The spectacle-driven films are drawing audiences back to the theatre, but is storytelling being sacrificed?

Movie in a theatre now has to be an ‘event’ worth leaving houses for. And that’s the cue taken by giant studios of Hollywood — let it be big!

By Yasser Usman

Published: Thu 26 Jan 2023, 10:18 PM

In the wake of Avatar: The Way of Water’s monstrous box office success, a super-exhilarated James Cameron called for the end of streaming. “Enough of the streaming already. I’m tired of sitting on my a**… As a society, we need to go to the cinema,” Cameron stated. Audiences ‘returned’ to film theatres but with a condition or I dare say, a warning!

First, the facts. You’ll be surprised to know that the 10 films to top the global box office last year (2022) were all spectacle-driven sequels and franchise installments with budgets of between $80 million and $250 million.

The topmost grosser was Top Gun: Maverick, sequel to the 1980s classic, this one is an old-fashioned movie with excellent CGI and appealing emotions led by superstar Tom Cruise. It has made more than $1.4 billion worldwide since its May 2022 opening. Landing at number two was the highly anticipated Avatar: The Way of Water followed by Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Jurassic World Dominion, Minions and characters like Batman, Thor, Black Adam. You get the drift?

The streaming/OTT universe after the pandemic has changed the movie business like never before. It’s clear that in the post-Covid OTT era, audiences are only drifting towards premium formats. A steady stream of more innovative and futuristic spectacle-driven movies are required more than ever before to sustain the industry. Movie in a theatre now has to be an ‘event’ worth leaving houses for. And that’s the cue taken by giant studios of Hollywood — let it be big!

This is not a rant against blockbusters or sequels or the superhero genre. Superheroes have been the ruling force in our pop culture and have come to the rescue of Hollywood multiple times. But if you scratch the surface, what was abandoned while the business was saved?

Studios are producing franchise films in bulk which are often pushing the boundaries in terms of technology behind the camera. But new original concepts are almost considered a taboo and huge financial risk. When was the last time new characters and new stories were created for the big screen?

With the immense focus on technology — the CGI and high-octane action set pieces as the USP of the film — often it’s the story that takes a backseat. This is what most of the Marvel films and other big budget sequels are facing. Despite the million-dollar hoopla, and the pressure of churning out big budget blockbusters, the story arc and visuals are getting repetitive in most sequels and comic book franchises. For example, it’s difficult to find much difference in the turbulence of Jurassic World and their dinosaurs in consecutive installments. Likewise, Doctor Strange 2 and Thor 4, too, felt utterly mundane.

A decade in the making, Avatar: The Way of Water, too, suffers from this humdrum. It dazzled us with spectacular visuals and ground-breaking innovations of performance capture filmed underwater that helped create never-seen-before visuals but the story lacked high points. So much so that it felt like a remake of the original Avatar (2009) with exactly the same situations. But makers are convinced that audience will run to the theatres again and again for the visual extravaganza in the next three Avatar sequels. While the story arc progresses through each film, we hope the audiences are not kept waiting till the end to feel the story actually moved through the years.

Hollywood seems to believe that only big-budget spectacles are going to be box office behemoths. This can be drawn from their A-list, which is a series of green-lighting of action-packed sequels, superhero fantasy flicks or new-age remakes of classics for theatre release. Marvel has already scheduled 12 more movies from its extended universe. There’s the question of how many spectacle films of superior quality can practically be produced in a year? There’s also the fear of the inevitable ‘overdose’ scenario. What will happen when the audience fatigue sets in?

Looking at the movie calendar for 2023, among the ‘most awaited films’ arriving in theatres this year we have: Mission Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, John Wick: Chapter 4, Antman and the Wasp, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3, Fast X (Fast & Furious 10), Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, Dune: Part Two, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and many more— all legacy franchises. Been there, seen that anyone?

Though thankfully all is not lost. We still have filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (Oppenheimer), David Fincher (The Killer) and M. Night Shyamalan (Knock at the Cabin) still opting to tell original stories which are not a sequel, legacy franchises or comic book characters.

A thriving film industry is one where all kinds of films are backed and promoted by major players. But last year’s developments have further enforced that bulk of money goes into franchises, and superhero “cinematic universes”. It is also a cry to save the failing theatre business. As a result, there are now even less studios to bet on avant-garde, mid-budget arthouse or indie films. Though there are notable exceptions. But simultaneously, with audiences opting to watch small or non-spectacle films on OTT and theatres unwilling to screen smaller films, the industry is trapped in a vicious cycle.

It was perhaps the impact of this changed landscape in 2022 that many critically-acclaimed movies like Tar, Till and The Fabelmans bombed. In fact, Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans, despite being a beautiful film and winning big at the Golden Globes, couldn’t bring audiences to theatres. Ironically, Spielberg is the giant who created Jaws (1975), the film that established the modern Hollywood business model of high-adventure blockbuster. In the long run, however, viewers are a tough tribe to appease eternally. The mass production of extravaganza movies per year is hopefully going to scrape some shine off them. 2023 may not be their year of doom, but this is a monster Hollywood has to worry about sooner than later. Till then, we will look for the real stories on OTT.

Usman is a film commentator and author

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