Greed is bleeding artistic vision. The modern era of film has moved to become ever more commercialized. Streaming services and their investors have pushed filmmakers into making what they believe the audience wants to maximize profits. Films such as Don’t Look Up fall into this category leaving more experimental films like Climax and Passing with little to no promotion or attention. Film distributors like A24 push films forward like Everything Everywhere All at Once against the growing sameness of every other popular film. It is commercialism versus the rebellion of creatives.
Streaming has grown into a mainstay for viewers of films. The coronavirus epidemic has sped up the process farther. HBO Max began the same day premiere for the Warner Bro film lineup that some like Dune Denis Villeneuve had big issues with. There are those who believe films should be appreciated on the big screen and not watched like background noise while you are distracted. The experiences are absolutely different. The theater demands your attention while your home doesn't.
However, there is an outlier. Marvel films have bucked the trend. Spider-Man: No Way Home set records with theater attendance in the midst of a pandemic. The idea then is presented where audiences are actually willing to go to theaters but only if they find the film to be worth doing so. Marvel has become a huge spectacle calling massive audiences to the theater. Martin Scorsese has criticized these films for being formulaic and lacking much risk. The basic Marvel plot essentially follows a very simple narrative with sprinkled humor and action pieces. It can best be described as easy to digest. Scorsese may not like this formula but it makes a lot of money. Film studios see this and push to follow this “easy to digest” formula for the widest audience margin. The goal no longer is creating something unique and special no one has seen before but rather what the audience wants to see. The audience does not dictate what is created because it is their tickets sales and streaming subscriptions companies/studios want. This is what happened with Don’t Look Up.
Don’t Look Up sees itself as a unique and crazy idea for satire. The insane premise that nobody takes this issue of an incoming meteor seriously. It is merely an easy relaxing viewing for liberal audiences that makes fun of conservatives. It is an easy viewing and you can be distracted while viewing like most of the other Netflix offerings. The hurmur in it is that Netflix has an extremely accurate and may not even show up on the feed for conservative subscribers being that it would be offensive to them and that is exactly what Netflix is attempting to avoid. Therefore, it leaves Don't Look Up as a film just for liberal audiences to feel good about themselves unlike better satire like South Park. The episode The Big Fix, the character of Randy Marsh seeks to partner with someone black because that is what sells now. He is not doing for the good of the black community but his business. It critzes support for liberal movements/ethic groups by companies. It raises the question: what is the true reason for the support? Satire should push this nuance discourse not feed what is already believed. Don’t Look Up is essentially easy to digest for audiences like Marvel films.
The closest competitor to Marvel films is DC and their newest film The Batman has done extremely well in the box office.The Batman is an interesting film standing in this conversation. DC has struggled for years to keep up to Marvel. However, Matt Reeves has essentially come the closest without the usual superhero formula. He styled and wrote the film like a detective neo-noir. A type of film that would be considered “boring” to audiences used to the huge spectacle of action and superhero films. However, the risk pulled in 250 million the first week. Joker was a psychological film inspired by Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy which also performed extremely well. These two DC films reveal there is still a desire for unique storytelling even in the landscape of superhero films. However, the concern rises for original IPs that lack the superhero/villain name brand recognition.
A24 recently released Everything Everywhere All at Once directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Schieinert. Within 6 weeks in theaters, the film grossed 35 million. It’s an impressive figure for being a new IP and being considered an “art house” film. Marvel may have introduced the idea of the multiverse to the mainstream but Everything Everywhere All at Once was not afraid to take that idea as far as they could. From old Kung-Fu film references to a In the Mood for Love reference to a fight with actual dildos. The directors were not afraid to introduce any insane ideas. The greater feat is that the underlying story stayed intact and wasn’t lost in the concept. The mother learns to appreciate the simple normal life she has with her husband and daughter even with all the amazing universes she could live in. Unique and crazy concepts don’t have to sacrifice a great story. It is the story that stays with us and keeps us invested. Yes we will remember a man doing an entire fight scene with an award up his butt, but even more so the beautiful realization Evelyn Wang came to about her life that relates to all of us. It is important for other studios to realize that there is space for films like these. A24 shouldn’t be one of the sole distributors given these films a chance. Past the monetary values, these films have the potential for becoming legendary and influential. The Matrix blended several genres from anime, Kung-Fu, sci-fi, etc. It was especially popular for creating bullet time which was copied by many pieces of media later on. Everything Everywhere All at Once is an introduction to the immense possibilities the relatively new concept of multiverses can offer to film. Marvel and DC see it as a method of fan service. Introducing older actors reprising their roles or introducing Sir Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier the new Doctor Strange. Everything Everywhere All at Once did not concern itself with what the audience wanted or may have liked but rather focused on crafting something not truly seen before. Even films that aren’t action spectacles can achieve this.
