Lately, I have been asking myself a simple question; what are the movies? At the core, what are these miraculous visions that flow onto a white screen. What is it about the movies that ingrain itself into our reality and creates a resounding cultural memory that gets passed on generation by generation. My grandmother introduced me to Laurel and Hardy and she would sing songs inspired by Rudolph Valentino. She did not have the easiest of lives, but as a kid seeing this more than solid woman sashay across the linoleum crooning, “You are the Sheik of Araby and you love belongs to me” drills down on what the movies are to us as a collective culture. It is a much-needed escape.
They are our dreams, our hopes, our frustrations, our pain, and in the end what movies really are is us. It’s a clear manifestation of our hopes and aspirations as a culture and as a people.
The problem is that the idea of the movies is being greatly devalued and alongside that our culture and our traditions are being devalued. I have a deep personal belief that American Cinema should be American Cinema, that Chinese Cinema should celebrate and reflect China. I want to see Chinese movies because I want to know what is important and what is held dear by the people of China. When I was a far younger moviegoer I raced to our local art house when a French movie was being shown, movies such as Cousin Cousine, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Les Cages Et Folles, and King Of Hearts; I wanted to see cinema from a French perspective. I grew up with British Cinema, Carry On Films, Ealing comedies, David Lean Spectacles…it was great I could take a trip without leaving my theater seat.
These movies are now rarely shown, Hollywood in its race to embrace all global markets have stopped making American movies, which for the world being American were those movies’ greatest selling point.
In a kind of demented approach of “America’s Got Movies”, we are about to enter a race between two futures, in one lane you have “Mulan” and in the other, you have “Tenet”. One releases on September 3rd, Tenet, and the other on the 4th of September. “Mulan” will not be released into movie theaters but will be solely seen on the hyper-inflated Disney +. On the back of “Tenet” live the hopes of exhibiting on the big screen.
This is significant, we are going to see what form of distribution during these times of pandemic will reign supreme. The next couple of weeks will tell the tale and forever shape the history of the motion picture. If “Tenet” stumbles or COVID does its bizarre dance as a result of theatrical screens then further movement away from the traditional exhibitions will occur. If “Mulan” fails then the theatrical exhibition will have gained a reprieve. If “Mulan” soars then plans for an exhibition of major studios’ products will move, and not slowly, to a studio controlled streaming platform.
“Mulan” is a 200 million dollar crapshoot when it comes to streaming. It’s based on a wildly popular animated feature. It was the solid word of mouth and a substantive precedent. “Unhinged” did $4 million in its opening, a hallelujah in the season of COVID, a dismal failure during any other time. The New Mutants has sat on the shelf for two years. There is evidence that the studios are in the midst of a cinematic fire-sale. Disney is in talks to sell The Woman in the Window, an acquisition from Fox to Netflix. Paramount just sold Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, to Netflix, for more than $50 million. Rumors are that Paramount is also close to selling its Tom Clancy written Without Remorse to Amazon and its Valentine’s End of the World love story/comedy Love and Monsters, will now premiere in October on VOD. Then there are movies like Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights”, “Godzilla vs. Kong”, “Fast & Furious 9” , “Halloween Kills”, “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Top Gun: Maverick” are all refugees from initial release dates in 2020.
If the theaters do gain traction and here is hoping that they do, then they will be selling from a sparse cupboard. Some studios are transitioning from being a seller of motion pictures to simply a producer of products for Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Hulu.
“Mulan” will be featured on Disney+ and will be released at a price point of $29.95. For families, it is a pretty safe financial bet. It is not hard to imagine “Mulan” outperforming “Tenet”. If “Tenet” fails to capture the box office the wheels will be set in motion. For exhibitors who are being asked to pay 63% movie rental and to hold the “Tenet” for up to 8 weeks, it is a recipe for a problem…a deep problem.
The audience that will venture out to go to the movies requires more varied offerings. The studios should be pouring content into the theaters hoping to jump-start a damaged movie economy. Now is the time to provide diversity and focus and bring back audiences that Hollywood has abandoned. The lack of an industry-wide plan is nothing short of shameful and disheartening. The industry has become a giant ball of confusion, further expanded by the shedding of product, the bizarre rush to streaming, and the lack of product that speaks to an American audience.
Within all this confusion and vacuum of leadership lies a profound amount of opportunity. I am hoping that the independents quickly embraces diversity and takes the lead in re-introducing American stories to the world and the World’s stories to America. I don’t think Hollywood is capable of telling American stories.