In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Karen Han, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here. Read the previous dispatch in the series here.
Dear Alison, Karen, and Dana,
We’ve all been addressing this question in one way or another throughout this Movie Club (and honestly, in much of our other writing as well), but it feels like we’ve only recently begun to ask it directly: What does it take, in this day and age, for a movie to succeed? And how do we measure that success? Alison brings up the examples of The Irishman and Avengers: Endgame, both marketed in their own ways as cultural events. One could argue that a big Martin Scorsese gangster movie was always going to find a way into the Discourse. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was also an event, but history shows that Tarantino movies are generally pretty good at getting seen and talked about; in the past, we probably ascribed some of that success to Harvey Weinstein’s steamrolling these movies into the cultural consciousness, but maybe it’s time to give Tarantino himself—you know, the supertalented artist who wrote and directed the actual films—a bit more credit.
Which brings me to Marriage Story and Netflix. As much as I’ve dinged the ‘flix in the past for all sorts of other ills, I have to give it credit for somehow managing to help turn a searing Noah Baumbach marital drama into a viral phenomenon à la Bird Box. And while this one had two huge actors in it—one a Star Warboy, the other an Avenger—a similarly stacked cast didn’t do much for Baumbach’s previous Netflix-produced effort The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). Now, there were all sorts of other variables at work there—among them, the fact that nobody actually wants to see a movie with the title The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—but I think this time, the Netflix release genuinely benefited Marriage Story. Had it been put out by a more theatrically minded distributor, it might have vanished without a trace.
But … is that a good thing? Is a potential “new normal” in which a handful of movies make the briefest theatrical appearances before going straight to streaming, while everything else just gets consigned to a giant digital bargain bin, at all sustainable for movie theaters? I’m quite sure it’s not. And in an environment where all the studios are headed toward creating their own massive streaming platforms, with Disney+ just the most recent example, does the feature film—that singular, complete cinematic unit that still gives me way more pleasure than the various gussied-up soap operas that pass for movies and/or “prestige TV” shows nowadays—have an actual future?
I realize that for the people who care only about “stories,” maybe that distinction doesn’t matter. But cinema is more than a narrative medium. In a future where everything is TV—or even worse, #content—I would argue that you won’t get movies like A Hidden Life, or Climax, or Shadow, or The Wild Pear Tree or Greta Gerwig’s Little Women anymore. These are films built not around stories, but on the idea of cinema as its own kind of experiential space; to appreciate them, you need to give the screen your total attention, and you have to be willing to go from Point A to Point B to Point C with very few interruptions. I keep thinking about something Gerwig herself said a couple of years ago. I’m paraphrasing, but it was to the effect that going to a movie is one of the few experiences we have left where we’re not asked to do anything else for two hours. That was maybe not so novel once upon a time. But nowadays, we have to fight for that space. It takes actual work to try to get away from the news, from work, from the pricy little box in our pockets that keeps ringing and vibrating like a neglected, demonic child. But man, does it feel great when you’re able to do it.
Which brings me to Dana’s question about our transcendent theatrical experiences this year. I’m very excited to note that there were quite a few for me. Cats was one—for perhaps all the wrong reasons if you happened to be the filmmakers, but still. A big old Thanksgiving family outing to see Knives Out, a movie I didn’t quite love as much as everyone else but still enjoyed, was another. I also watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood three times in theaters, and only one of those was for work.
There was also James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, a big screen movie if I ever saw one. It’s hard to do justice to that film’s ability to put you in the front seat of those speeding, spinning cars. Whenever I try to describe it, I make it sound like a video game, but it is absolutely not that. In that front seat, you don’t just see the road; you also see the drivers and crawl into their heads. It’s a profoundly human, totally immersive experience. And while it did well at the box office—it actually made more than $100 million!—I thought Ford v Ferrari would have a bit more cultural shelf life than it did. It made money, but nobody seems to be talking about it. (Certainly, Christian Bale’s deliciously broad turn as legendary driver Ken Miles deserved more love. You could meme that performance forever; every single one of his reaction shots should have fueled a thousand GIFs.) So maybe Ford v Ferrari, in its own way, exemplifies the current dilemma of distribution: It’s a big screen movie that deserved to be in theaters, but—I’m terrified even to say this—I wonder if it might have seized the cultural spotlight more effectively had it been a Netflix release. Anyway, I loved seeing it on a big screen. I’m looking forward to seeing it on a big screen again before it’s gone.
I should also add that I saw a lot of wonderful screenings of older films this year. There are many people out there who think that repertory cinema is dead and gone, but this is not the case, like, at all. (Even if a couple of giant corporations are determined to kill it, it seems.) Some of my repertory highlights this year: an August double feature of Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running and Two Weeks in Another Town, both on glorious 35 mm, at the Metrograph in New York. A rollicking screening of The Mask of Zorro at the Quad, with my son. A completely sold-out November MoMA revisitation of Michael Mann’s The Insider, with the director and some of the subjects of his film in attendance. The Last Emperor at the Freer Gallery in Washington. A packed screening of a brand new 35 mm print of Barry Lyndon at Yale University. And just last week I got to see a lovely new restoration of Merchant Ivory’s The Europeans, again at the Quad, with James Ivory himself chuckling through the movie right behind me.
Experiences like these simultaneously fill me with hope and despair. Hope because it’s so clear that cinephilia is not dead—that people still love going to the movies and that theaters still play a vital role in our culture. Indeed, I’m convinced that the spectacular rise and fall of MoviePass from 2017 to 2019 was proof of this. That company made a number of wild missteps, but perhaps chief among them was this: Its business model was founded on the idea that after people got a pass that let them see movies, they’d quickly stop going, sort of like a gym membership. But it turns out movie theaters are not like gyms. People actually like going to them. They don’t see it as some fucking chore.
However—and here’s where the despair comes in—I can’t help but wonder if all this is an extremely inconvenient fact for a lot of companies that are ostensibly still in the movie business but would really prefer all of us fat, contented, immobile, and pliant at home, where we can be sold to and turned into data more effectively. The despair, in other words, comes as a result of the hope. I can see where all this is going. I know in my bones that it doesn’t need to go there. And I feel powerless to stop it. There’s just too much money ultimately to be made in turning us into the people from Wall-E. All I can say to that is:
Read the next dispatch here.