Post Oscar Thought: Grown Up Films – An Endangered Species?

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“When I was a child,” film reviewer Stephen Whitty wrote in “What Happened to Grown-Up Films?” for New Jersey’s state paper, The Star-Ledger, on the day of the Oscars, “most of the big hits in movie theaters were aimed at adults. Now that I’m an adult, most of the big hits in movie theaters are aimed at children.”

Earlier this month (“Why Can’t An Oscar-Winner Look More Like a Hit?” posted 2/8/12), several of us on this site were discussing what turns out to be the heart of Whitty’s article: the divergence between the acclaimed and the popular. With respect to my SOS colleagues, none of us put it quite as eloquently or made as substantial a case for the how’s and why’s behind that schism as Whitty does. His piece is worth a read and you can find it here.

The part of Whitty’s article which really brought it home for me – since he and I are about the same age – was his now-and-then contrast of box office toppers:

“In 1971…I was 12 and just getting seriously interested in films. And that was easy. Because back then, the top 10 domestic grossers were, in order, Fiddler on the Roof, The French Connection, Summer of ’42, Diamonds Are Forever, Dirty Harry, Carnal Knowledge, A Clockwork Orange, Klute, The Last Picture Show, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks

“In 2011, the top 10 movies included two films based on young-adult novels, two more based on toys or amusement park rides, two superhero films, one sci-fi flick, one cartoon, one raunchy comedy and one over-the-top action picture…not one was a drama.”

Oft-quoted box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian looked at the year’s Top 10 and noted, “You can’t find a single original movie on it. They’re sequels, remakes or they’re setting us up for next year’s The Avengers…”

Whitty quotes director Steven Soderbergh that back in The Day “…the best movies were the most successful movies. And that changed. That just doesn’t exist anymore.”

A look at the box office numbers for this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, and those of 2011’s chart toppers, brings the point home in grim dollars-and-cents detail. The worldwide gross as of this writing for all nine nominees totals a hair over $1 billion…just about the same as the worldwide earnings for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides alone…and about $100 million less than those of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

In other words, each of those two truly lousy movies (34% and 35% on Rotten Tomatoes’ “Tomato Meter” respectively) did better than all nine of the supposedly best films of the year combined.

With the exception of The Help ($169.7), no Best Picture nominee broke the $100 million barrier, and none of the nine made it into the Top 10 (The Help stands at #13 for the year out of a field of 598 releases). In fact, of the other eight, none placed higher than #41 (War Horse). Best Picture winner The Artist barely made the Top 100, coming in at #96 behind such fare as Final Destination 5 and Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son.

The lack of a big hit in the Best Picture line-up was reflected in the ratings for the Oscar telecast which tend to ebb and flow with the popularity of the nominees.  Although viewership was up a bit from last year’s 37.6 million to 39.3 million, the numbers still look a little anemic compared to the telecast’s 1988-2002 heyday when viewership regularly hovered in the 40 millions or better.

Whitty ends his piece with more optimism than I have. He looks at the success of 2010’s The King’s Speech, or this year’s Midnight in Paris, and says this proves there’s still an audience for substantive, intelligent films.  He maintains – bless him – that “…many Americans are still sophisticated, dedicated movie lovers.”

Me, I’m not so sure.

Today, I stood at the head of one of the university classes I teach and looked out at my 20 or so students – none older than 21 – and asked who’d watched the Oscars last night. Three put up their hands. One admitted he didn’t even know it had been on. I asked if anybody had seen any of the Best Picture nominees.  One had seen two of them…and that’s it.

Keep a good thought, Stephen.

-Bill Mesce

8 Comments
  1. sillytee says

    great article and responses..thanks to accidentally discovering SOS (and ricky d’s passion for movies) i have seen some pretty good movies lately. staindslave..wish there were more young adults like you!!!!

