Inside Out 2 – Review

It’s been a tough few years for Pixar Animation.  Towards the end of the last decade, the animation giant had two of the highest grossing animated movies of all time with Incredibles 2 (2018) and Toy Story 4 (2019).  It was an era of great success and massive expansion for the studio.  And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020.  The theatrical run of their latest film Onward (2020) was cut abruptly short as theaters across the world would close for an indeterminate time.  But even as the pandemic raged across the world, Pixar adjusted by moving their work out of the Emeryville, CA campus and into the homes of all the digital artists from the studio.  The offices would be empty, but the show would go on.  Delays in the re-opening of theaters would later prompt Pixar’s parent company Disney to ultimately make the decision to release the next Pixar film, Soul (2020), straight to streaming during the holiday season.  It would be the first ever Pixar film to not get a theatrical release, but sadly it wouldn’t be the last.  With the streaming wars heating up in the post pandemic world, then Disney CEO Bob Chapek made the decision to release the next two Pixar films in development, Luca (2021) and Turning Red (2022), as Disney+ exclusives, causing them to skip theaters as well.  Unfortunately, Disney+’s gain was Pixar’s loss, as the straight-to-streaming method had the unintended effect of diminishing the Pixar brand as a force at the box office.  And what’s worse, Pixar was being pushed to streaming while other parts of the Disney company were still allowed partial or full theatrical runs, including Disney’s own animation studio.  So while Pixar films were still being generally well received, they were not being given the proper debut on the big screen that they were intended for.  Once it was decided finally to give Pixar a chance to prove themselves again on the big screen, the damage to their brand value sadly became apparent.

The first Pixar film to be released theatrically post-pandemic was the Toy Story spin-off titled Lightyear (2022).  There was hope that familiarity with the character of Buzz Lightyear would help boost the box office back to levels of Pixar at it’s peak.  But, the film did not receive a warm welcome from fans.  While nowhere near the worst thing that Pixar has made (I’m looking at you Cars sequels), Lightyear nevertheless left audiences confused and underwhelmed and that was reflected in the disappointing box office.  While the opening weekend was strong, the movie fell back to earth and ended up being one of Pixar’s lowest grossing films ever; a rare money loser for the studio.  Due to the double blow of the pandemic diminishing the Pixar brand and the mismanagement of the Chapek regime at Disney, the once mighty studio looked like it had lost it’s magic touch and was quickly becoming a shell of it’s former self.  But then a miracle happened.  Despite opening to a catastrophic low box office opening weekend, the next Pixar film Elemental (2023) managed to ride a wave of positive word-of-mouth towards achieving a healthy final gross that turned a small profit for Disney; one of the few films from the studio that actually succeeded in that difficult year.  It did thankfully show that the Pixar magic was still alive and that even with all of the struggles laid at their feet, they were still capable of delivering movies that connected with audiences.  But, what Pixar really needs is a major box office hit, one that can show that they can still reach the astronomical heights of their glory days.  While some critics may see it as a selling out move, the best option right now for Pixar to build back it’s box office muscle is to work with an already established property that’s done well for them in the past and build upon it with a sure fire sequel.  One of the most popular film’s of theirs from the last decade was the imaginative Inside Out (2015), and this week we welcome the newest chapter to that beloved story with Inside Out 2 (2024), a film that Pixar is hopeful will put them back on top again.

Inside Out 2 picks up where we left off from the first movie.  Young Riley Andersen (Kensington Tallman) has become a teenager, and with that milestone now here, changes are beginning to happen to her physically and mentally.  The emotions that have helped Riley become the person she is through her younger years, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale) and Disgust (Liza Lapira) suddenly find their workplace disrupted by new construction.  The switchboard console that they use to steer Riley’s emotional state has been updated, mainly to accommodate the new emotions that are about to move in; the ones that are brought on board once puberty starts.  They include Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri) Ennui (Adele Exarchopoulos), and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser).  Anxiety immediately asserts herself in the “head” quarters, believing that the older emotions are incapable of adequately protecting Riley from all future threats.  So, she has the original five bottled up and locked away in a vault.  Not wanting to be suppressed emotions, Joy and the others break out and seek a way to get back to headquarters and restore Riley to her right state of mind.  As they navigate their way through the labyrinth of Riley’s increasingly more complex mind, the effects of Anxiety’s plan begin to affect Riley both emotionally and physically.  While attending an all girls Ice Hockey summer camp, Riley’s emotional mood swings begin to take their toll, and Anxiety and her team begin to realize that there are no simple solutions towards helping Riley become a better person.  The question remains if Joy and the other original emotions can get back in time to help settle Riley’s mind before too much damage is done.

