Tuned Out of Oscar – The Problems Plaquing the Academy Awards Telecast

Back in the early days of television, when the only options most people had for watching anything were limited to three big national networks and just a handful of local broadcasts, you could always count on a large audience number for any given program.  Those were the days when you could count on things like the final episode of MASH being watched by over 100 million people on it’s premiere, counting for nearly 80% of total viewership in that one night.  In the years since, with cable television beginning to divide up the audience’s attention, the only programs that could garner those same kinds of numbers were big events.  Think the Super Bowl, or the NBA Finals, or even breaking news events like the O.J. Simpson verdict.  Probably the most unusual program to emerge as a force in the early days of television was the broadcasts of the yearly Academy Awards.  The Oscars as we know them certainly never hit Super Bowl numbers, but they were for many years a reliable juggernaut in the programing block every year they were broadcast.  Since the first telecast on NBC in 1953, more than half of the American TV watching audience would tune in to see the glitz and glamour of the ceremony every year.  While the numbers would fluctuate over the decades, the numbers always remained strong for the Academy Awards, and it helped to cement them as the premier honor of the whole film industry.  Even as TV habits changed in the era of cable, the Oscars broadcast still remained an event not to be missed.  But, that long resilience seems to have worn off in recent years.  Ever since the year 2000, the Oscars have been in a steady decline in audience ratings, and in the last couple years in particular, it has been in a freefall, reaching it’s lowest numbers ever in 2021.  And this has led a lot of people wondering if the Oscars have lost it’s luster completely as a must see television event.

It was honestly not that long ago that the Academy Awards were at their peak.  The 1998 ceremony, with James Cameron’s mega blockbuster Titanic sweeping it’s way to a record tying 11 Oscar wins, including Best Picture, saw the highest audience rating in the ceremony’s history.  Of course, subsequent years after that couldn’t match those numbers; you don’t get a Titanic in every year.  But, the show could still be relied upon to lead it’s block of airtime every single year.  That, however, is no longer a guarantee.  The viewership for last year’s academy awards didn’t even look good by old metrics of the Academy Awards, and is dwarfed by the amount of viewership seen for things today that appear on streaming or even cable.  Polls even suggest that people no longer care about who wins the Oscars, and that is reflected in declining influence that the ceremony has on a film’s overall performance at the box office.  For an organization that has long held itself up as the gold standard for recognizing excellence in the film industry, this is a troubling trend that they have been struggling to understand for several years now.  As we’ve seen in recent years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) which governs the Academy Awards has taken dramatic measures to help shore up their declining influence in Hollywood.  Some of the moves have been good, like increasing the diversity within their voting membership, but a lot of their other decisions have been puzzling and cry desperation.  Only a couple years ago they received backlash for suggesting the idea of creating a Popular Film Oscar, which was rightfully seen as an empty gesture to hide the fact that the Academy has grown out of touch with the movie going public.  Now, the Academy has been derided for another short-sided decision to streamline the ceremony by removing several awards from the actual telecast itself; relegating them to a pre-ceremony handout that won’t be shown in full on TV.  With the Academy increasingly desperate, the question arises; are the Oscars finished?

One thing that should be made clear; the Oscars will never go away.  The Academy will still hand out yearly honors and a select audience of movie fans will always tune in to watch (myself included among them).  But the idea of the Oscars being a ratings powerhouse on national television has probably come to an end.  The truth that the Academy must face is that they will never again reach the kinds of numbers that they once had when the Oscars were a dominant force in television.  They must resign themselves to the fact that the Academy Awards is now just a niche program that only plays to a smaller but devoted audience.  And that devoted audience is also not pleased at all with the desperate measures that are being taken by the Academy to climb themselves out of the pit.  There’s nothing that movie fans hate more than obvious moves to pander to an audience that doesn’t care in the first place.  This recent move in particular (streamlining the ceremony) seems in particular to be an address to the common complaint that the Academy Awards are too long.  This has been an issue with the Awards in the past, with some ceremonies dragging on for quite a long time.  The 2002 ceremony, where Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) walked away as the night’s big winner, was the record holder with a staggering 4 hour and 10 minute runtime.  But, the complaints have remained there, even as the Academy has reigned in their ceremony with shorter speeches and fewer show-stopping performances.  The ceremony last year, which was highly affected by the ongoing pandemic, was the most stripped down in history, and it came in at just under 3 hours in length with commercials, and it did nothing to boost the audience rating for the Oscars.  So, what this has shown is that addressing outside complaints from an already disinterested population doesn’t actually help to rehabilitate the Oscars performance; it just drives them further down.

What really upsets people the most about the Oscars recent moves is that it blatantly shows the disparity of power within the industry.  The categories that are being cut from this year’s Oscars are all from the technical side; meaning the hardworking crew members that are not big name celebrities.  The decision sadly exposes where Hollywood’s priorities are, which is to place their talent in front of the camera on the pedestal and have the ones behind the camera stay hidden.  Of course, it’s been true of Hollywood since the very beginning, but the Academy Awards has always allowed a chance for the unsung heroes to have their day alongside the marquee stars.  Now that’s being taken away.  It’s with these often unseen talent behind the camera where we see the Oscars achieve their most genuine and heartfelt moments.  The honorees in the technical awards are the ones that connect the most with the average audience member, as they can see themselves reflected in their presence there and recognize that the dream of a win at the Academy Awards can happen to anyone.  By taking this out of the ceremony, it just reinforces the idea that image that the Oscars are a playtime for the elites; disconnected from the rest of us.  Aspiring filmmakers and long time Oscar enthusiasts don’t want to see the Oscars lose that connection to everyman aspect of the Awards.  If anything, it’s the technical side of the Oscars that reflects the truest make-up of the industry, and by pushing that out of the ceremony it only reveals an elitist sensibility that the Academy has come to.  Of all the desperate moves made by the Academy, this seems like the most brazen, out-of-touch move yet, and it’s one that I think represents a mis-reading of the Oscars audience that the Academy has sadly fallen into.  The Oscars audience doesn’t care about the amount of awards given out each year, nor the people who end up winning.  The Oscars seems to have forgotten what the awards are really meant to represent; a celebration of the creation and experience of cinema.

