Director Damien Chazelle’s latest film, Babylon, tells the raucous tale of 1920s Hollywood, when the movie industry — still fairly young and rough around the edges — enjoyed all of the pleasures, extravagance and debauchery ushered in by the Jazz Age.
That was 100 years ago.
Does moviegoing still have a heartbeat?
“There have been a lot of those hand-wringing type questions in the past few years or five years or 10 years [about] the future of movies. Do movies have a future? I find it comforting looking back in time to see that that question has actually never not been asked,” Chazelle said in an interview with CBC News.
“The movies have been dying, according to the experts of the moment, since 1901. You know, even [Louis] Lumière said that the movies had no future,” Chazelle added, referring to a French pioneer of modern cinema. “Every decade you’ll find a sort of ‘movies are dead’ proclamation.
“So that obituary has been written a lot.”
While the film industry is still recovering from the walloping it took during the COVID-19 pandemic — as theatres closed temporarily or for good, fewer projects were made and box office returns were next to nil — 2022 was the year that movies bounced back.
But the sector hasn’t completely healed yet, and blockbusters remain its driving force — which compromises the success of more artistically inclined independent films, according to industry experts.
‘There’s still a bit of catching up to do’
How would Olivier Gauthier-Mercier, vice-president of distribution at Canadian film distributor Sphere Films, rate this year’s box office returns? Simply put, “there’s still a bit of catching up to do,” he told CBC News.
“If we were to give it a rating, I’d say it’s a 7 out of 10, meaning that we’re about 70 per cent of the way of where we were at about 2019,” he said, referring to the most recent example of a typical box office year.
As bells-and-whistles blockbusters enjoyed 12 months of growth, the industry continues to see the event-ization of movies: big-budget spectacles with highly anticipated releases.
The 10 highest-grossing films at the domestic (U.S. and Canada) box office this year, according to data from box office tracker Box Office Mojo, were all major studio-released franchise instalments with budgets of between $80 million and $250 million US. And they were all sequels (except Matt Reeves’s The Batman, which isn’t exactly new material).
“People want to go see the latest in the Marvel series. People want to go see the latest in the DC Universe. So I think those are the big spectacles that people still seem to cling on or think that that’s what the movie theatre can give you because of the bombasticness of it all,” Gauthier-Mercier said.
Movie theatres are increasingly reluctant to screen smaller films — sometimes giving them a shorter run — because they don’t yield as much money as their big-budget counterparts. But there are anomalies, Gauthier-Mercier said.
“There’s [Everything Everywhere All at Once], which is a film that managed to provide the same spectacle and probably give people the same sort of feeling of watching a film, a story about family, but done in a way that’s almost a new language…. So I think the language of film is also needing to change.”
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Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at media measurement company Comscore, made a similar assessment of the 2022 moviegoing landscape.
“If we look at the box office from this year, it’s really been about the blockbusters,” Dergarabedian said, noting that Oscar contenders and other films aimed at “awards-style viewers” aren’t quite seeing large turnouts.
One exception is Brendan Fraser’s comeback vehicle The Whale, which domestically grossed a mighty $360,000 during its limited release opening in early December.
Next year, a solid roster of blockbusters such as Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and John Wick: Chapter 4 will arrive in theatres — all legacy franchises. But a truly healthy box office is one that can sustain the success of all kinds of films.
Top Gun made a splash in the summer
The beginning of the year usually saw one film dominate an entire month at the box office — not necessarily a good thing, Dergarabedian said. Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Batman and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness drove the majority of domestic box office sales during or after their release months.
Finally, at the end of May, the arrival of a deus ex machina: a long-awaited sequel to a 1980s classic, led by a certain bankable (and famously tenacious) movie star.
“Top Gun: Maverick was the one that I think just signalled to the world that the movie theatre was a hub of influence, that it was the go-to place to see movies in the best possible way,” Dergarabedian said.
With Tom Cruise leading a cast of such youngbloods as Miles Teller and Glen Powell, the film has made more than $1 billion worldwide since its May 27 opening.
It went to No. 1 on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend and was on top again when Labour Day weekend came around. “That’s never happened before,” Dergarabedian said.
It also wasn’t the only summer box office success, with Minions: The Rise of Gru, Elvis and Jurassic World Dominion contributing to the piggy bank. But those numbers died down during a tepid fall, and — even with Avatar: The Way of Water, Babylon and I Wanna Dance with Somebody rounding out the year’s end — the North American box office is still lagging behind the numbers it would bring in during a healthy box office year.
“A robust movie theatre ecosystem would see the global box office at over $40 billion and the U.S. and Canada as part of that at over $11 billion. This year we’re going to be at, or just over, $7 billion in the U.S. and Canada,” Dergarabedian said.
But he noted that there weren’t as many wide releases this year as there would be during a typical year. The industry was short about 40 movies, he said.
Glass Onion a runaway hit
Theatres lost a chunk of their moviegoing audience after the pandemic began in early 2020, with some (particularly those over 60 years old) migrating to streaming services.
But a curious thing happened this year: Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a sequel to the 2019 whodunit Knives Out, had a limited play in theatres ahead of its Dec. 23 release on Netflix and made an impressive $13 million.
Glass Onion has done remarkably well during its theatre run — showing that audiences are willing to pay for a big-screen experience upfront, even if the film is promised on a streaming service at a later date. The streaming giant left money on the table by pulling Glass Onion out of theatres, according to a handful of entertainment publications.
But then there are films like Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, a personal story from arguably the most successful American director of all time. It boasted all of the right ingredients, but it’s been having a disappointing performance at the box office.
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It’s also one of the lowest-grossing films by the man who made Jaws, the movie that essentially invented our conception of the modern blockbuster.
“It’s going to take a lot of strong films, strong distributors and filmmakers to sort of help keep the model alive. The model can pivot, and the stories that are being told and who they’re for need to change. I think that’s that,” Gauthier-Mercier said.
“I think that’s a big thing because people want to congregate together and experience — whether it be sadness, happiness, laughter, exhilaration — together. That’s a no-brainer.”
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