The original Inside Out is widely considered to be one of the top tier films in the Pixar canon.  It was a massive box office success and would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature that year.  So, making a sequel to a film that beloved is certainly a risk, but it’s also one that Pixar has successfully pulled off many times in the past.  One thing that worried people was that the original creative team from the first movie would not be returning for Inside Out 2.  Director Pete Doctor has since risen in the ranks at Pixar to become the head of studio, and he has entrusted the future of his baby to longtime animator and first time director Kelsey Mann.  Thankfully, Mann has proven to be the right person for the job as Inside Out 2 does not miss a beat in following in the footsteps of it’s predecessor.  Truthfully, if there ever was a Pixar movie that perfectly lent itself to a sequel, it was Inside Out.  The original movie even had the right set up, with the Puberty Alarm making an appearance at the end of the film.  Like all the best sequels, Inside Out build upon what has been built before but also doesn’t feel like it’s repeating the same beats.  The movie wisely takes the story in a more mature direction, as the complexities of changing emotions are very crucial to the narrative.  The movie ultimately is about emotions competing with each other, something that anyone can relate to as we’ve all experienced times when our emotions have gotten the better of us.  It really does appear that Pixar is aware that their audience has grown up since the time the original film was released (which has been 9 years) and it is choosing to address it’s story with that added complexity and not dumbing things down in order to reach a younger demographic.

At the same time, it still remains incredibly funny, just like the first film.  There certainly are the same puns and slapsticks moments that will keep the younger kids happy and entertained, but the movie also nails the more grown up jokes as well, especially the ones related to the awkwardness of becoming a teenager.  I also really appreciate the direction that the story takes.  While the original movie was an emotional journey to be sure, it was also one where the stakes weren’t terribly high.  In Inside Out 2, the stakes are a bit higher, and for the first time it includes a character that fills an antagonistic role.  The character of Anxiety is the best new addition to this franchise, because of the obstacle that she places in front of the characters that we love from the first movie.  She’s not exactly a villain per say; her motives are paved with good intentions (mainly wanting to protect Riley from potential threats), but she just takes things too far, and that’s a really engaging angle to take with the story.  It also makes her a good foil for Joy, who’s the other principle character of the story, and one whose personal journey has been about accepting that her place in Riley’s development may be diminishing for good.  The one fault this movie has is that with the expanded roster of characters, there is less room in the story to have all of them have their moment to shine.  One of my favorites from the original film, Sadness, unfortunately gets pushed more into the background, which is disappointing after seeing her play such a pivotal role in the first movie.  And while there are some brilliant, powerful moments in this movie, it doesn’t quite have that emotional gut punch that the original movie had where it left the audience in tears.  There’s no Bing Bong level moment to break your hearts, though some moments do come close.  Other than that, the movie is as satisfactory as a narrative as the original, and in some aspects it improves on the original.

The voice cast, as is usually true with most Pixar movies, is uniformly excellent.  Amy Poehler returns to voice Joy and doesn’t miss a beat.  Lewis Black and Phyllis Smith likewise perfectly re-settle into their iconic roles as Anger and Sadness respectively.  For whatever reason, the original voices of Fear and Disgust (Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling) did not return for this film, but thankfully their replacements Tony Hale and Liza Lapira are perfect in the roles.  I dare say, they may actually be even better as Fear and Disgust, as those characters shine a bit brighter in the way they are used in this story.  The newest cast members are also excellent.  Of course Maya Hawke is the standout as Anxiety.  She finds that perfect balance of making her the personification of an anxiety rattled mind, but having the restraint to also keep the character from being a one dimensional archetype.  Hawke’s performance also helps to bring out the complexity of the character, making her sympathetic all the while she is spreading chaos.  I also just love the design of the character, with Anxiety having this Muppet like profile with a giant grin that makes up like a third of her body, topped by bulging crazed eyes.  The other new cast members don’t quite get the same attention, but they still manage to perfectly round out the emotions that they are embodying.  I especially love Adele Exarchopoulos aloof performance as Ennui, who gets some of the best one-liners in the movie.  I also should point out the excellent performance of Kenisington Tallman as Riley, as she a great job of projecting all of the emotional strain that this experience with her battling emotions is having on her.   The movie does an excellent job of making all the scenes outside of Riley’s mind feel just as engaging as the one inside.  There’s a harrowing coming-of-age story playing out for Riley, as we see her grapple with all of her changes and getting to a point where she pushes herself too hard.  She becomes a well-rounded character in her own right, and not just the setting in which the more fantastical story is taking place.