Climax and Passing are examples. They are both art house type films that deviate from the modern trends of commercial filmmaking. These both have their own unique style the directors believed would fit their vision. Climax directed by Gaspar Noe can be considered a difficult film to follow, especially heading to the later stages as the LSD begins to kick in. The cinematography becomes extremely shaky and incoherent. It even goes as far as going upside down with red light beaming at the climax of the film given imagery of a hellscape. It is honestly hard to look at sometimes. Yet, it stands in stark contrast with many modern films. Movies on Netflix have a smooth clean look to their cinematography like in Red Notice. It is never truly offensive to the eye. This essentially takes away the character that creators like Noe go for. It is best described like fast food that is easily consumed but lacks the true nutrients one really needs. Noe set out to capture the horror of this terrible LSD trip and thought little of how offensive it may be. The vision of a film shouldn’t be compromised for what is commercially viable or ease in production. Netflix wants to keep you on their service watching movie after movie without even giving you the chance to digest it. They have even added a shuffle play button I never believed would or even had the idea of adding to a streaming service. They don’t truly see movies as pieces of art but rather cash cows to be milked. It’s rare to see films like Climax that stray away from the mold and that don't use well known actors. Almost all the actors in Climax have not had a previous role.
A rising trend in films is using big names to market their films. It’s not an entirely new concept for we have seen before with huge musical film stars like Fred Astire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly. A lot of golden age actors were stuck in a trope. The actors are essentially playing themselves in each movie with little changes. The biggest examples of this concept in the modern era are Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds. Both star in Netflix’s Red Notice. Reynolds also starred in Free Guy as well as The Adam Project. In each of these movies the actors are just themselves lacking any diversity in the different roles they are given. It has opened them up to plenty of criticism but it won’t change because the general audience will pay money to see these actors just be themselves in any movie. Once again, like cinematography, it is easy to digest and what is expected. The most clear comparison is actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays Doctor Strange in the marvel movies but a completely more developed character comes out when he took the role of Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog. Cumberbatch shifts from a quip landing sorcerer to a broken homosexual man that hides his true sexuality with toxic masculinity. He plays a character that has a deep love Bronco Henry who possibly sexually took advantage of him. All these layers create this complex character that is distinct from his Marvel role. The Batman uses big names like Zoe Kravitz and Robert Pattinson yet these characters feel distinct from other roles they have played as well. Movies today can’t continue to rely on popular personalities available due to the characters they play lacking any real depth in the script. Actors should be challenged to bring complex characters to life. Lesser known or completely unknown actors should also be given the opportunity rather than relying on huge names to sell tickets.
Passing has a unique style of using black and white and not having the usual full screen aspect ratio. It’s a slow dreamlike film. It’s style of course contrasts with many of the points I have already made but the thing that draws me in is the way it quietly asks difficult questions. The concept of stories focusing around those of mixed race, particularly Black and White, is relatively new. Tessa Thompson’s Irene criticizes Ruth Negga’s Clare for staying with a white man who hates Black people. However, Irene must ask herself about her passing and using those advantages inside a community that abuses as well as hate her people, possibly making her a hypocrite. Irene doesn’t want to talk to her kids about lynching effectivly keeping them in the dark. It is reasonable to see her side, that her kids are too young, but that decision could harm them in the long run or be even deadly. Black kids today need to be taught how to interact with police to avoid being killed by police, a luxury White people don’t have to worry about. There are many questions that Passing asks the viewer to consider and it never tells us what’s the right answer. Similar to the boundary between passing for White or embracing being Black is not one or the other. A lot of modern audiences fear such questions that can prove controversial but it is the discourse that is needed. It shouldn’t matter that films that force you to think or go against your mindset won’t sell or be watched as much. Films like Passing are necessary even at a loss in profit.
Netflix is unsurprisingly struggling. The last breath of fresh air was Squid Games for the exact reasons I established above. A fascinating concept to play innocent childhood games that could mean your death. The characters all have their own unique and interesting motivations. I was sold at the slow-mo sequence of the first game to the tune of Fly Me to the Moon. I am concerned if Netflix will push the production of the next season and inject more of their simple style into it straining from what made it a success in the first place. Netflix co-CEO Red Hastings blames the loss of subscribers to competition and password sharing. They vow to crack down on password sharing which just infuriated customers even more. Hastings was right about one thing though, competition.
Netflix should be concerned about improving the new projects they create. The sameness and easy viewing experience they have staked everything on will inevitably become boring as the audience craves something interesting to watch. HBO Max is the answer in many ways. HBO Max doesn't try to pigeon hole their subscribers into what they already watch but are relatively open in presenting other genres. I was shocked by the difference between the shows and movies presented to me compared to friends. Even the “trending” section was curated to the type of content the viewer watched. I would not be introduced to what they watched on my account and vice versa for them. An entire catalog that Netflix only shows you specifically part of. HBO Max doesn't take it to this extreme. It has an entire section for older films, domestic and international, in the Turner Classic Movies hub. Creatives and general audiences should be exposed to these films and not just regurgitated versions of things they have already watched. HBO Max has taken a step towards that.
It's a concerning direction film is headed but even Marvel films look like they have hope. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness under the direction of Sam Raimi made a unique choice injecting horror aspects into the film. A shift from the normal Marvel formula injecting the style of the director. It lacked taking the full risk of pushing the concept all the way but it proved a testing ground for the future. If Marvel and Netflix decide to push these ideas farther as well as other experiential films, it can trickle down into the rest of the industry. A24 may be one of the biggest and most popular disturbers of creative unique films but Marvel & Netflix are the big influential players that need change to really shake things up.
It should not be an artist's job to not make something easy to understand and digest. It is their job to create something that will stick in their memory of the viewer for years to come. To create something they haven’t truly seen before, that is how you service your audience, not by giving them exactly what they ask for.