What I have always liked about the Academy Awards is that they offer a yearly snapshot into the overall history of cinema.  Just looking back at the winners and losers of each year gives you an interesting insight into the status and mood of Hollywood at any given period.  You can see the interesting effect of the Civil Rights Movement on Hollywood, through the way it began honoring different movies that addressed race relations head on (from Sidney Poitier’s history making win in 1964, to the Best Picture victory of In the Heat of the Night from 1967).  Hollywood’s response to war conflicts also has seen interesting fluctuations in Oscars history, from the propaganda era films of World War II, to the harsh critiques of war from films in the post-Vietnam era like The Deer Hunter (1978) and Platoon (1986).  That’s always been what has kept the most die-hard fans of the Academy Awards interested; observing history being made.  But, the Academy has lost sight of what constitutes significance in the long run and instead it’s been chasing fads and responding to pressures that otherwise have little to do with the with the people being honored.  More than anything, the Oscars problems have stemmed from them making the mistake of playing things too safe.  The Oscars’ decidedly undemocratic voting system based on ranked preference has unfortunately led to some chaotic results, which itself is a response to a slow moving change in the Academy membership that up until recently mostly leaned older and white.  The Oscars are also mistakenly falling into the idea that they have to be the vanguard of the industry, meaning that the definition of an ideal Oscar movie is becoming increasingly narrow and safe.  Gone are the days when big studios flicks and genre hits could have their chance at the ceremony; now if you want to be nominated for an Academy Award, you better be an uplifting drama with a pedigree of star power behind it.  There have been exceptions to be sure, but the increasing homogeny of the films at the Academy Awards has been one of the reasons people have lost interest.

It’s not a good sign when the only times the Oscars have seen an uptick in their audience is when they have courted controversy and scandal.  There are some who would like to see the Oscars humiliated and taken down a notch, and that’s what slightly increases the audience rating; that desire to watch a train wreck happen; and even there, the Oscars broadcast disappoints.  The #OscarsSoWhite controversy of a couple years ago was a good example, and it did feature one of the few bright spots that the Oscars had in recent years, which was host Chris Rock’s unvarnished take down of the Academy and Hollywood elite in his opening monologue.  You would think that Hollywood would’ve taken note of the popularity of Rock’s comedy following the ceremony, but no.  They’ve even eliminated the idea of a master of ceremonies altogether, with three straight ceremonies now without a host.  Even their decision to reintroduce hosts this year seems half-assed as the duties are being split among three comedians.  It shows the fundamental reason why the Oscars have fallen on hard times recently; because they forgot that this is as much a show as it is a ceremony.  The ceremony may hit well with the people in the Dolby Theater itself as they dress in their finest and rub shoulders with the Hollywood elite, but it doesn’t translate across the television screen.  You need to find the thing that will draw in the viewer to not want to miss what will happen in the Oscars ceremony.  Whoever takes on hosting duties plays a big part in this, and sadly, the Academy has largely gone with the safe and reliable choices.  It might help if they looked to someone younger and more connected with the audiences of today to host, not so much as a chasing of a fad, but more as a way of giving credence for this older institution to a newer audience.  The same goes for entertainment throughout the ceremony, or allowing the presenters and winners to speak their mind.  Authenticity is the thing that people value most and the Oscars would be better served by not trying so hard to avoid the unexpected.

The Academy may also need to consider how they approach their audience as well.  The biggest complaint leveled at them is that they are old-fashioned.  That’s a subjective reading, but what is certainly old-fashioned about them is that they are clinging on to past glory.  The ratings highs of the late 90’s reflect a time when you could still dominate the airwaves on a Sunday night with something like an Awards ceremony.  The Academy must recognize that they are not alone in their ratings downfall.  All awards ceremonies have lost audiences over time; the Grammys, the Emmys, and the Tonys.  They should also be grateful that they aren’t the Golden Globes right now; a ceremony that has disgraced itself far more than their declining ratings.  The viewership has changed in the era of streaming, and it’s reflected across all areas of television.  Network television no longer dominates the market, and even cable doesn’t have the pull it once did.  The only benefit that the Oscars have gotten from their time on network television has been from the money generated by the networks from ad revenue.  But, with the Oscars declining like they have been, their current home ABC hasn’t been able to get the same kind of returns on advertisements, and what once was a prime spot for advertisement space during commercial breaks now just falls into the average of basic programming.  When the network lets their ad time go for much cheaper during something like the Oscars, that’s a significant sign of danger.  So, what can the Oscars do.  They may need to consider alternatives to how they broadcast, as a way of expanding access to their the audience.  For one thing, they could broadcast live online on places like their website or on YouTube as an alternative, especially if they include those off-the-air categories in full as an exclusive feature.  If they are having trouble with ratings, going to a place where those numbers don’t matter while still generating ad revenue through the algorithm of video streaming might be the best bet for their future.  That way, they can better cater to what best works for them instead of still adhering to the archaic standards of broadcast television.  It doesn’t have to leave the networks entirely, but it can better allow them to have the best of both worlds without having to compromise the things that have made them special in the past.  If the Academy is looking for better audience engagement, this is where they will find it, and it may be the key to them to finally find some relevancy again.

As a stalwart feature on network television, I think the Oscars may be near it’s end.  It can’t survive on just network television alone.  It needs to reconsider what it should be in the era of on demand entertainment.  A diversified presence on both regular network television and online might be the key, as it can reach a broader audience.  We live in a time where many people now solely get their programming through streaming, so the Oscars would be wise to have an entryway into an audience like that, especially considering that most people who are solely online skew younger.  It would also help if they engage with younger audiences more by giving fresh faced talent a chance to perform as a part of the Oscars.  The Oscars are an old-fashioned institution, but they don’t always have to present themselves that way.  Like the movies and the people that they honor have changed, so must the ceremony itself.  But they can still do so while maintaining their vanguard appeal.  There have been things that have always ringed true about the Oscars over the years and that’s that the movies have always matter the most.  It’s not the fashion, nor the personalities of the Hollywood elite, nor the star power on the stage.  Making movies and watching movies are what drives Hollywood, and the Oscars should be a reflection of that nearly century old sentiment.  When someone picks up that golden statuette, it shouldn’t be a reflection of their popularity stature, it should be a reminder of their contribution to the history of the industry, and where they fall in the pathway set by those who came before them.  The appeal of the Oscars is that it has spread it’s honors across the industry as a whole, and to sacrifice some of that in the pursuit of TV ratings is a betrayal of the legacy it has built for itself.   The Oscars may be in an identity crisis, but it’s not irredeemable either.  A lot of good has come out of the Academy, especially with recent pushes for diversity and it’s extensive charitable work, but they must consider what is different about their audience today and adjust to a different kind of industry that they find themselves today.  They don’t have to sacrifice the things that have made them a little over-stuffed in the past, especially with those technical categories.  They don’t have to pander to trends either.  The audience has moved somewhere else, so go to where that audience is and stay true to what you have to offer.  There is an audience out there willing to join in the celebration of the movies, and if the Oscars recognizes that, they can find their purpose once again and regain their relevance as the biggest night in Hollywood.