The original film was widely celebrated for it’s beautiful animation, and time has only helped to improve what Pixar is capable of with regards to animation.  While  a lot of the movie still has a familiar aesthetic, it’s enhanced with the latest animation tools at Pixar’s disposal.  All the returning characters have upgraded models that look even more stunning, especially in close-ups where you can see the individual particle beads that each of them are built out of.  The same advancements goes for the character animation too.  Each of the characters are wonderfully expressive in ways that feel perfect to their respective emotion.  In particular, Anxiety is animated with quick, speedy actions that really fit the hyperactive persona she embodies.  On the opposite end, Ennui has this body that’s almost wormlike, and when she isn’t lounging on a chair, she appears to slither her way into a standing position, which the animators hilariously put into motion.  The visual aesthetic of the movie is also beautifully vibrant, with the inside of Riley’s mind being awash in this multi-color rainbow of a color spectrum, which extends into the characters.  And to balance that, the outside world is more subdued and naturalistic, which provides a nice contrast.  The original film also included much of the same beautiful contrast, but this film really extends the palette and goes bigger.  It’s interesting that Inside Out 2 goes with a wider frame of 2.40:1, compared with the original’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  It really helps to make the film feel a bit more epic despite covering a lot of the same environments as the first film.  The scope aspect ratio is definitely called for with some of the set pieces, especially in the climax.  One thing that especially benefits from the bigger frame is the added element of a personality tree that grows underneath headquarters.  This beautiful set piece feels like something out of the world of Avatar (2009), and I love how the animators make it look like something that is organic in nature.  It’s another wonderful addition that adds to what we’ve already seen in this world and makes the story richer.  While the story certainly is a fine return to form for Pixar animation, this movie also shows that they are still at the forefront of visual artistry as well.

The hope is that Inside Out 2 is the movie that will hopefully re-establish Pixar as a force at the box office after so many years of struggle and neglect that has diminished their once dominant brand.  The movie certainly earns any rewards it gets.  It was a daunting task for the filmmakers to pull off as the original Inside Out is hailed by many as a masterpiece.  If I were to compare the two, I’d still give the slight edge to the original, just because of the brilliance of that Bing Bing scene that we all remember cry over.  But Inside Out 2 comes ever so close to edging past it because it pretty much equals the original in almost every single way.  It’s emotionally involving, it’s incredibly funny, and it does a great job of taking the story into it’s next chapter without missing a beat.  As far as sequels to Pixar movies go, I would absolutely count this as one of the best.  It’s not quite at the level of brilliance as all three of the Toy Story sequels we’ve seen, but compared to all the ones that came out in the 2010’s, like Monsters University (2013), Finding Dory (2016) and Incredibles 2 (2018), this is the one that has come closest to matching it’s predecessor in quality.  And of course it is astronomically better than either of the Cars sequels.  It’s interesting to think of how kids who grew up with this movie over the last 9 years will respond to this sequel.  Many who were 5 or 6 when the original came out are probably the same age as teenage Riley in this film, so the movie may be extremely relatable to them.  The thing I love about these two Inside Out movies is that they treat their audience intelligently no matter what age they are.  There’s enough for the littlest of kids to be entertained with, but adults will also find a lot to think about with this movie.  These movies are incredible meditations about emotional intelligence, and they probably work as great tools for the psychological community to help explain complex concepts around therapy and emotional well being to the average lay person.  Pixar once again shows that they are at the top of their game with Inside Out 2, a sequel that is every bit as entertaining as it’s predecessor, and the hope is that it will also bring back good fortunes for the studio after a rough couple of years.  Especially in a year where people are worrying about the state of movie theaters, the best outcome would be for Pixar to come out looking like the savior of the Summer with a strong box office showing.  Now that would be something to be joyful about.

