Where Are The Movies?
As 2022 came to a close, many justifiably thought the year was rather sparse in quality films. The year had largely been a parade of a handful of massive tentpole movies spread out every couple of months, to varying degrees of critical success. Some of these blockbusters were good, but if one is chained only to viewing films operating on a grand budget they do themself a disservice by missing out on the interesting independent projects bubbling beneath the surface.
You’ve probably heard of at least one of them– A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once (made for a modest $14mil, or nearly 1/18th the budget of the recently released sequel to Black Panther), which became a runaway success and the indie studios’ all-time biggest hit this spring through rapturous word of mouth, creating a minor cultural phenomenon in the process. Its run was a huge moment for film and movie theaters after a pandemic that had lessened their importance and a spit in the face to the streaming service playbook, where as much content as can be produced is dumped to fend for itself. Here was a movie people were leaving their couches to go out of their way to see, not throwing on because they don’t feel like leaving it.
Yet since Everything’s release, no indie film has been able to gather the same momentum, though certainly not for lack of trying. In the doldrums of early fall, when the biggest corporations had only been able to muster up half-baked escapism like Bullet Train and Black Adam, last year’s swath of “prestige” pictures fought for attention among a sea of genre pictures, marketing themselves to a smaller audience with the hope that recommendations could drive tickets over pure marketing power. While to some that term (frequently equated to “Oscar bait,” incorrectly) inspires a groan and images of self-serious pretension, it truly says nothing about the content or quality of said film. While October was barren for large releases, independent fare like Tár, The Fabelmans, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, and Aftersun have been populating smaller theaters all over New York, waiting for someone to take a chance on them.
But what is keeping these movies from truly breaking out? Not reviews, clearly–the previously mentioned Aftersun stood tall as the highest-rated film of the year on aggregate website Metacritic, but remains shockingly under-viewed even in the niche of A24 movies. Quality movies being ignored upon release is nothing new, but in a film landscape with gaps this large between buzzy releases, these notable films not stepping up to the plate for a chance of breaking out is odd, to say the least.
A24 did not give the film the same push Everything Everywhere did, deciding to put it in a maximum of 97 U.S. screens, dropping even lower since. On top of that, it had barely seen advertising outside posters placed within local theaters, an oddity considering the distributors’ knack for promoting their films through the internet. For multiple years now, A24 films have taken refuge in the advertisements between Instagram stories– alongside Everything Everywhere, their horror releases of the year (X, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and Pearl) were all pushed through this platform. Yet there had barely been a peep about Aftersun on these channels. In fact, as someone who follows the Film Festival Circuit where the film premiered pretty attentively, I’m still not completely sure what the plot of the film even is, outside of a few evocative images and blurbs shared by film critics. With the extensive pushes given to their higher profile releases last year, it would be a fair assumption that the small studio simply didn’t have the budget left to give this film the rollout it deserved, yet the complete abandonment of what could have been a big award’s season contender doesn’t sit right with me. Looking at the trends of theatergoing and marketing that may have influenced that decision points to a worrying ideology of turning “prestige films” into more content for streaming services.
Last November, Searchlight Pictures, an indie division of the Disney subsidiary (barf) formerly known as 20th Century Fox, released The Banshees of Inisherin at the top of the month, for releases (the next “major” film? Disney’s own Black Panther.) It received plenty of critical attention for its darkly comical script and engaging performances from Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as bickering Irishmen, and awareness grew as it slowly expanded to 900 screens. With the positive buzz and a director whose last film––Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri–– brought in $164 million for Searchlight (for context, that’s more than this year’s Scream reboot), the film was on the road to being a decent success…until Disney chopped its screenings in half over Thanksgiving before announcing it would be headed to streaming mid-December.
While this made Banshees more accessible to many far quicker, it also showed the value the company thought the film held among their output. By undercutting the theatrical experience of seeing a smaller movie to provide more content for their streaming libraries, they instantly crumble the perception of how much the film was “worth.” No one signed up for Hulu just to watch Banshees of Inisherin, but they might click on it if they scroll past it. This made its worth next to zero, a minuscule fraction of a monthly subscription fee. That isn’t fair to the months of laboring and craft that goes into every film, and it is infuriating to see art treated like this while complaints about a lack of “quality releases” in the cinema are at an all-time high. With similar releases given to almost all films without the budget of a small country behind them, it’s as if these companies want those movies to be buried alongside the cheap off-brand Hallmark movies and failed streaming pilots.
In the age of Netflix, what differentiates a “film” from a straight-to-TV movie? Streaming services depend on every type of “content” blurring together, bringing forth the slow annihilation of categories of moving-image art. In specifying its focus and the definition of its programming, the movie theater encourages unique works of film art to stand out–– when their billion-dollar overseers allow them to.
While for some it feels like streaming has been a part of our culture forever, in truth it has only been a major player for less than a decade. Its convenience and instantaneous nature have been seen largely as improvements over the old cable methods, and as movie ticket prices continue to climb it provides the most bang for one's buck. In the rapid embrace of all things streaming, however, many questions have been left unanswered about how it all works. Netflix, the leader of the pack in terms of streaming subscribers and influence, operated at a loss for almost all of the 2010s, borrowing around $16 billion up until January 2021 when they claimed they no longer needed external cash. Their proposed budget for media this year in its entirety is $17 billion1. To offset this insane spending, their monthly rate increased by $1.50 this March, bringing their lowest plan up to $10 a month and their lowest plan that has HD video (an insane distinction in 2022) up to $15.49 a month. With a most recent subscriber count of 223 million, they’re only raking in a bit over $3 billion in subscriptions.
Considering this company just declined to screen Glass Onion, the sequel to the very successful Knives Out that they paid $469 million for the rights to two years ago, in theaters for more than the week they felt obligated to do so, it’s a fair question to ask: where are they getting this money? If streaming has finally killed the small-scale theatrical experience, then why does it feel sustained purely through popularity? Disney’s streaming division (comprised of Disney+ and Hulu) lost its parent company $1.47 billion last year, yet they felt Banshees of Inisherin belonged there rather than in theaters. According to them, it needed to be fed into the machine as fast as possible, acting as coal to be burned to keep the streaming train chugging and people from canceling their subscriptions. Movies aren’t allowed to build up excitement and buzz because they’re no longer seen as individual pieces of art but loot withheld to force interested viewers to subscribe to one service over another. They come to our homes quicker, but is it worth watching quality films being stripped for parts rather than given the spotlight they deserve?
All this is to say, the work is on us. Having the time or willingness to sift through the junk to find quality in a sea of constantly releasing visual media is a difficult ask in our busy lives. Yet something is always out there waiting to captivate you, to take you somewhere unexpected and let you stay in its world for a few hours rather than get caught up in your own. Recently, a film that blew me away was Decision to Leave, by director Park Chan-wook. A South Korean drama harkening back to the thrillers of Hitchcock, it follows a detective who gets caught up in a widow’s complicated web of truths and lies while investigating the death of her husband. Its twisty plot and energetic cinematography shine bright, and while not necessarily an independent film (it was a massive success in its home country earlier this year), as a subtitled South Korean movie it certainly faces an uphill battle in attracting a general American audience. In today’s film marketplace it is wholly unique, a trait more films can claim than one would expect. Unfortunately, those bankrolling these pictures have left moviegoers to find them on their own. Between unpromoted theatrical runs and dumped streaming releases, the work of hundreds fall under the radar, left to languish beneath retreads of old properties and brands– but the quality and diversity is out there, and it always will be. It just needs to be discovered first.
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