The Director’s Chair – Jane Campion

Since starting this retrospective series examining the many great directors that have contributed to the history of cinema, I’ve come to realize that there is a certain kind of filmmaker that I have yet to spotlight here; mainly women.  It’s no secret that Hollywood has had a fairly lackluster record in recognizing women as filmmakers within their industry.  Thus far at the Academy Awards, in all of it’s 94 year history, only two Best Director honors have been given out to women, and the second one was only in the last year.  That being said, there have been women directing films ever since the early days of cinema.  In Hollywood, there have been often unheralded names like Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino who stood out as part of the Golden Age, and in later years, there were filmmakers such as Elaine May and Penny Marshall who not only managed to direct studio films, but they also managed to make them big hits as well.  Internationally, there were also standouts like Lina Wertmueller and Agnes Varda who won acclaim for their groundbreaking work.  But, for most of those years, a lot of the women working in cinema were not able to stay competitive with their male counterparts.  This, thankfully, is a trend that’s now starting to crest and become a thing of the past, as there are far more movies, both independent and studio made, that are helmed by women.  Half of the comic book super hero movies from last year in fact were made by women: Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman 1984), Cate Shortland (Black Widow) and Chloe Zhao (Eternals).  But, if there was a certain woman director that has stood out as one of the most groundbreaking in the last few decades, and whose films have become uniquely identified as a distinctive body of work, it would be Kiwi filmmaker Jane Campion.

Jane Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1954 and before she pursued a career in film, she originally studied to become an artist.  She enrolled at the Sydney College of the Arts in Australia and found herself drawn to the School of Film and Television.  There she found her true calling, and she immediately left a mark as a unique cinematic voice.  Her student film, Peel (1982), would go on to win the Short Film Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, which is pretty remarkable for a first time director.  She would continue to direct further shorts and films for Australian television, before making her feature debut with Sweetie (1989).  That movie with it’s idiosyncratic look at female sexuality and social interactions would establish many of the themes that she would continue to  explore throughout her career.  She would release another introspective look at female identity in her follow-up, An Angel at My Table (1990), but that was only a warm-up to the movie that would cement her as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.  In 1993, Jane released her ambitious period piece The Piano to wide acclaim.  With it, she became the first woman director to win the feature Palm d’Or at the Cannes Festival, and she would further go on to win an Academy Award for her Original Screenplay.  She also became only the second woman in history to be nominated for the Best Director honor, which she ended up losing to Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List (1993).  In the years that followed, she would build upon the success of The Piano to create more unique and lavishly crafted movies about the lives of women, including Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1998), In the Cut (2003) and Bright Star (2009).  She then suddenly left the directors chair completely, citing her growing frustration with Hollywood and the growing capitalistic nature of the industry in general.  During the 2010’s, her sole project was co-creating the short-lived but acclaimed series Top of the Lake.  And then, suddenly, it was announced that Jane was suddenly making a return to film with her new revisionist Western entitled The Power of the Dog (2021) thanks to Netflix; a film that again has set her up historically as the first woman nominated for Best Director twice, and this time with a better shot at coming away victorious.  Needless to say, she is a very interesting filmmaker to examine and what follows are some of the cinematic traits that have defined her body of work thus far.



If there is something that really stands out in Jane Campion’s oeuvre, it’s her cinematic eye.  You can really see the art school influence in her work, as she treats the lens of the camera like a brush on a canvas.  What is interesting is the way she frames her scenes, often choosing to have her action either outside of center frame or even sometimes strangely cut off by the edges.  This is especially true with her earlier films like Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, where she plays around with perspective in interesting ways that in many ways is reflective of the fractured nature of her characters.  In many ways, she uses things like her framing and color palette to reflect the emotional state of her characters, with an intentional eye towards making things disorienting for the audience as well.  Campion is not afraid of testing the sensibilities of her audience, and she certainly has the talent and natural vision to pull that off.  What is also interesting is how she often uses color to reflect the emotional state of her characters.  Her upbringing in a picturesque country like New Zealand no doubt was influential in giving her a visual perspective, but what I find interesting is the way she explores colors to the extremes.  There’s a very interesting mix of bright and muted colors in her films.  Some of her earlier work in movies like Sweetie show her pushing the full spectrum of color visually.  But in movies like The Piano, she also spotlights the lack of color as a key visual element in her story, as much of that film takes place in cold, overcast atmosphere.  Her more recent The Power of the Dog also displays interesting usage of color themes in the story, especially against the barren dirt brown setting of her story.  Overall, these two elements have shown her to be a powerful visual storyteller, and it’s nice to see that it has remained as uncompromising as it was in the earliest part of her career.



As a reflection of her native New Zealand surroundings, Jane Campion has used nature as an important thematic element in her movies as well.  Her period films in particular have a strong sense of openness of the larger world and how it overwhelms the inhabitants of her stories.  Two films in particular, The Piano and The Power of the Dog feature many unforgettable visuals of the characters being dwarfed by their wide open surroundings.  Remarkably, in The Power of the Dog, Campion managed to successfully have the countryside of the South Island of New Zealand play the role of rural Montana, and you would be hard pressed to know the difference. Not only that, she pulls the camera way back in vista shots that really capture the expanse of the film’s setting wit epic grandeur.  She likewise accomplished the same thing with the beachfront scenes in The Piano, where her stars, Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, are practically overwhelmed by the expanse of their surroundings.  Campion has only ventured away from her homeland rarely as a filmmaker, but even when she does, she brings the same kind of sense of the surroundings informing the emotional state of her characters throughout the films.  For Holy Smoke, it’s the lush exoticism of India, for In the Cut, it’s the oppressive modernity of New York City, and for Portrait of a Lady, it’s the rigid conformity of Victorian England.  For most of her filmography, she has used the outdoors as a key part of her storytelling, and often it’s in the wilds of nature that we see her characters discover the most about their own identity.  This is something that has carried through most of her work in film, and sets her apart as a visual storyteller.  Every shot of wide expanses reveals something about the characters that inhabit it; and often it’s a catalyst for her characters to evolve, especially if being out in the wilds of nature is an entirely new experience for them in the story.



