It’s interesting to think about which movies will be remembered as classics 20-30 years down the road. Interesting, and also depressing. Stop and think. Is there one film made during the modern movie age that will resonate throughout pop culture like a Godfather or a Star Wars? There are no more Godfathers, mostly because the Mafioso in the modern studio system don’t believe in them anymore.
Movies mirror the culture they’re released into. It’s no coincidence that the biggest movies now are sloppily constructed rehashes used to make a quick buck. See also: the housing crisis. The most endearing movies of the old age are often blockbusters, but they’re also something more: risks that paid off. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola had to fight like hell to get their movies made, and struggled to keep them once they were financed. In modern times, once you’re inside the system, there is no fighting. You make the movie they tell you to, or else you pay for it yourself.
The New York Times raised an interesting point last week: power shifted from big studios to filmmakers in the ’60s, and now it has shifted back. The bottom-line has always been and always will be the concern of the studios, and it was that time in the ’60s and ’70s, when the pull of profits from the corporate end and the creative tug from the auteur on the other side made for some of the most astonishingly well-made blockbusters cinema has ever seen.
Examining this past summer, one of the worst in recent years, you can see the system is all but defeated. Sure, Pixar and Christopher Nolan made good films that also made money, but those weren’t risks. They were almost guaranteed to walk away with their respective weekends. In fact, Despicable Me was one of the few “original” box office risks that paid off this summer, if you can even consider it original.
Another point recently made in NYT by Leah Rozen was that an ever-widening gap between mainstream and independent cinema is becoming not only commonplace, but unstoppable.
Mainstream movies are now about “escapism and wish fulfillment,” said Nina Jacobson, a producer and former head of production at the Walt Disney studio. “There’s a schism between independent films representing people who are struggling and glossy studio films that are aspirational.”
Take two recent examples: Secretariat and Winter’s Bone. Both atmospheric stories about determined female protagonists. One exudes excitement from its thrilling, high-budget horse races and quick-witted one-liners; the other attempts to hook the viewer with a compellingly low-key human drama while also shedding light on a part of America that not many know about.
Of course the family horse movie makes more money. It would even without factors like increased distribution and advertising revenue. Big studios aren’t the only ones afraid of taking risks: it’s the average movie-goer as well. Faced with the choice between Diane Lane’s true story and some low-budget indie, they would unfortunately rather go with what they know, at least in my experience.
The key question is, decades down the road, will Secretariat be remembered? No. That movie, and many others pushed out by the big studios, are simply reiterations of the same stories they’ve been selling for years. Each one replaces the one before it. Sequels are not the only enemy to originality. Studio cowardice and audience reluctance are also to blame. If it continues, American audiences will be treated to film offerings they can’t refuse, even if they wanted to.