Someday we may look back on 2016 as the year the movies died.
That’s a blanket statement, but nothing that came out of the multiplex this summer contradicts it. There were blockbuster hits, and a couple of them were even good, but by far the majority were soulless, noisy, and dull — pure product from an industry that has lost the ability to speak in any meaningful way to a mass audience.
Ask yourself: What in popular culture got people excited or even interested over the past few months? Was it a third “Star Trek” reboot, a fifth “Bourne” movie, a 34th “X-Men”? Or was it “Stranger Things” and “The Night Of” on TV? Was it “Pokemon Go” rearranging reality into a video game scavenger hunt? Was it the lingering fumes of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” in April or the dog day surprise of Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” in late August, albums that came packaged with better movies than anything in theaters? Or was it just our daily dose of Trump outrage on Twitter and Facebook?
What I’m saying is that technology and popular culture inexorably evolve and that the two-hour movie, especially in its larger and more commercial form, is becoming a relic. Make that has become a relic, because the paradigm shift has been happening for years, pegged to the rise of streaming video and the shifting of eyeballs from movie screens and televisions to laptops and smartphones.
Our entertainments have fragmented, fractalized, and our minds and schedules easily encompass nano-programming on YouTube and Snapchat or epic serialized viewing experiences like inhaling the first season of, say, “Outlander” in a handful of sittings. As usual, Netflix and Amazon and HBO are running ahead of the pack. They understand that releasing a tight eight episodes of “Stranger Things” all at once fits conveniently into the way we live and watch in 2016.
Movies? Not so much anymore. Commercial blockbusters still exist and they still make obscene amounts of money, but they matter less and less. This summer they hardly mattered at all. It’s not that there were so many sequels, remakes, reboots, and franchise extensions this summer. That’s a standard complaint. It’s that most of them were so bad.
The two that weren’t — “Finding Dory” and “Captain America: Civil War” — ran away with the US box office at $480 million and $408 million respectively, and while both were satisfying multiplex experiences, neither defined the season the way such movies as “Men in Black” or “The Dark Knight” or “Guardians of the Galaxy” have done in previous summers. If any film seemed to epitomize the year’s on-screen zeitgeist, it was probably “Suicide Squad,” a box office hit that was rammed down audiences’ throats during several years of pre-release hype and that proved in the playing to be nasty, brutish, and long.
It had a sense of humor, at least — a puerile and retrograde sense of humor — which was resolutely lacking in the glum “Jason Bourne” and the incomprehensible and overstuffed “X-Men Apocalypse.” Remember when comic books and the movies derived from them were supposed to be fun? Only the “Avengers” movies seem to keep that contract with audiences, and then only intermittently.
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Anyway, this is less about amusing us and more about making money off the rest of the planet. Hollywood now primarily produces movies for international consumption because that’s where the profits are, and it’s easy to see what sort of thing plays better overseas than at home. “X-Men Apocalypse” made 71 percent of its $543 million global take in foreign markets. “The Angry Birds Movie” — 69 percent. “Independence Day: Resurgence,” a notable flop Stateside — 73 percent. “Warcraft,” the ambitious video game adaptation that tanked in America ($47 million) made nine times that everywhere else.
This means we’ll be seeing more of such movies, and less of Steven Spielberg’s “BFG” or “Pete’s Dragon,” the latter a heartfelt and well-reviewed remake of a 1977 Disney film that probably sat on the cultural shelf too long. A passion project like the Matthew McConaughey historical drama “Free State of Jones” went nowhere theatrically; ironically, it might have fared better as a limited series on HBO or Netflix. All three movies worked to forge emotional connections with their audience as opposed to the joyless, shut-up-and-be-wowed diktat of most blockbusters. Is that why no one went to see them?
There were good-to-excellent films in theaters this summer, of course, but they tended not to play the multiplexes. (Although some did: Both the ingenious origami animation of “Kubo and the Two Strings” and the scurrilously hilarious pixel-porn of Seth Rogen’s “Sausage Party” are worth attending to.) You had to go to the art cinemas or rep houses to find treats like the tough Texas noir “Hell or High Water,” Mike Birbiglia’s adorable “Don’t Think Twice,” or Whit Stillman’s wry Jane Austen adaptation “Love and Friendship.” The sweet-souled Irish film “Sing Street” charmed many who saw it, as did Woody Allen’s “Café Society,” and “The Fits,” a tiny film about a tiny slice of Cincinnati life that keeps expanding in your head after it’s over.
This is where the cinema is headed as its more commercial iteration — we still call them blockbusters, although few blocks are busted nowadays — founders on creative bankruptcy and an audience that will inevitably move on to other forms of entertainment. I called it the jazz-club metaphor in a column last week and the parallel holds: As the two-hour theatrical film falls slowly out of mainstream orbit, it becomes increasingly the province of a smaller but self-selected audience of movie-literate cognoscenti, old, young, and in between. The Oscar season caters to the broader end of that audience but no further: The last five best picture winners have averaged a comparatively paltry $65 million at the box office (the number falls to $47 million once you factor out “Argo”).
Even those diehards are watching movies as part of a larger audio-visual diet that is in serious technological and cultural flux. I could easily say that “Lemonade” was the best movie I saw this spring and “Stranger Things” was the best movie I saw this summer, and if you reply that they’re not movies because they didn’t play in theaters or conform to a two-hour run time, I’d say you’re living in the past. The Hollywood studios still feel comfortable in that paradigm but they’re starting to look like the only ones. Maybe they’re the suicide squad.
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Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.