The Death of the Middle Picture in Hollywood

Make no mistake – we’re living in an increasingly infantile cinematic landscape; what the hell is going on with the American ticket-buying populace? Part of the problem starts at the studio level, as they’ve shifted away from the mid-range, big-star programmer, as well as classic dramas made for adults outside of a few year-end “prestige releases.” They’ve almost exclusively catered to fan-boy culture, pumping out an alarming number of four quadrant-marketed, overly-homogenized blockbusters (and would-be blockbusters that have extraordinarily tanked), with a zombie-like stare into the CGI-franchise abyss. It didn’t used to be like this. 20 years ago – hell, even 10 years ago – this wasn’t the case. You certainly had sequels and obvious cash grabs being made, but they were balanced out by more than just shock and awe on the release calendar. And these days, because nearly every single film that gets released on any given Friday is marketed as THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER MADE, there’s an astonishing level of pressure placed on these tent-pole films to succeed. This past summer, the writing was on the wall, with various super-sized productions either going bust at the box-office or falling drastically short of expectations. Call it franchise fatigue, call it whatever you want, but when audiences start to ignore the big releases AND the smaller ones, well, you know we’re all in trouble.

the death of the middle picture in hollywood

It’s horrifying to note just how many adult-skewing films have under-performed or outright bombed since this past September 1st. The list includes: Stronger, mother!, The Mountain Between Us, Only the Brave, Logan Lucky, American Made, Battle of the Sexes, Suburbicon, The Snowman, Marshall, Thank You For Your Service, and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Nearly all of these films, except for the totally roasted The Snowman and the mostly lambasted Suburbicon, would qualify as “critically acclaimed,” and all of them include “major stars” that have opened pictures in the past to strong box-office tallies. The only film of high pedigree aimed at adults that has clicked at the box-office recently has been Wind River, and thanks to eternal scumbag and serial rapist Harvey Weinstein, that film’s Oscar chances have now been dashed. And leading into the final movie-going months of the year, I’m definitely skeptical about the commercial prospects that await a quartet of big releases: Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (not helped by the recent sex-criminal allegations lobbed against co-star Kevin Spacey), Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq., Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread; there seems to be a monetary ceiling that these movies are now having to fight to push past.

Death of the middle picture in Hollywood

And what are the reasons for this? I’d argue it’s a complicated set of factors which include apathetic, under-educated movie-going audiences who mostly only care about being WOWED every single time they spend $10 to see a film on the big screen, and studio executives who have conditioned a certain sector of the movie-going populace to want and expect one type of movie, over and over again. Adults seem disinterested in seeing cop movies or legal thrillers, which were staples in the 80’s and 90’s, opting to watch similarly themed fare on television. Then there’s the fact that teenagers don’t flock to cinemas as much as they did in the past; they’re too busy texting nude selfies to each other and bullying one another via social media to the point of suicide. And then when they are in the theater, they routinely ruin the experience for those of us who are there to, you know, watch the movie unfolding on screen. And then there’s the sad fact that the idea of the traditional “movie star” is dead; I can think of two actors (Leonardo DiCaprio and Denzel Washington) who nearly guarantee some sort of solid financial return regardless of genre, but for the most part, audiences don’t care about seeing a new movie on Friday night because it happens to star a particular actor. They care about the hook, the gimmick, the extended universe of it all, and not so much about the ambition of the filmmaker, or a blind-desire to take a chance on something new and unexpected.

Death of the middle picture in Hollywood

Which is why Netflix, Amazon, A24, Annapurna, and other newbie distributors and production companies have popped up looking for their slice of the cinematic pie; they seem to be interested in attempting to make the movies that the studios aren’t interested in, even if they still don’t have a full understanding of how to market and release their product. But their reach is limited, and these days, there are too many options for people. There’s too much “hand-held entertainment,” too many avenues of distraction and channels to binge, and simply not enough time. The quality of the stories being told on television has attracted some of the best filmmakers to move from the silver screen to the small screen, as they don’t have to face the absurdities of insipid notes and suggestions from clueless studio executives who almost always try to water down content and ideas, all the while searching for the next $150 million super-movie that will more than likely flop.

Death of the middle picture in Hollywood

Low-budget horror items seem to be the only guarantee these days, and even then, because there are so many offerings of that sort, many tend to not find a theatrical audience but become big hits in other forms. And listen, I’m not stupid – there are exceptions to the rule to be found ever year. But in my opinion, what’s gone down at the studio level is shameful and absolutely horrifying to witness. By simply looking at the list of released films from year to year (Boxofficemojo is a tremendous resource for this), it’s abundantly clear that unless the film is a clear-cut “Oscar Bait” product, or something that’s easily identifiable to the masses, or independently financed and then acquired by a major studio, less and fewer chances are being taken on smaller, provocative material. And this is to say nothing of the public’s continued shunning of anything topical or relating to the world around us – this is egregious business. When chances are taken, audiences hold up their noses and allow smart, intelligent films to die on the vine while paying multiple visits to the same big-budget nonsense that does nothing to further the cinematic arts.

Written by Nick Clement

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3 Comments

  • You may have missed another reason: young critics who take superheroes seriously. I cringe when I read their praise for a comic book movie…”It has a story!” Which they regard as high art since a story is never really expected and seldom matters. They give a tent pole more attention than it deserves because how can you not pay attention to a movie budget of nine figures. In the end these tent poles will be forgotten with the development of even more CGIs, while more of the small pictures will endure. At the very least they will not lose $100 million. dollars, and usually turn a small profit while redeeming the souls of actors embarrassed by playing cardboard roles in junk movies.

  • Gary says:

    Well, movies are a form of escapism. Why after dealing with the realities of everyday life all week long would you want to plunk down your hard-earned income to sit through the same wretched reality you get every day (your definition of topical) when you can see stuff blow up via cgi?

  • Craig says:

    I guess with this you also have to question “What’s a movie?” and “Why on the big screen?” Just as the multi-plex worked a generation ago with a blockbuster on the biggest screen, and the smaller theatres housing the middle pictures, the place for the that now is in my living room, on TV. Television, with its intimacy is better suited to emotional dramas anyway. And TV-based content, such as Big Little Lies, House of Cards, True Detective, Mindhunter, Feud, American Crime Story, Better Call Saul and Outlander, in fact IS today’s (long form) middle picture in terms of star power, quality and execution, no?