  2. Staindslaved says

    Three Points

    1) They are still making great adult films.  I know that these films not finding big box-office success is a new (and potentially disturbing) trend but the fact of the matter is that the same number of great films are made each and every year.  Until this changes I’m not overly concerned about the cinema world as a whole.

    2) It is more applicable to make a film than ever before.  The biggest reason for the rise in indie filmmaking over the past decade is because it is easier than ever to make a film in High Def, with marginally known actors at a reasonable cost.  Basically 10 years ago the film Martha Marcy May Marlene would never have existed.  This gives more creative young filmmakers more opportunities than ever to showcase their talents to the world.  The internet, DVD’s, Netflix, On Demand, etc. have only aided in this expansion of small film exposure.

    3) My last point is more of a self reflection.  10 years ago I was one of these teenage males who consistently went to the box-office and paid top dollar to see trash, often multiple times.  I helped make Pearl Harbor and Armageddon box-office smashes. I would have told you that The Scorpion King was a good movie and would have recommended it to friends.  I would have told you the greatest films of all-time were Spider-Man, The Matrix, Jaws, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Aliens.  Good films to be sure but none (except maybe Jaws) would be on any self-respecting film-buffs list of 10 greatest films ever made.  I scoffed at films nominated for awards or critical darlings which were nothing more than pretentious crap snobs hailed in an attempt to make themselves look and feel artsy. In a nutshell, I was ignorant. What happened to me was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  I watched it in my English class in high school.  I and numerous members of my class howled and moaned.  “A film from the 70’s? About a mental institution? Oh God! Is it even in color?!?!”.  Halfway into the film and I was mesmerized.  I was captivated like I had never been before or since.  “How could a film that good…like…not be known…by everybody?” I thought.  Were they keeping these things a secret?  I went home and began doing some research.  I stumbled upon AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest American films ever made.  I had seen maybe a dozen of them and all were films I greatly enjoyed and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was barely in the top 20. “Maybe there’s something to this I thought”. I decided to watch the list. I discovered the grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia, the mystery of Chinatown, the spectacle that is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I began studying film, its conception, its history, the big names, the iconic players, the famous triumphs, the infamous flops. I learned the term Mise en scène, the difference between a tracking shot and panning. I now hungrily consumed Oscar winning films, foreign films, documentaries. I was exposed to the world of cinema beyond the Movie Star vehicles, the Saturday Night Live comedies and the big blockbuster superhero epics. It has become my hobby, my passion, my obsession. It has grabbed a hold of my life and changed the very person that I am. I am more cultured due to film, I am more worldly due to film, I am more knowledgeable, interesting and creative. To this day it is one of the biggest things that makes me ME and I’m forever grateful for it.

    I’m not saying that exposure will turn everyone into a cinephile, I’m just saying that Generation Y wouldn’t know what a quality film is if it hit them on the head. Ticket stubs and money may have turned Hollywood into the franchise re-make, re-boot, sequel machine that it is today but most young movie goers don’t know that there’s anything beyond it. They’ve never heard of The Artist, The Descendants, The Tree of Life and you can just forget about anything made before Star Wars. “That’s when movies like first happened right?” They are constantly bombarded with the same marketing for the same non-sense again and again and again. They see it so much they feel like “it must be good if it’s all over the place”. Even as I write this post on Soundonsight.org there is a banner to the left advertising The Lorax which is in theaters this Friday available in Real IMAX TREE-D. The Generation that has grown-up in the past 10-20 years has been exposed to little else and they accept the reality of the world with which they are presented.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Staindslaved —
      Thanks for your sometimes quite affecting comments. As it happened, I wrote several months ago about how the distribution system has changed in a way which keeps new generations from being exposed to great films from the past.
      I see in you and Mr. Whitty traces of the Eternal Optimist and I wish I could share it. I agree, that great films are made each year. But, as they become more financially untenable, it gets harder to make them, and there is a point at which even a filmmaker has to ask him/herself a question: “If I make a great movie and it runs in the forest where no one sees it, is it worth the time, trouble and money?”
      Yeah, you can make movies pretty cheaply with the new filmmaking technologies, but without distribution, without public visibility you might just as well screen then in your closet.
      Indie filmmaking, as a financially viable way to go, is actually on a decline from its peak in the 1990s. I can’t remember the title, but Peter Biskind wrote an account of the rise and fall of the U.S. indie scene as a follow-up to his EASY RIDERS AND RAGING BULLS.
      As you point out in your terrific comment, you can make these things, but we’re hardly cultivating an audience to watch them.
      Thanks for contributing.

