The Hollywood Box Office Dilemma

“North American summer revenue barely cracks $4 billion, an eight-year low and down 15 percent from 2013,” read the sub-header at the Hollywood Reporter. The New York Times headline was “Movies Have Worst Summer Since 1997”. Grantland weighed in. So too the Wall Street Journal.

I have seen a bunch of movies this year. I like the movies. One day I want one of those personal IMAX theaters in my house so I don’t have to go to the theater, but can get that experience. I went to the movies this year and went a lot. In fact, from March to the middle of July I probably went every other week at least. A few of the movies I saw more than once. I like going to the movies. I work from home, need a break, and love the escapism of a good movie. I always have.

But this year was rather unfulfilling.

Too many of the movies are the same. Hollywood is too afraid to take risks. We see re-launches of existing franchises, sequels to the re-launches, and similar plots because the studios have to play it safe. But what is worse is that Hollywood has bifurcated itself. It throws out pop culture, crashing violence and superheroes for Middle America and then produces art house horse manure for the awards. Those movies reek of moral ambiguity, relativism, and enough self-congratulatory vomit to fill an ocean.

My friend Ben Domenech has noted before that many of the best directors in Hollywood pointedly avoided American film schools. Most of them are from other countries. They seem to have a better opinion of the average American middle class citizen. They understand we can take deep movies and wild plot twists, but we also want some clear virtues and morality tales. We want to be fulfilled when we leave the theater, not August: Osage County’d to death.

Americans want somebody to root for in a picture and we especially want to root for our own country. There are so many great stories out there, but when Hollywood touches them, they too turn to horse manure because Hollywood is so intent on shocking our sensibilities and giving American values the middle finger. There are a host of reasons why television has been working out so much better for Hollywood these days than films. But chief among them has to do with the characters. There typically is a character we connect to, who we can root for, and someone we can root against. And sometimes the person we start rooting for turns out to be the person we ultimately root against. But they’re there and they are filled with our sentiments, our lives, and our stories. They don’t take our sentiments, lives, and stories and pee all over them.

I was greatly excited by “Noah”. But it was utter dreck. It used a gnostic text instead of the Bible, turned Noah into a sociopathic killer, and had tree ents turned into rock monsters. I am not kidding. I am hoping Ridley Scott does better with his new Exodus based movie. As an aside, there are so many rich stories in the Bible, but I fear that Hollywood will butcher them all like Noah.

My wife and I went to see The Hundred-Foot Journey two weeks ago. There was no sex, no violence, and no profanity. But the movie gave us characters to root for, themes we could connect to, and was an enjoyable movie. There are so many stories like that to tell, but Hollywood just feels utterly convinced it must turn those stories on their heads.

Hollywood’s problem is that it is making too many movies for itself and offering us the unoriginal, tried, and tired for us that they’re sure we will like because we liked it last year, the year before, and the year before that.