One thing that Jane Campion also likes to accomplish in her stories is catch her audience off guard and even leave them uneasy with some rather out of left field choices.  One way she does that is through music.  Sometimes music becomes a way she allows her characters to express their buried emotions, but she even uses this in uncomfortably challenging ways.  One of the most unusual uses of music she has made in any of her films can be found in an early short movie she made called A Girl’s Own Story (1984).  In that movie, we watch this gritty story of awkward sexual awakening between teenage girls.  And then, all of a sudden at the very tail end of the film, the characters break down the fourth wall and we are suddenly launched into a music video.  It’s really bizarre, and yet thematically in line with Jane Campion’s sensibilities.  She further explores the idea of music as an expressive element far more overtly in the film The Piano.  Naturally, with a movie named after a musical instrument, this theme would be a part of the narrative, and indeed the story centers around a mute woman (played by Holly Hunter) who communicates her emotional state through the playing of the piano.  The piano becomes this deeply connected element in her story, and it even plays a part in determining her fate by the end of the film.  There’s also an unforgettable use of music in The Power of the Dog, where a musical duet between two opposing characters becomes this unnerving act of terror.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s sadistic and hyper masculine cowboy uses a melody throughout the film to psychologically torture his new sister-in-law (played by Kirsten Dunst), bringing yet another challenging usage of the theme by Campion to put her audience in an unsettled state.  Though her films are scored by some great composers, like Michael Nyman and Johnny Greenwood, it’s these moments of diegetic music within the story that take on unnerving and out-of-left-field  thematic elements, that become unforgettable parts of her movies overall.



One theme that is also very much central to Jane Campion’s body of work is the exploration of sexuality; particularly female sexuality.  It’s something that she has explored in most of her films, even going back to her early shorts.  Her feature debut includes sibling rivalry over the competition of gaining the attention of the same desired man.  In The Piano, her female protagonist falls into a passionate affair with a plantation worker (played by Harvey Keitel) after becoming emotionally resigned from her unhappy marriage to an abusive husband (played by Sam Neill).  The theme is explored even more overtly in Portrait of a Lady, where Nicole Kidman’s heiress ends up entrapped in a loveless marriage that denies her the autonomy and freedom to be the woman she desires to be, again because of cruel and possessive husband (this time played by John Malkovich).  Her one film that takes a more positive outlook on love is the tragic love story fond in Bright Star, which still tells the story from the perspective of the woman in the story; in this case poet Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) who becomes the muse and love of legendary writer John Keats (Ben Whishaw).  It’s interesting that with her new film, The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion actually breaks from the norm and instead examines male sexuality instead, albeit still keeping with the theme of unrequited desire at it’s heart.  In that movie, we learn that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank uses his hyper masculinity as a mask to shield his true queer sexuality, and how the resentment built up from having to always keep that hidden makes him menacing to those around him, especially when he encounters his new nephew (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who exhibits feminine qualities without shame.  Jane Campion isn’t afraid to explore the darker side of sexual awakening, and that has made her films all that much more interesting.  She knows the complexity of sexuality is best explored when her characters have to struggle to discover what it means for themselves.



There are a lot of women filmmakers out there that don’t want to be thought of as directors of “women pictures,” and you’ll often see many try hard to define themselves as capable of tackling any genre regardless of what’s expected of their gender.  Many definitely excel at that to.  But Jane Campion will definitely say that she makes pictures for women about women and proudly so.  What helps her to stand out is that she tackles female issues within her stories, but doesn’t play it safe as well.  She makes an effort to make sure that her female characters are not 100% pure or morally in the right.  Her female protagonists can often for the most part be more flawed than their male counterparts, and that in turn helps to make them even more interesting.  The two sisters at the center of Sweetie are petty and selfish, but in a way that makes them endearing to the audience.  Holly Hunter’s Ada in The Piano gives in to adultery, but only after her husband has denied her any happiness in her new home.  And Kirsten Dunst’s Rose in The Power of the Dog is a raging alcoholic, but as we see it’s in response to being oppressed by her sadistic brother-in-law.  For all these women, they have to continually assert their feminine dignity in both opposition to the men that dominate their lives, but also the faults of their own character.  It’s refreshing that Jane Campion is un-compromising in showing the complexities of her characters.  Her stories really do shed a necessary light on the real lives that women lead, and there is a lot of honesty in showing how character morality is never so easily defined.  It’s especially rewarding to see her explore the issues that she does in movies that often pander to certain audiences; the Western, the period romance, and the coming-of-age tale.  That’s why her female characters are often the most interesting in all of cinema.

Jane Campion is a pioneer filmmaker with regards to how she has been a role model for up-and-coming female directors from around the world.  What makes her especially special is the fact that she has refused to comply with the standards of the industry.  She is a filmmaker who stands by her vision, even if that puts her at odds with the rest of the industry.  You’ve got to admire a filmmaker who decides to walk away in response to the unfair standards that the industry places on women who aspire to work in the same fields that have often been dominated by men.  Thankfully, she also has managed to find a way to make a return.  She must have been drawn to Netflix’s release strategy, which puts less pressure on a movie to perform strongly at the box office.  The Power of the Dog is a movie that likely would’ve been enriched by a big screen presentation, with Campion using her keen cinematic eye to capture some beautiful vista shots, but by virtue of being on a platform like Netflix, her film is likely going to find a bigger audience than it would’ve in a theater and that probably is what appealed to her.  She was not under any pressure to compromise her vision and make the movie that she wanted to make.  It’s a deal that worked out for both parties; Jane Campion gets to make a triumphant return to feature films and Netflix has a surefire Oscar contender.  Campion’s history making second nomination is a milestone long overdue, and hopefully she can translate it into a Best Director win, which will solidify her legacy even more.  Regardless, she is an artist of unique vision who dares to tell stories that most filmmakers wouldn’t, and does so with a very strong visual sense as well.  She comes from a long line of historic women who have worked behind the camera, and has been the inspiration for many more that have followed after.  Hopefully, with the success of The Power of the Dog this last year, we are seeing the beginnings of an exciting second act for Ms. Campion.