Rating: 8.75/ 10

The Director’s Chair – John Waters

Hollywood has in the last several years come to embrace the significant role that Queer Cinema has had to play in film and the culture at large.  But, Queer Cinema is not as easily definable as you’d might expect.  It certainly would encompass movies that tackle LGBTQ issues, but it might also be used to classify movies made largely by LGBTQ talent in front and behind the camera.  As has been shown, there are movies that tackle Queer themes, but are made by well-meaning heterosexual, cisgender filmmakers.  And then there are Queer filmmakers who don’t tackle queer subjects in their movies.  And yet, there are valid reasons to identify all these types of movies under the umbrella of Queer Cinema.  The label gained prominence under the New Queer Cinema movement of the 80’s and 90’s, which helped to give queer themes and filmmakers more mainstream recognition in Hollywood.  While many of the films that tackled queer themes tended to be made outside of the industry, due to still lingering social taboos around the subjects, they would gain an audience in this period that helped to elevate many of them to cult status, and in turn they would help to reshape the industry into what we know today.  And there certainly is no other filmmaker that emerged from this movement that looms larger, both literally and figuratively, than John Waters.  Waters is undeniably as much of a Queer icon as he is a cinematic icon.  But it should be noted, he is also one of the filmmakers who only is associated with Queer Cinema by the fact that he has spent his whole career as an outspoken, openly gay man.  His personal advocacy for gay rights has certainly been a defining thing for his public image, but as a filmmaker, it’s not necessarily what he made movies about.

Waters was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland; a city that would have a profound impact on his body of work.  Though raised in a traditional Catholic home, Waters demonstrated very early on that he was an outsider and he expressed himself in very provocative ways as he grew older.  Influenced very much by films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the technicolor soap operas of Douglas Sirk, Waters, Waters would spend his teenage years making short films with his group of friends.  One friend in particular named Glenn Milstead would be a very crucial collaborator over the years, especially as Glenn would later adopt a drag persona that he would name Divine.  Divine and John Waters would be an inseparable team for many years as Waters began in earnest to become a professional filmmaker.  But, it was very clear that John was never going to be any standard filmmaker; he was going to strive to make the kind of films that he wanted, and in many ways he has spent his entire career making films so extreme that it’s like he’s daring Hollywood to make him stop.  And yet, the opposite has happened.  The more outrageous Waters made his movies, the more it garnered him the attention he needed to become a successful filmmaker.  Dubbed the “king of filth” by many, Waters has managed to create cult classics that push the boundaries of bad taste and it’s turned him into a cinema icon in defiance of the norms of Hollywood.  From his early grungy, shock value early films like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), to his later more mainstream but still boundary pushing hits like Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990) and Serial Mom (1994), John Waters filmography is one defined by artistic integrity, in that only those movies could have been made by a man like him.  And because of that, he is celebrated as a true original, and an important trailblazer for the Queer cinematic movement.  While his movies are wildly varied, he is a filmmaker that certainly has many trademarks to his name, and it’s not just the pencil thin moustache he’s always had.



Waters has self-described himself as the “Pope of Trash” and it’s an apt moniker.  His movies very much push against the Hollywood standards of beauty, and he seems to really relish the uglier side of society.  He’s very much attracted to characters that exist in worlds of extremes, where there is nothing beneath them with regards to sexuality, beauty, or good manners.  In many ways, Waters emerged as a filmmaker at a very good time within the film industry, as his button pushing weirdo surrealism fit well with the counter-culture pushback that was happening in both Hollywood and the culture at large.  Waters managed to find his audience through the film goers that were looking for anti-establishment statements made on the big screen, and John Waters was delivering on that front.  The abrasiveness of movies like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble were unlike anything else that people had seen before, and they certainly weren’t for everyone, even in the Grindhouse cinema scene.  Part of the uniqueness of John Waters’ worlds on the big screen was due to the miniscule budgets that his film’s had, but that was something that he embraced as a filmmaker as well.  His movies took place in what can only be described as filth, with rundown trailer parks and seedy bedrooms being common locations.  And the people who lived in them were as nasty as what you’d expect the odors of these places to be like.  The entire plot of Pink Flamingos involves the characters fighting over who is the “Filthiest Person Alive,” which Divine wins hands down with a stunt involving a dog that is best not described any further.  Even as John Waters toned down his “Pope of Trash” status in his more mainstream films, there still was a bit of grunge found in his worlds, such as the state of the Turnblad home in Hairspray.  There certainly has not been a filmmaker that has earned more X or NC-17 ratings in his career outside of porn, and Waters seems to wear that distinction as a badge of honor.  Most filmmakers would not have made it far after making a movie like Pink Flamingos, and Waters just happened to luck into being the right man at the right time.



