Jul 1, 2020
The internet is ruining movies
[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Nathan Kerner. Enjoy!]
The state of movies today seems to be a sad situation, depending on who you ask. The movie industry appears to be doing fine at times. Of the 23 movies that have grossed over a billion dollars, 19 were released in the last ten years, and four of them were released this year. So at least someone is laughing their way to the bank. Of course, the quality of those films is questionable. There was only one billion dollar movie last year, and it was Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Sequels and tentpole franchises seem to be the norm, and despite the complaints I keep hearing about the lack of originality in blockbusters, looking at a list of the highest grossing films of all time is just reading a list of sequels with a few original films sprinkled throughout (notable examples among the top 50 include The Lion King, Independence Day, Titanic, and Avatar. Of those four, only one has never had a sequel greenlit. Guess which one!).
So how did we get here? How did we reach a point where remakes, reboots, and sequels of negligible quality are the only thing Hollywood seems interested in making?
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I could place blame with the studio executives, but you’ve heard it all before, and indeed, I can’t blame people who make a product worth billions of dollars. I could also blame the fans for being a little too eager to be optimistic, but that’s a column for another day. There are many factors, but here’s one that most people ignore.
The internet has made watching movies easier, and made distribution easier, but the internet has also played a large role in the decline in quality of mainstream American movies, especially among blockbusters. Let’s talk about it in three quick points, shall we? (And yes, I am aware of the irony of bitching about the internet on the internet. Please feel free to point that out in the comments.)
Point one: The internet has destroyed the cultural influence of film critics.
One of the positive things the internet brought to the film world, one could argue, is the democratizing of film criticism. Film criticism used to be a closed community. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any set way to get into the game. Roger Ebert was a journalist, Gene Siskel got a B.A. in philosophy, for crying out loud, and Pauline Kael was a bohemian writer. There was no real path to becoming a film critic; you just sort of fell into it.
The internet gave aspiring critics a chance to try their hand at it and find an audience. James Berardinelli and this very site are examples of this. I do not begrudge these ventures their success, and many internet critics have added articulate voices to the world of film criticism.
That being said, it also opened the floodgates to people who frankly don’t have any business being critics. Free speech aside, film criticism is a lot like acting. It looks easy on the surface, but it requires understanding of a subject and certain skills. And sadly, not everyone with a YouTube channel possesses those skills. It’s a lot like young standup comedians thinking that cussing and offending people are automatically funny because that’s what George Carlin and Bill Hicks did.
Negative criticism is fun to read and listen to, and it seems like it would be cool to be a voice with something cogent to say about film. However, not everyone can do it—not that this has ever stopped anyone from trying. The internet is now littered with people with lots of opinions that aren’t necessarily informed or well-articulated. It’s not uncommon for my Facebook feed to recommend some hacky post that lists films or examples of films that say nothing more than “this film sucked”. Or to see user reviews on Metacritic that say “this movie was AWE3SOME!! I don’t know why the critics didn’t like it!! Had lot’s of good action and the plot was really great. IT’s the best one yet!!!” (Intentionally bad typing based on actual examples.)
This opening up of film criticism to basically everyone has weakened the influence of traditional film critics. There was a time when Siskel and Ebert were household names. Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate, two of the most notorious bombs in box office history, suffered because of harshly negative reviews. Film criticism is more of an academic pursuit now than anything. And for you readers who accuse me of exaggerating this effect: Please go down to the comments section and tell me the names of five critics whose reviews you read before you decide to see a movie. Seriously, I’ve got time.
A little-known fact is that the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla film actually made money. But the negative critical reaction hurt its box office take, and bad word of mouth shamed TriStar into giving up on its plans for a franchise. Fast-forward to today, where no amount of critical and public condemnation could prevent Transformers: Age of Extinction from breaking a billion dollars worldwide. I have yet to meet a single person who can say they liked all four of the Transformers movies, or even describes themselves as fans, but the box office take keeps going up. It seems there are hundreds of millions of people who don’t care what the critics have to say.