Death on the Nile – Review

The murder mystery sub genre has in surprising ways seen a bit of a resurgence in cinema as of late.  Prior to the Covid lockdown that shuttered movie theaters, the last big surprise box office hit was a revisionist take on the genre called Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson.  Johnson not only took all of the narrative conventions of the genre and turned them on it’s head, he also did so with another convention of the genre seen throughout the history of cinema; the all-star cast.  It’s been something that Hollywood has always done with these whodunit styles of mysteries.  Since each story is composed of an ensemble of colorful, and often eccentric characters, it in turn makes for an ideal place to put together a bunch of stars and see them play off of each other.  You can see this in movies dating as far back as Laura (1944) and movies more recently as Clue (1985) and of course Knives Out.  But, of course the most noteworthy examples of this sub-genre have been those from the Queen of Mystery herself: Agatha Christie.  Christie’s prolific body of work includes 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, and the longest running play ever performed on the London West End (The Mousetrap: 69 years and still going).  Of course, her work has attracted the likes of Hollywood as well, and several films have been adapted from her work.  The 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express directed by Sidney Lumet went on to be a box office hit and Oscar winner for example.  Christie’s most prolific character, Detective Hercule Poirot (who’s appeared in 33 of her 66 novels) has also been played on the silver screen by actors as noteworthy as Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, Ian Holm, Alfred Molina, and John Malkovich.  The most recent actor to take up the mustachioed mantle of Detective Poirot has been esteemed thespian and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh, who likewise managed to bring about a surprise hit with his own adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017).  With success built from Orient Express, Branagh managed to line up a follow-up with another of Christie’s famed Poirot novels, Death on the Nile.  However, much to the unfortunate luck of Mr. Branagh, a lot of turmoil happened over the course between when he filmed the movie and before it has finally made it’s way to theaters this week.  Some of it probably more dramatic than what’s actually in the film itself.

First of all, the movie became one of the projects thrown into an uncertain release schedule due to the oncoming merger between it’s production company, 20th Century Fox, and Disney.  This inevitably delayed production on the film, which was originally set for a December 2019 release.  Fortunately for all involved, the actual production shoot went on without incident and completed in little over a month.  As the film went into post-production, gearing up for it’s new October 2020 release, another hurdle was thrown the movie’s way: the Covid-19 global pandemic.  Though the movie stuck to it’s October date for quite a long time, the continuing closure of most theaters across crucial markets like North America and Europe, and the underperformance of Warner Brothers’ Tenet (2020) released in the midst of this market, made it clear that there was no chance for the movie to make up it’s nearly $100 million budget in that box office climate.  So, the movie was taken off the calendar entirely until further notice.  Unfortunately during this time, some unexpected bad news also began to crop up during the delay; this time related to the film’s cast.  One of the stars of the film, Armie Hammer, began to be swept up in a scandal when disturbing violent and sexual behavior came to light after several women came forward with their accounts of abuse from the actor.  The resulting scandal has seen Hammer lose pretty much all the jobs he had lined up after Death on the Nile, as well as the departure of nearly his entire support team of agents and publicists; pretty much an entire annihilation of his career in Hollywood.  And while Hammer’s situation was definitely the worst, there was also negative publicity surrounding another cast member, actress Letitia Wright, who has been vocally anti-vaccination during the pandemic.  With all the bad press surrounding the movie, people were beginning to wonder if the movie might ever get a release at all on the silver screen, or would Disney just end up burying it on streaming or home video.  Fortunately, the movie as finally found a way to the big screen, albeit with little fanfare, and a sadly unimportant February release date, putting it well outside awards contention that some might have hoped it would carry.  So, with all that drama surrounding the movie itself, can it stand well enough on it’s own or is it another casualty of multiple real world issues that were not it’s fault.

The movie finds Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) enjoying a bit of his celebrity status in the years after his renowned solving of the Murder on the Orient Express.  While visiting a night club in London, he witnesses a meeting between two engaged socialites, Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Jaqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), and a wealthy heiress that they hope to do business with: Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot).  Several months later, while on holiday to Egypt, Poirot stumbles upon a newlywed honeymoon party  involving Mr. Doyle and Ms. Ridgeway, who are now married to each other.  Among the fellow travelers with the newlyweds, there is Linnet’s cousin and lawyer Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal); Dr. Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand) who’s also Linnet’s former fiancée; Linnet’s godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French); blues musician Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright), whose also Salome’s manager and former schoolmate of Linnet; Linnet’s maid Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie); and finally Poirot’s old acquaintance Bouc (Tom Bateman) whom he met on the Orient Express, as well as Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Benning), whose a longtime friend of Linnet’s family.  The opulent celebration begins in luxury at a resort on the banks of the Nile River, and Poirot soon is welcomed to stay.  However, tension arises when Jaqueline de Bellefort crashes the party, making Linnet feel threatened after having stolen Jaqueline’s man away.  Linnet, knowing of Poirot’s talents as an investigator, asks for his help in learning of Bellefort’s intentions.  Poirot soon learns that Ms. Bellefort is carrying around a weapon on her, and advises that the newlyweds cut their trip short for their own safety.  Instead, the party moves out of the resort by chartering a cruise to take them on a Nile excursion, hoping to keep the party safe and private.  Poirot again accompanies them.  But, even as they make their way south on the river and away from civilization, they soon learn that even out in the wild there is no escaping danger.  Suddenly, the unthinkable happens; murder.  And of course Hercule Poirot is instinctively on the job.

It was a hard road for this version of Death on the Nile to make it to the big screen; another unfortunate exile of the pandemic ravaged 2020 calendar and a subsequent victim of the scandals of those involved with the movie.  It thankfully hasn’t affected Kenneth Branagh too much, since he’s managed to keep on working; shooting, editing, and releasing his new acclaimed Oscar-nominated film Belfast in the midst of all this turmoil.  Unfortunately, any hope of molding these Poirot films of his into a sustaining franchise seems to be dashed, as Death on the Nile arrives finally as little more than an afterthought in Hollywood.  Like I said before, the scandals that have accompanied it are drawing more attention than the movie itself.  But, is it a bad reflection on the movie, and should it be judged on that bad press alone.  The movie certainly should be judged purely on the craft itself, divorced of real world issues.  Sadly, the movie is a mixed bag overall.  It’s definitely a well crafted movie from an experienced and passionate filmmaker, and there are individually some fine moments throughout the movie.  But, it’s also kind of a dull film overall as well.  In some ways, I think the success of Knives Out may have also worked against Death on the Nile as well, because of how expertly it took the same kind of story and reinvented it.  Branagh’s approach by comparison is very by the book.  There’s nothing wrong with staying truthful to the writing of Agatha Christie: she was certainly ahead of her time and her stories still have the power to engage many years later.  But, while Knives Out felt very much like a modernization that help to rejuvenate a classic style of story, Death on the Nile feels old-fashioned, and not exactly in a good way either.  You can really feel the convention constraints weighing down this movie, as Branagh really tries to struggle to make something that shouldn’t be action packed feel much more bombastic.  We know Branagh can make exciting cinema, as evidenced by his Shakespearean work as well as his work on Marvel’s Thor (2011), but that cinematic instinct feels misplaced here.  You can feel him straining with the material, and unfortunately it makes many scenes feel silly instead of majestic.  And by the way, it’s a problem that I found with Murder on the Orient Express as well though not quite as glaringly pronounced as it is here.

