I would think that if you’re a person of average thought and empathy, the news that this summer’s movie box office fell off a cliff might fill you with . . . actually, not much emotion at all. Surely there are more pressing matters to worry about at the present, given that at least three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear to be stalking the Americas in the form of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes. Not to mention the Beast with the thermonuclear coiffure in the White House.
Which may be a large part of the problem, as I’ll get to in a moment. But the collected brainpower of the Hollywood studio executives has decided, per a New York Times story, that the reason no one wants to go to the movies anymore is Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, the website that aggregates movie reviews and assigns them a binary red tomato/splatty green tomato score.
According to execs interviewed in the Times story, the critical groupthink enforced by the review site strangles titles in their cribs and chases audiences away before the movies even have a chance. That a 27 percent rating for “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” — meaning only 27 out of 100 reviews were positive — dooms the movie more than audience word of mouth does, or there’s the fact that “King Arthur” might simply be a terrible movie.
This is nonsense, and further evidence that the film business is mired in a stunning state of denial about its own decline. There are any number of reasons that the US summer box office was down 14.6 percent over last summer, or that year-to-date figures are down 6.5 percent comparable to 2016. There are any number of reasons that fewer people went to the movies the last weekend in August — the worst weekend of the entire 21st century, to date — than in the days following either 9/11 or the JFK assassination. Not one of those reasons has anything to do with critics or Rotten Tomatoes.
Let us count the ways:
1. Mainstream studio films are, by and large, insanely bad.
2017 started well with “Get Out,” an unexpected but very welcome smash hit (especially given the eensy size of its budget), and the summer got off on a decent foot with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Wonder Woman” — reasonably intelligent variations on the overproduced digital fantasy-action circuses that are all that studios know how to do nowadays. But then came the flops: “King Arthur,” “Baywatch,” “The Mummy,” “Transformers 5,” “Pirates of the Caribbean 5,” “The Dark Tower” — all of them smug, deafening, and incomprehensible. If there was an original idea to be found among any of them, that idea was bad. More to the point, why pay money for this schlock when you could stay in and watch better TV shows? Which leads me to the next point.
2. The mainstream theatrical exhibition business model is verging on the obsolete.
Yes, a new “Star Wars” movie or other pop-culture event will always bring in the hordes, but the bread-and-butter comedies, thrillers, dramas, and horror movies? Most audiences wait to stream them at home, when they’re not playing video games or bingeing any of the superior TV series available up and down the dial. The multiplex chains have spent the summer watching their stock prices plummet and sticking their heads in the sand, fighting off a plan, MoviePass, that would bring more audiences to theaters, steadfastly refusing to let studios cut streaming deals that make sense, and generally behaving like their own worst enemies.
Ironically, the arthouse circuit, home to theaters like the Coolidge Corner, the Brattle, and the Somerville in our area, is in a stronger position, because it’s selling an idea. That idea is community, both local and aesthetic, with audiences devoted to a particular moviehouse and to the more challenging/interesting fare to be found there. The arthouses sell connoisseurship and a curated experience. What are the multiplexes selling? Overpriced junk food, shoddy projection quality, and some of the worst movies to be found on this planet. The horse has left the barn, Hollywood. We’ll still flock to movie theaters to see the movies that matter, but the home screen has become our home base.
3. Who can watch a movie when the world is going to pieces?
There are times we need to escape into a mindless piece of entertainment; most of us call this a normal Friday night. By contrast, there are times when a crisis seems so big, or so many crises pile atop each other, that escapism seems a refuge for cowards. The ongoing slow-motion disaster of incompetence and cruelty that is the Trump presidency — oh, how history will judge us — adds to the day-in-day-out trudge of dread that three-quarters of this country has experienced since Inauguration Day. White supremacy is on the rise, North Korea’s lobbing warheads, Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Jose are reducing the Caribbean coast to a tear-down. Climate change? It’s here and it’s mad as hell. Please don’t ask about the solar flares.
In a context such as this, worrying about why “The Emoji Movie” didn’t break $100 million domestic feels a little nauseating. In a context like this, I’d rather read Ta-Nehesi Coates calling the Trump presidency wholly to account, a different and more cleansing kind of hurricane in The Atlantic.
There are movie entertainments and experiences coming down the pike that will lure us back into the dark — I’ve already been to some of the fall festivals and I’ve seen them. But right now seems a time to be out in the daylight, helping the people who need helping and standing firmer than ever against those doing the hating. We’ll still want to escape — just not the way the studios and multiplex chains expect us to, possibly not ever again. The sooner they admit that, the longer they might last.
A few good movies wouldn’t hurt, either.