      1. Staindslaved says

        Bill –
        I’ve been accused of optimism before, lol. Glad you appreciated my post (I went a little overboard but rereading it I think it come off rather genuine). If there’s one thing I am confident in, it is that Hollywood will change when it is forced to. In the 40’s and 50′ Westerns were made at a dizzying pace (I remember reading one year that almost half the films produced were Westerns) and now the genre is dead in the water. I look at the future and can’t imagine that this bloated budget sequel craze is going to endure for the next 20-30 years. Will the next thing be better? Worse? Couldn’t tell ya, but as long as there are creative and innovative filmmakers getting their projects funded someway somehow I’m at the very least content.

    2. porkchop says

      I love stories like this. Mine is the opposite! I spent junior high watching Kubrick, Altman, Lynch, Scorsese, etc. because that’s what my parents watched. (Try to picture a 14 year old girl in the video store furtively asking her mom if she could rent “Short Cuts” again.)

      My turning point was in college as well, when I was finally fun-loving enough for the awesomeness of James Cameron or Paul Verhoeven.

      Yes, exposure is key :) We’re made to love the movies, but some of us haven’t realized it yet.

      On a down note–actual conversation with a college student:

      -We watched this old movie in class.

      -Oh, yeah? What was it?

      -It’s in black and white. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it? Citizen Kane?

      -Yes. I’ve seen it. What did you think?

      -*shrug* It was okay.

      Lately I’ve been wondering if the lack of grown-up movies in the top 10 is because we now make a small number of very expensive crap movies that have to succeed, instead of a large volume of low-budget crap movies that don’t have to succeed (as much). Is the audience for “good” movies actually shrinking?

      1. Staindslaved says

        I think Citizen Kane has a major generation gap. Perhaps years ago the film was more relevant when William Randolph Hearst was more well known. Today I think the film does not resonate as it did, today it is more of a technical marvel and a framework for story structure. Whenever asked I always tell people that the greatest film ever made is Casablanca not Citizen Kane.

  3. Bill Mesce says

    Thanks for your comment, Tope, but this is one of those times you don’t get much satisfaction from hearing someone say they agree with you. This is one of those times you’d be happy as hell to see things happen in the marketplace to prove you wrong.

  4. Tope says

    Stephen Whitty’s article is very articulate, very insightful. This statement sums up my particular frustrations with this trend we’re seeing: “Knowing that these movies [complex adult dramas] could be difficult sells, the studios simply would have committed more time and money to selling them.”

    I look around the city I live in and it is absolutely no surprise to me why some films are making billions while others have never even been heard of. It’s unfair and defeatist in the worts possible way. It’s as if the studios do not realise how much of an impact they have on audience choice. Hell, audience awareness. How much they’ve influenced audience tastes over the years.

    Whitty says “there’s still an intelligent audience out there, which should inspire the studios a little.” I don’t know that studios care. Sure there is an audience, but it’s not THE audience they’re after.

    At the same time, I have to blame the public. I really do. I was saddened and distressed to realise that my med school cohort, the kind of people who would ostensibly be the target audience for the intelligent adult drama (so I though), had as much interest in these films as the general public. As much as they bemoaned the sheer shittiness of Transformers of Grown-ups, they weren’t always that much more keen to have a film like Certified Copy or even The Social Network sold to them.

    I’m with you, Bill. I don’t know that people care to be challenged. I really don’t.

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