The first thing that really feels off about the movie is the artificiality of it all.  It will probably surprise no one to know that not a single moment of this movie was shot on location in the real Egypt.  That shouldn’t have been a problem as most other places can just as easily be substituted as another location.  But, because of the movie’s original production delay during the Disney merger with Fox, the movie even had to scrap it’s location shoot in Morocco.  As a result, the entire movie, from the Nile side resort to the boat voyage itself was produced on soundstages in England.  That’s a big difference from how Branagh and company approached the production of Murder on the Orient Express, which did benefit from on location shooting in Israel, Turkey, and Switzerland.  That on location shooting helped to make that movie feel bigger, even though most of that movie was contained to a single location of the titular train.  Death on the Nile by contrast feels very small despite the grandiosity of it’s setting.  This is especially evident when the movie arrives at an exotic location like the Abu Simbel Temple.  It’s very clear by the pristine nature of the set, and the too perfect way that it is lit, that this is just a fabricated replica of a real place, and it takes you out of the movie as a result.  It doesn’t help that the movie also makes liberal use of CGI to expand the horizon and convince you that these characters are out in the great outdoors.  There’s just a definite sense of these actors performing against a blue screen, as the backgrounds feel flat behind the actors.  Truth be told, I have seen worse usage of CGI to hide the fact that the actors are working on a soundstage, but it really feels like it doesn’t belong in this kind of story.  Whenever Branagh leaves the sweeping panorama shots behind, the movie does look a whole lot better, and it does excel quite a bit in the staging of the interiors, but every time the movie tries to recreate the expanse of it’s exotic Egyptian location, it doesn’t feel right at all.

There are still quite a few things that do make the movie enjoyable at times.  The cast for one is enjoyable to watch, and some are even quite surprisingly adept in unconventional roles.  Shining most bright unsurprisingly is Kenneth Branagh as Poirot.  You can tell that he has a lot of fun playing this character and it’s probably what drew him to making these Agatha Christie adaptations in the first place.  Just as he did in Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh makes Poirot an engaging presence; someone who you just love to watch work and figure out the truth behind an almost unsolvable case in front of him.  I especially like the way he manages to find the humor within the character without turning him into a caricature.  There’s a funny little moment when one of the characters in the movie gets offended that Poirot is accusing her of murder, until he confesses that he accuses everyone of murder and that it’s an unfortunate habit of his.  That’s a nice, clever way of making Poirot an endearing, eccentric figure in this story.  Branagh’s choices of co-stars are interesting too, keeping true to the old Hollywood tradition of all-star casts in whodunit mysteries.  I especially like the way he’s brought on actors known more for comedy like Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Russell Brand and having them play against type here.  Brand especially is out of character her based on the celebrity persona he’s put on throughout the years, and it’s kind of refreshing to see him flex a bit more in a dramatic role for a change.  Gal Gadot also brings a nice haunted presence to the movie, again showing more range than what we’ve seen thus far from the Wonder Woman star.  The big question is, how do the actors carrying around the scandal baggage fair in this movie.  Certainly Letitia Wright fares better, as she manages to disappear into her character pretty well; even making her Southern American accent sound fairly spot on, as does her co-star and fellow brit Sophie Okenedo.  Armie Hammer unfortunately can’t make you forget about his off-screen scandals with his more hammy performance.  In some ways, it can be overlooked, because his character is a creep to begin with, but there’s just not enough goodwill built up throughout the film to make you admire his work alone in the film, and it certainly won’t work in helping him to resurrect his tarnished image.  Who knows if this may end up being the last we see of Mr. Hammer on the big screen.  If so, it’s a less than ideal exit.

Despite the artificiality of the film in it’s depiction of it’s location, I will say that the production design itself still represents some incredible work from the crew that worked on the film.  The boat that serves as the primary location for the film, known as the Karnack, almost becomes a character within the film itself.  I especially like how the details of the boat comes through; with it’s weather worn siding showing the effects of the harsh desert heat on the white-washed paint job, to the art deco inspired interiors of the parlor and dining rooms.  There’s also quite a bit of interesting staging throughout the movie involving the panoramic glass walls that encircle the action around the characters.  That’s why the scenes that take place indoors feel much more dynamic than those outdoors; because we are looking at stuff that’s actually tangible and real.  Kenneth Branagh also give the movie a nice rich texture by having it shot on 65mm film; a favorite film stock that he’s used through most of his career.  The large format film stock really helps to bring out the detail of the scenes, particularly the interior ones, and it will enhance the viewing experience if you manage to see the movie in the way that Branagh prefers: with 70mm projection.   Branagh, by all accounts, is a filmmaker with a love of cinema, and he shows a lot of care in the staging of his scenes in this movie.  There’s one neat moment in the movie where he has the camera glide through the setting, passing by all of the characters (i.e. suspects) like you’re seeing them appear from Poirot’s point of view.  It’s a shot that echoes a similar one in Murder on the Orient Express.  And what it does really well is present the idea that any one of these characters is capable of being a murderer, putting the audience in the same mindset as Poirot purely through visual language.  In less capable hands, the mystery may have been spoiled by the director very obviously pushing the narrative in an obvious direction, but Branagh manages to expertly keep his audience guessing, helping to make the final reveal feel like an earned surprise.  Despite it’s old fashioned feel, Branagh still manages to make his mystery work on screen, which manages to be especially effective if you aren’t already familiar with the original Christie story.  And it’s through that expert direct that the movie in many ways overcomes some of it’s shortcomings, even though it doesn’t entirely propel the movie any further than just being okay.

Overall, the narrative behind the making of this movie unfortunately overshadows the film itself.  It would’ve been interesting to see how this movie would’ve been accepted in a different timeline when there was no pandemic and the actors involved turned out to not have any problematic issues that reflected badly on the film.  The saddest part is that Kenneth Branagh’s larger plans to keep making more Poirot films seem to be dashed, as this film is unlikely to inspire it’s new handlers (Disney) to invest anything more into a franchise.  The fact that it managed to get a theatrical run at all in the face of everything seems like it will be the movie’s only triumph in the end; and a minor one at that.  The film, in a sense, is just an unfortunate byproduct of a Hollywood that no longer exists, and will likely see more movies like it disappear from the screen for a while as the Knives Outs of the world take over.  But, it’s thankfully not something to make Branagh feel ashamed in the long run.  It’s certainly a much better movie than his other pandemic affected film; the dismal Artemis Fowl (2020).  And like I said, he’s currently riding the accolades of his award winning Belfast (2021), a movie that certainly hits far closer to home personally for him.  The Poirot films will probably be seen as an admirable exercise in old school filmmaking for him as a director and performer.  Is the movie worth going out to see on the big screen?  Depends on if this is the kind of movie that fits your appeal.  If you like star-studded whodunit mysteries, than this might be a satisfying if not ground-breaking diversion for you to see.  If it’s available in your area to see in 70mm large format, than even better.  But, at the same time, it’s nothing particularly special either.  Just a well crafted, old-fashioned by-the-book adaptation.  My hope is that no one is going to this movie to see Armie Hammer’s reputation cleared up; the movie does little in that regard and nor should it.  That’s his mess to clean up.  Death on the Nile is a flawed but competent film that more or less treats the work of Agatha Christie with reverence and respect.  It’s just unfortunately a movie that can’t separate itself from a lot of bad fortune, and hopefully time will be a lot kinder to it in the years after it’s release.

