Are Movies So Bad?

The movies have been so rank the last couple of years that when I see people lining up to buy tickets I sometimes think that the movies aren’t drawing an audience—they’re inheriting an audience. People just want to go to a movie. They’re stung repeatedly, yet their desire for a good movie—for any movie—is so strong that all over the country they keep lining up. “There’s one God for all creation, but there must be a separate God for the movies,” a producer said. “How else can you explain their survival?” An atmosphere of hope develops before a big picture’s release, and even after your friends tell you how bad it is, you can’t quite believe it until you see for yourself. The lines (and the grosses) tell us only that people are going to the movies—not that they’re having a good time. Financially, the industry is healthy, so among the people at the top there seems to be little recognition of what miserable shape movies are in. They think the grosses are proof that people are happy with what they’re getting, just as TV executives think that the programs with the highest ratings are what TV viewers want, rather than what they settle for…

…There are a lot of reasons that movies have been so bad during the last couple of years and probably won’t be any better for the next couple of years. One big reason is that rotten pictures are making money—not necessarily wild amounts (though a few are), but sizable amounts. So if studio heads want nothing more than to make money and grab power, there is no reason for them to make better ones. Turning out better pictures might actually jeopardize their position.

Sound familiar? The above quotations come from a piece entitled Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers by Pauline Kael published in The New Yorker, June 23rd 1980.

There is a lot of chatter right now about how dreadful films are in the 2000s. Articles such as Mark Harris’ The Day the Movies Died get a lot of attention and it seems very popular to bemoan the death of popular cinema, emphasis on the word popular, and how things are getting progressively worse. Whilst I will admit that there is a lot of dross out there I do wonder if things are any worse than they were in any other decade and even if they are whether perhaps we are merely in the midst of a trough in a cycle that will inevitably peak again soon.

Ultimately though it is us that have the power over the quality of popular Film (and Television) as Hollywood executives are quick to realise what makes money and if we don’t behave like an intelligent and discerning audience that demand quality cinema, they will simply throw the simplest, cheapest and most banal crap at us. If you wish there were more Hollywood films like True Grit, The Social Network and Toy Story 3 and less like Tron Legacy, Transformers 2 and Yogi Bear then the simple answer is surely just to vote with your feet. Then perhaps we will be looking back at Mark Harris’ piece in 30 years, surveying 30 years of transcendent cinema and wondering what the hell he was going on about.

(This was originally posted at my old blog in 2011.)