Even as there was an intention to embrace the ugliness of his films early on, John Waters still wanted to emulate the kinds of films that he was reared up with.  In particular, you can really feel the influence of the movies of Douglas Sirk in his body of work.  Sirk’s melodramas of the 1950’s, including Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959) had a heightened cinematic flavor to them with their bold color palettes and melodramatic performances.  In time, these kinds of movies would fall into parody as Hollywood changed, but to people like John Waters, these movie were still a thing of beauty.  The idea of camp arose out of this love for outdated artistic styles.  For John Waters, he wanted his movies to be camp by design, with his actors intentionally performing like they were in a soap opera, and having this be the driver of the humor in his films.  This is something that very much defines Waters’ first mainstream film, Polyester (1981), which is an obvious parody of the Douglas Sirk style.  Polyester plays exactly like a soap opera movie of the 1950’s, but the big difference is that Divine is filling the leading female role.  The film then becomes a critique of the stringent conservative values of that time period with the Divine upending the role of the idealized woman at the center of the story, but at the same time Waters is indulging in the camp value of the cultural hallmarks of that era.  He even tried to bring back a failed gimmick of that time period called Odorama with some screenings, though I believe the smells he chose were not the same kind of pleasant ones that would’ve been used back in the 50’s.  While he was still pushing buttons, you can definitely tell he still had a soft spot for the campy relics of the past, whether it was the wild fashion styles or the music of the early days of rock and roll.  Hairspray goes even further in being a celebration of both, with the girls all dressed in their poodle skirts and sporting beehive hairdos.  Waters may have broken new ground, but there was still a sense of looking back and celebrating the past as well, especially if it was something that didn’t fully get the love it deserved the first time around.



Nothing, or in this case no one, had more of an impact in shaping John Waters into the filmmaker that he is today than his longtime muse Divine.  Starting off as childhood friends, they both emerged as artistic soul mates with Waters determined to turn his flamboyant partner into a movie star.  It’s easy to see why John Waters was drawn to Divine as a performer; she was a character that easily fit into the filthy worlds that Waters imagined and would stand out as a queen within.  Glenn Milstead just had a knack for commanding the screen as the character Divine, and even after doing some shocking things on camera for Waters’ movies, it only increased his level of popularity.  Divine remained a staple of the drag queen cultural scene, and in total she would appear in a total of six films for director Waters.  Pink Flamingos of course is widely seen as the movie that put her on the map, with the gun totting, red dress wearing image of her being a particularly iconic.  But, she probably reached the pinnacle of her popularity with her role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.  The great thing about roles like Edna Turnblad for a performer like Divine is that they are not written for her as drag or transgender role.  These were female characters that could have been played by any woman, but were intended solely for Divine alone.  Though Glenn/Divine was not trans himself (identifying as a gay cisgender man his whole life) he nevertheless broke a lot of barriers for performers in the trans community by playing these female roles and doing so without pretense of them being a role for a drag performer.  Sadly, Divine’s time on the big screen was short lived as Glenn Milstead passed away from heart failure at the too young of age of 42 in 1988; only three weeks after the premiere of Hairspray.  John Waters would try to fill the void left by his muse and friend in his later films by centering his movies around larger than life female figures, but none would have the same impact as what Divine brought to his films.  Divine may have been the most unconventional leading lady in cinema history, but the fact that she managed to make it to the big screen at all in her own way is pretty historic in of itself.