Rating: 7/10

Movies in the Middle – The Disappearing Presence of the Mid-Sized Studio Movie

Coming out of the pandemic era of near annihilation for the theatrical market, a new sense of normal has emerged with the types of movies that are arriving on the silver screen.  As of right now, the selection of movies available to watch in theaters right now fall into two distinctive groups: mega-budget tentpole features based on well established IP, and micro-budget, low risk independent films.  It’s a night and day difference between these two types of movies, and yet, these are the types of movies needed to drive back audience attendance at the local theater.  You either start off big, hoping for a huge opening weekend that can hopefully compensate for the massive expense of making the movie; or start small and hope your movie can be discovered through word of mouth.  These are essentially the different paths that are being taken by movies heading to movie theaters today.  You’re either a Marvel or an A24.  There is little in between.  But, once upon a time in Hollywood, there actually were many films that fit somewhere in the middle.  They weren’t bank breaking studio tentploes, nor were they risk-taking indies that had to make their way through the festival circuit first.  These were studio made films that were modest in budget, usually had one or two A-list stars but not an all-star cast, and were often low key productions meant to fill out a calendar slot that the studios had to occupy.  The mid-sized studio movie often came in a variety of different genres: the screwball comedy, the rom com, the period piece, or the family adventure.  For a long time, these were the engines that were driving the machine of Hollywood, because if one tentploe feature fell hard at the box office, the studios could compensate for that loss with a solid performance from one of their mid-sized movies.  But, that kind of strategy at the box office has seemingly disappeared, and this was a trend beginning even before the pandemic took hold.  So, what happened to the middle ground that once dominated the movie landscape.

In the early days of cinema, blockbusters were very much a rarity in the market.  Hollywood was built much more around the quantity versus quality ratio during the studio system,  which created an assembly line approach to movie-making.  That’s why the vast majority of the most popular films of that era were John Wayne westerns, Shirley Temple musicals, or a James Cagney gangster flick.  And there of course were the many dozens of copycat movies made surrounding those industry leaders.  It was an era where genre flicks dominated the market, because they were cheap and easy to turn around in time to meet the demands of the theaters.  You would see this being the case at every studio in Hollywood, and only occasionally would they get around to something as big and grand as Gone With the Wind (1939).  Even something as universally beloved today as Casablanca (1942) began as one of these assembly line flicks, and it only seemed to achieve masterpiece status purely by accident.  The breakdown of the studio system in the 50’s, along with the advent of television, forced Hollywood to change it’s approach and this led to an increase in the market of the big event films.  Even movies that normally would’ve fallen in the mid-range budget area became spotlighted as big event movies in this era, as the studios were touting the new, prestigious Widescreen process.  However, this era came crashing down in the 1960’s, as budgets ballooned to unsustainable levels on studio films, like Fox’s Cleopatra (1963).  In the 1970’s, the opposite began to happen.  Theaters began to favor gritty, independent films that challenged the old Hollywood system.  In this era, we saw the emergence of voices like Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Alan Pakula, Peter Bogdonavich, and many others who worked outside the system.  But, studios made a comeback later in the decade on the backs of hits like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and this led to the blockbuster 80’s, which also saw a surprising return of the mid-sized film as well as a force.

Through the 80’s and 90’s, you were likely to see many surprise hit movies that didn’t support an outlandish budget, and didn’t have an all-star cast, but still managed to gross as much at the box office as their tentpole cousins.  There were movies like Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987), Pretty Woman (1990) that immediately caught fire upon their release completely under the radar of the studios that produced them.  And Hollywood had these movies to thank the most for the success they endured during those years of growth.  Unlike the blockbuster tentpoles, these movies were capable of making back their costs ten fold, due to the fact that they were so inexpensive to begin with.  These movies also had the added benefit of producing the stars of tomorrow, as their success proved that these actors had box office pull.  So, with proven success from a bunch of mid-range movies, Hollywood began to include them as an essential part of their release calendar.  It was a successful enough compartment of the industry that each of the studios even set up their own separate in-house production companies to focus primarily on these types of movies; such as Touchstone Pictures at Disney and Fox 2000 at 20th Century Fox.  These movies also had the added benefit of there being overwhelmed by the competition at the box office.  Blockbusters as they were seen then were not as bloated in their budgets as they are now.  And in some cases, what became the most popular franchises at that time had their starts as modest budgeted movies that were limited in scope initially.  When you look at the first Back to the Future (1985), you can see how despite it’s larger than life concept, it’s actually a very small scale production.  The latter films expanded greatly on what was built with the first movie, but the original Back to the Future is really just a simple time travel comedy filmed in and around the Universal backlot.  The 90’s especially featured many movies in this range, where the main draw was the name star on the marquee and not so much the brand that the movie was centered around.  The movie didn’t need to cost $100 million to make, as long as you had Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, or Tom hanks to reliably bring in the audiences.

So, what led to the eventual decline of these movies.  There are certainly a lot of various reasons.  First of all, the budgets of movies steadily increased across the board for movie productions; even the mid-range ones.  It became harder make back the substantial cost of making the movies at the box office, especially at the point when either the actors no longer had clout at the box office, or the franchise had lost most of it’s steam and relevance.  In the 2000’s, movie stars like Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Jim Carrey were beginning to have paychecks that exceeded $20 million or more, which would balloon budgets even higher, and make even the mid-sized movies feel as expensive as a blockbuster, depending on how many big name stars were included.  Because movies across the board were growing too expensive, the studios started to change their priorities and invest in far fewer movies that were unique and challenging.  Instead, the market began to favor brands over star power, choosing to invest in IP that could sustain long lasting franchises.  This was the era when the name Harry Potter had more clout than Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts.  Big franchises like The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings, and of course super hero flicks would soon dominate the marketplace, and none of those franchises needed to rely on having a big name actor attached to it.  The rise of independent films also allowed for the film industry to find a way to produce movies with challenging themes and messages without having to drop nine figures to make it.  It was this combination of a boom in one type of movie and a bust of the other kinds that squeezed out the movies that fell in the middle range.  Movies either had to be parts of a bigger franchise, or small awards contenders.  This sadly erased the kinds of movies that used to have A-list talent tackling grounded, relatable human stories or the odd studio picture that threw a lot of weight and effort behind a serious epic film that was geared for awards season.