Really, it’s because the internet made it possible for studios to isolate themselves from mainstream criticism, and the average Joe doesn’t know who to listen to, so they fall back on what they like and what’s familiar. Speaking of fans, that brings me to my next point…
Point two: The internet is a buzz generator. Any buzz is good buzz.
Going along with the theme of loud voices drowning out everything else, let’s talk about a word that gets thrown around a lot: buzz. Buzz is traffic on the internet. You see it randomly on your Facebook timeline, or on Google under the heading “trending now”, and it’s simply a way to gauge what people are talking about. Not what they are saying, just what they’re talking about.
However, in our 24/7 news feed world, the studio heads are only hearing people talking about what they’re making, and are not looking for constructive criticism. The fact that you’re talking about their movies is all they care about. Hence, the treating of the release of trailers like they’re movies themselves. It gets people talking, and that’s all the studios want to hear: talking.
This is a point where louder voices drown out everything else. Personal example: I’m not much looking forward to the new Star Wars movie. There are many reasons for this—not a fan of J.J. Abrams, Harrison Ford is too old to be a good Han Solo, my noted disdain for long awaited sequels—but foremost in my mind are two things. First, if you discount the animated Clone Wars movie (and you should), then this is the seventh movie in the franchise. Once again, take to the comments section and let me know how many “Part 7”s in any franchise are bona fide classics.
Second is the fact that Disney didn’t buy Star Wars because they had a great idea for a story to carry on the franchise; they bought it because it’s a guaranteed revenue stream. Combine this with all I said above and the yearly release schedule of Star Wars movies, and I have doubts that the forthcoming movie will be very good. I know I’m not alone. There are other fans who agree with me.
But good luck hearing our doubts and uncertainty among the throng of enthusiasm from rabid fanboys who are just happy there’s going to be more Star Wars on the big screen. There are God knows how many YouTube “trailer reaction” videos where there are grown men practically crying tears of joy at seeing Han and Chewbacca in the Force Awakens trailer. (Side note: I don’t want to hear any fanboys whining about artistic integrity when you’re practically crying over a glorified commercial.)
Variety magazine has found that 63% of fans polled are convinced that The Force Awakens will be the best Star Wars movie yet, and all this based on two trailers and a lot of buzz. We don’t even know what the story is, but the fanboys took the bait, and buzz has taken over.
The problem is this is all part of the strategy to “generate” said buzz. The point of buzz is conversation. But we aren’t talking about whether the movie is going to be any good. When people talk about Star Wars nowadays, they’re talking about the movie coming out in December and how it’s going to be an instant hit. So more cautious voices like my own and others are drowned out by the cacophony of blind enthusiasm for the new movies.
But what does Disney care? They’re getting what they want: everyone talking about their new product, which leads to the biggest problem…
Point three: The studios fall back on the one thing they can measure: money.
I don’t think I’m a naïve man. I understand that moviemaking is a business, and like all businesses, its primary goal is to make money. Hollywood has always been about business, and there’s always been a conflict between art and commerce. But it was always a balancing act, and studios at least wanted to release good movies.
Now, the Hollywood corporate machine is more soulless than ever. With the internet diversifying film criticism into oblivion and making the world of film discussion noisier than ever, studios are looking to the one thing that can be measured: box office receipts. If a movie makes money, it might as well be a masterpiece.
For an example, Colin Treverrow didn’t get hired to direct Star Wars Episode IX: Whatever We’re Calling This One because he was the best director for the job, or because Jurassic World was a masterpiece, but because Jurassic World was the highest grossing film of the year. He made a financially successful movie, so in the eyes of the studios, he’s the best director for the job, because he’ll make an unchallenging film that people will line up to see regardless of quality.
We could demand smarter films from the studios, but those of us who do are drowned out by the internet buzz machine, and the studios have learned that money is the only rubric they can accurately measure. So that’s what they’re going with. So the fans who gush over how the new Star Wars is going to be the best yet are either going to come to their senses and demand better, or they’re going to keep lining up, hoping that the buzz will be justified this time. Go to the internet and come back and tell me which one you think it will be.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to use the internet positively by streaming Star Trek VI to drown my sorrows.