a series, and 4 stand-alone films. (Yes that’s 11. Angels in the Outfield did double-duty as both a remake and part of a series).
What?! HOW CAN THIS BE?! NOTHING MAKES SENSE ANYMORE?! Up is dog?! Down is cat?! Mark Harris literally just told me that I personally recently destroyed cinema and mid-sized stand-alone movies by seeing Avengers and Jurassic World. Yet 1994 was heavier on blockbusters than 2014 and the 10 “most average” movies of 1994 comprised of more remakes and less stand-alone movies than 2014 did?
Well clearly what Mark Harris meant to say was we had already destroyed cinema by 1994. In fact the biggest film of 1993… JURASSIC PARK! Coincidence?! I think not! We must go back, back to the past!
Let’s go to 1980. The furthest back Box Office Mojo will let us go. Surely 1980 will show how much more sophisticated of a movie going public we were. How we were better people, free of the greed, corruption, and the global strife that plague us today because we liked a dinosaur movie.
In 1980 the top 100 movies made a combined $2.2 billion dollars placing the mean at $22,855,592. Now, if Mark Harris is correct, if we have destroyed movies as we know it then the average movie in 1980 will have been closer to the bottom of the pack than the it was in 2014 (34th) and 1994 (30th). Surely there were more smaller independent films and mid-sized films that we as a cinema going public loved to go see and now sorely miss! Surely cinema was in a golden age of great masterpieces because in 1980 the mean movie would have placed…
God dammit, I’m starting to think this Mark Harris guy may not know what he’s talking about. What do you have to say for yourself, Mark Harris?!
Let’s face it, you’ll always find people who bemoan today and long for “the good ole days.” ‘Movies used to be better,’ ‘music used to be better,’ ‘TV used to better,’ ‘politicians used to be better;’ really it doesn’t matter the topic. In some cases they’re right, in others they’re just cranky old people who wish young people would stay off their lawn.
I don’t know which one Mark Harris truly is, or if it is all just an act, but I know what the numbers say. And the numbers say, at least as far as the top 100 movies go, we’re seeing less blockbusters and more low to mid budget movies. We’re actually paying to go to the theater for more “Loopers” now than we did in the past.
Sure we love us some blockbusters, but it seems like the internet, social media, and world-wide communication devices are giving us more exposure to movies and trailers that we probably would have never heard of in the past. Driving us to see more smaller, mid-sized movies in the theater than we ever have before.
But in the end, ignoring the numbers, the big question is: who really cares if we “kill cinema” as Mark Harris suggest? I liked Looper but if the American public, who works really fucking hard for not enough money, wants to treat themselves a few times a year to a big blockbuster rather than some thoughtful independent piece or some mid-sized flick with incrementally better writing, who gives a fuck?
Rather than bemoaning everything people do, let’s just relax and worry about actual important things. Hell, we should be celebrating, apparently a billion people went and just saw Jurassic World in theaters despite the fact that our homes have TVs the size of movie screens and the popcorn and soda we have at home doesn’t cost $20 a person. Jurassic World’s box office news actually good for Hollywood, the economy, and hard working popcorn farmers everywhere.
People have enough shit to worry about rather than being told they’re destroying art as we know it. Looper was a great film, but it ain’t Beowulf (and I mean the story, it actually probably was better than the movie). And if Looper never existed no one’s lives would be any different. Well maybe Bruce Willis’ life… nah nevermind, he’d still be a dick.
In conclusion though we probably should be nicer to Mark Harris. It’s easy to see Jurassic World’s numbers and worry about the impact and get all “DOOM IS HERE” without thinking. Furthermore who knows, he could eventually be proven right. The franchisification of movies only really started in 2012. It’s not like he just does this every few years, trotting out some random fact or stat and saying that that fact means we are killing good cinema…