The interesting thing is that movies that would have fit within that mid-sized studio movie mold didn’t entirely go away completely.  They just migrated over to streaming.  Looking at Netflix in particular, the streaming giant produces anywhere between 60-80 original films a year, and they’re output includes movies of all sizes, including the mid-sized movies that we no longer find on the big screen.  The rom com has especially found a place to thrive on Netflix, with movies like The Kissing Booth (2018) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) not only finding an audience on there, but becoming big hits in the process.  Netflix has also become the home to actors who have in the past been responsible for the crop of mid-sized movies in years past but have since then found streaming to be a better place for them.  Adam Sandler for instance has set an exclusive deal for his Happy Madison Productions on Netflix, and as a result, the only big screen appearance Mr. Sandler has made in the last several years was in his critically acclaimed indie film Uncut Gems (2019) for A24.  The truth is that on streaming, there is far less pressure to deliver on the investment to make each movie.  There is no box office threshold that it must meet in order to turn a profit, because as long as it’s being watched on Netflix or any other streamer and helps drive up those subscriber numbers, the investors will be happy.  So that’s why we are seeing these middle ground movies that once were an essential part of the movie release calendar finding a new home in the streaming world.  And they are indeed becoming the norm on every service; from Netflix, to Disney+, to HBO Max, to Amazon Prime.  And what that is leaving us with on the big screen is just the movies on the opposite sides of the spectrum; mega-budget franchises and tiny little independent films.

Does that mean that there is no place for a mid-sized movie to make it in the theatrical market anymore.  There still is, it’s just that there’s more competition now for where the movie can end up finding it’s audience.  The conditions for a mid-sized movie to find it’s audience are more favorable on streaming, but it’s not impossible for these kinds of movies to find an audience in the franchise heavy market that we find in theaters today.  Often these are the movies that suddenly catch Hollywood by surprise, and makes them rethink what audiences are actually looking for.  One of the clearest recent examples of this was the movie Knives Out (2019).  The film is basically a re-imagined take on the Agatha Christie style whodunit, given a contemporary setting with an eccentric twist.  The Rian Johnson directed film certainly boasted an impressive all-star cast, but nothing about the movie other than that suggested that it would draw in a huge audience.  But that it did, grossing an impressive $165 million off of a $40 million budget.  And it did so in competition with big movies like Frozen II (2019) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), remaining in the top 5 movies weekly for several months.  It’s when the uncharacteristic movies manage to exceed expectations and become huge hits despite what the market dictates, that’s when Hollywood takes notice of movies that fit within this often ignored middle ground.  One interesting area where these kinds of movies emerge is when they give voice to an often marginalized group and tap into an audience that had been clamoring to see themselves represented more respectfully on the big screen.  This was definitely the case with a movie like Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which broke out of it’s rom com expectations to become a touchstone moment for Asian representation in cinema.  Perhaps it’s not that audiences don’t care about mid range genre movies; they just want to see movies in general that aren’t just like everything else they’ve seen.

Is it possible for there to be a return of the mid-sized movie to having a regular presence on the big screen again?  The theater industry has just experienced an earth-shattering shake-up to their business model, so it may end up leading them to reconsider what they want to allow on their screens moving forward.  In the high stakes pre-pandemic market, it was all about bringing in the big movies that could gross billions of dollars in a single run, and for the most part, these were the safe bets that Hollywood could rely upon.  But, with the market diminished after the pandemic, Hollywood’s safe bets no longer feel as safe anymore.  Not only that, but streaming now has a stronger foothold in the marketplace, and has become the favored place for those movies that had over the past decade been considered too risky to produce.  Seeing how well some movies have performed on streaming, it might lead many of these movie theater chains who had once scoffed at the likes of Netflix to reconsider their priorities.  That seems to be what’s going on right now, as more and more streaming movies are getting a modest release in theaters before making their debuts on their respective platforms.  This also coincides with the shortened theatrical window that resulted from the pandemic.  Now, the pressure to make a lot of money over a long theatrical run is reinforced with availability on digital PVOD services, so that people who don’t want to go to the theater can still have their chance to see the movie soon after it’s release.  This change in the market may help relieve the studios of the burden of worrying about whether or not a mid-sized movie will be able to connect with audiences or not, and that may help them to reconsider looking at the theatrical market as being a preferred starting point for their movies.  Truth be told, we are only starting to see a change in the theatrical market, and thus far only the biggest movies like those from Marvel Studios are generating anything close to the kind of money that theaters made before the pandemic.  With a more balanced playing field between theaters and streaming in the competition for where studios invest their properties, it’s hard to say where the movies that fall in the middle might end up.

For one thing, audiences really need to rediscover the value of movies that fit outside of the two extremes of cinema.  Movies don’t have to be a choice between CGI heavy blockbuster extravaganzas or Avant Garde art house indies.  There can be that movie that falls in the middle that features A-List talent in front and behind the camera, but is more down to Earth and challenging in it’s themes, and doesn’t have to rely upon spectacle in order to entertain.  The thing that really is appealing about these mid-sized movies is that they are more than often unique compared to what we normally see on the big screen.  Though it’s a bit more expensive on the budget side than most movies that fall into the mid-sized category, the action comedy Free Guy (2021) that came out last Summer was a perfect example of a non-franchise conceptual film that surprisingly found an audience and became a hit even in the pandemic affect theatrical market.  It all comes down to having a movie play on the big screen that appeals to everyone, no matter if it’s something familiar or something new and unproven.  We may see more of what we saw happen during the pandemic, which was movies being given hybrid releases on both platforms, and this may be the preferred way to help bring mid-sized movies back to the big screen.  With the studios having the ability to hedge their bets across both theatrical and streaming, the movies that are mid-ranged could see a renewed presence theatrically as the pressure is off them to come out of the gate strong at the box office.  It’s still a market in flux, but the option to do so is much more possible today, and has been proven effective for some movies both big and small.  Not surprisingly, one of the last mid-sized movies to make a splash at the box office before the pandemic, Knives Out, is getting a pair of sequels, on Netflix.  There’s a crossroads that still lies ahead for these types of movies, but it should be recognized that at some point these movies were an essential part of the identity of the industry, and hopefully they can still continue to have a future in Hollywood.