HughesReviews Special Report: The Disposability of Modern Movies

| June 7th, 2024

The Friday column will return to football next week! 

There has been a growing conversation on various social media platforms about the decline of modern cinema, but much of that conversation centers around the box office returns of various “failed” studio pictures, i.e. The Fall Guy and Furiosa. But there is a far more serious development than the changing patterns of movie consumption. Movies, through the misguided behavior of studios, streamers and distributors, have been rendered disposable.

For the sake of discussing the lack of cultural impact being made by modern cinema, we will need a film around which to center that discussion. As a nod to Seinfeld, a sitcom responsible for creating some of the most magnificent fake films in history, we will use its crowning achievement, Rochelle, Rochelle, a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.

We start with Entertainment Weekly.

In the 1990s, the seasonal preview issues of EW were the Holy Bible for film fans. These issues laid out, week-by-week, every movie release expected over the coming months. Many, me included, would create our own calendars with a listing of the films we wanted to/expected to see. When I picked up the fall preview issue, I would identify that Rochelle, Rochelle was releasing in New York and Los Angeles on September 17. That moment, it’s listing in that issue, was the inception point, the beginning of Rochelle, Rochelle‘s cultural impact.

A release on September 17th in limited cities would not be limited to strictly New York City and Los Angeles, but also the New York City suburbs, which included Montclair, New Jersey, where I would have likely seen it at the Clairidge (pictured above). The film would be reviewed by all of the major critics and seen by all the serious film fans in those areas. If the reviews were good, and it did decent business, the film would expand to more theaters by around mid-October.

Rochelle, Rochelle is a small film so it wouldn’t be expected to gross hundreds of millions of dollars, but it could have a life in a few hundred theaters (or more) for those few months. Then it would fade as more titles emerged, and likely be out of theaters by the time the big Christmas releases. In early January, if it received Oscar nominations, Rochelle, Rochelle would return to cinemas with a new advertising campaign focused on those nominations. Again, it wouldn’t be expected to make a fortune, but it could play for a month or so before fading out again.

Then would come the Oscars in March. If Rochelle, Rochelle won a bunch of awards, guess what? They’d put it in cinemas again! Why? Because studios and distributors valued the cinemagoing experience and wanted to give the film every chance possible to reach a wide audience.

A month or so later, the film would be available at your local video store, but not until it had exhausted its cinematic potential. The fact that Barbie announced its VOD date (just two weeks out) while still being the number one movie in America was the wildest moment of movies in 2023. Why? Why would you give an audience the option NOT to see your film in the theater? Why would you give those who loved the film a reason NOT to see it a second time? Not only would we have to wait for films to reach the home video market, but many of us would also preorder (to own) the films we liked from outlets like Suncoast Video in malls across America.

At the video store, if the film was a hit, you might have trouble renting it. It might take two or three weeks for you to get your hands on it, depending on how many copies the store had on its shelves. The movie’s unavailability gave it a bit of a buzz. But it is safe to say that by mid-May, everyone who wanted to see Rochelle, Rochelle had just about done so.

Nine months.

From the listing in that issue of EW, until the Rochelle, Rochelle vacated the “New Release” section of the local video store, was a grand total of nine months. For nine months, Rochelle, Rochelle was part of the cultural consciousness. It was seen, discussed, written about. Hell, between the cinematic run and the video store, Rochelle, Rochelle might also have a played a second-run movie house where folks could see it for $2. Movies had an artistic trajectory, a well-worn path to relevance. The blockbuster path was open-and-collect but the smaller film relied upon a network of small theaters, critics and cinephiles to assemble its springboard to relevance.

Sadly, movies have become disposable.

Todd Haynes’ May December was one of the finest films 0f 2023 and would have taken the exact path iterated above, likely resulting in a Natalie Portman Academy Award for what was a breathtaking performance. Instead, one day it was on the Netflix home screen and the next day it wasn’t. That might sound glib but how else can one describe it? If you don’t actively search for May December, you’re not going to find it. The streamers, and the studios behind them, now view films as disposable commodities. Artistic longevity and significance are not considerations.

Is there anything more disposable than the limited series? The miniseries used to be a MAJOR television event. Roots was a miniseries. The Thorn Birds was a miniseries. Lonesome Dove was a miniseries. These were cultural markers for the television medium. The miniseries, and the time required to consume it, was reserved for adaptations of significant literary works. Works deemed too vital to edit. Now, the streamers encourage the six-hour structure because their success models are entirely based upon how much time you spend watching their content. Temporal clickbait.

Let’s talk briefly about Ripley, a rare limited series that I enjoyed. This is a series based upon popular source material, by a Hollywood veteran (Steven Zaillian wrote Schindler’s List and wrote/directed the brilliant Searching for Bobby Fischer) and featuring a rising star (Andrew Scott) in the lead. And nobody watched it. Why? Because the streamers are overpopulated, and new work is only promoted for a few weeks. When you simply throw movies into your streaming pot, how on earth can they be expected to gain traction?

Also, how often are you going to rewatch Squid Game? A movie’s endearing power is in its rewatchability and I don’t believe for one second that viewers have the time to rewatch six-to-eight hours of a limited series. I also don’t believe most of these series require that much running time. They could tell The Godfather in under three hours but not The Queen’s Gambit? How many times are we going to be told the story of the Sacklers?

Art requires air to breathe. It requires time. And that time is not being afforded modern cinema, as studios desperately try to crowbar movies into the failing streaming model. Is there a potential solution within the current Hollywood infrastructure? Probably not. People are not going to return to the physical cinema like they did twenty years ago because there are only roughly a third the number of cinemas now. And with 80-inch television screens and surround sound systems in living rooms now, there’s nothing wrong with engaging on the couch. (As long as you can put the phone away.)

But if the streamers are going to continue in the moviemaking business, it would be helpful if they started behaving like arbiters of an art form and not cublicled click counters. Invest in cinema. Promote and highlight those works. Who knows, the audiences may actually reward you for doing so.

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