If there is a common thread in all of John Waters movies, it’s the celebration of people who refuse to conform to societal standards.  The non-conformist is the purest kind of hero in Waters’ movies; something that was especially true in his earlier films with Divine.  Waters celebrates the trashy, the over-weight, and the socially oppressed in his movies, and much of the fun of his films is in seeing how his characters rise above prejudice to be their authentic selves and be celebrated for that.  Perhaps the truest expression of this trope in a Waters movie can be found in the movie Hairspray.  The film centers around a fat girl named Tracy Turnblad (played by a young Ricki Lake) who wants to be a dancer on her favorite show.  While she breaks down the unforgiving beauty standards of the 1950’s in order to give herself a fair shot at achieving her dream, she also inspires others around her to do the same, especially the local Baltimore African-American community that has been trying to de-segregate their place on television as well.  This parable about tolerance and racial justice still fits very well within John Waters’ style of storytelling, because his whole career has been pushing back against the “norms” and celebrating the things that make us all different.  Hairspray may be a silly, oddball comedy with unconventional leading ladies, but it’s a crowd pleaser in the way that it has an easily relatable underdog story to tell.  And throughout Waters’ career after, with movies like Cry-Baby, Pecker (1998), and A Dirty Shame (2004), the non-conformist is always the ideal hero he celebrates, even if they remain a bit too extreme for people.  And it is through the propping up of these kinds of heroes that his movies may have even inspired many more outsiders to speak up for themselves and stand up for their rights, especially within the same LGBTQ community that he represents.  Thanks to his ability to portray his band of outsiders with a strong sense of personal dignity, we have seen more and more people have the courage to define who they are and not be just what society tells them to be.



To coincide with lifting up of voices of the non-conformists, John Waters’ movies also take aim at shocking the system of the breeding ground of oppressive conformity; American Suburbia.  While Waters celebrates the kitsch of of a bygone era of American society, he certainly has no love for the values; especially the kind that suppresses one sexual identity.  While Waters does poke fun at the sexual repression of mid-century America in many of his movies, especially in Polyester, some of his movies also take things to violent ends as well.  The movie Serial Mom features Kathleen Turner playing a unassuming traditional housewife who we learn over the course of the movie is a secret serial killer.  And it’s meant to be a dark comedy, with the deaths played up for laughs.  With this, Waters is dissecting the notion of traditional marital standards that were pushed upon Americans in the post-War era, and shows that the quaint life of Suburbia hides dark secrets just under the surface.  John Waters always showed a level of violence that existed on the fringes of society, like he did in his early movies with Divine, but his later movie would show us that violence is present in just about every part of society, and that the people on the fringes are just more honest about it.  Waters certainly likes to use violence and sexual awakenings as tools to break down facades that society puts up around itself to make things seem more civil than they really are.  At the same time, he’s not a nihilist either.  Violence is more of a system shocker in his movies used to expose the hypocrisies that society is built upon.  You see this too with his critique of Hollywood in Cecil B. Demented (2000), a movie about terrorist filmmakers.  It fits within his desire to celebrate the non-conformity of society with the knocking down of the falsehoods that we perpetuate to create some sense of “civil society.”  Waters recognizes that there is a little bit of a freak in all of us, and that this is something that should freely be out in the open.

So while most of John Waters films may not per say be about LGBTQ issues exactly, there is little doubt that he is one of the most influential voices in Queer Cinema.  I think that the reason why so many queer themed films made over the years have a retro aesthetic to them is primarily because of his own influence, with his celebration of retro kitsch and campy cinematic tropes.  There are many queer filmmakers today who emulate the Waters’ style, with recent examples like Dicks: The Musical (2023) and The People’s Joker (2024) taking a page from the Waters School of Camp.  It’s also interesting to see the legacy that John Waters’ movies have had on cinema in general, especially in surprising places.  I don’t think anyone would’ve expected a Disney animated musical to be the place that pays homage to a John Waters film, but there is one very prominent one in the 1989 classic The Little Mermaid.  The late and beloved lyricist Howard Ashman came from the same Baltimore Avant Garde arts scene as John Waters and Divine, and he specifically used Divine as the inspiration for the villainous sea witch Ursula.  The Disney animators went a step further, and gave Ursula a spiky hair style similar to the iconic one Divine was wearing in Female Trouble.  And there of course was the hit Broadway musical based on Hairspray which in turn was adapted into a new musical film which Waters didn’t direct himself but still participated in, cameoing as a flasher of course.  Unfortunately, Waters hasn’t had as much luck getting financing for his films as he once did before and he has directed a new film in over 20 years; the last being A Dirty Shame.  Still, he maintains an active public profile and has been heralded as a crucial pioneer in queer cinematic history.  Perhaps the proudest he can be as a filmmaker is seeing that his body of work made a difference, both in shaking up the film industry as well as elevating new voice within the business.  And he did it without having to sacrifice his artistic integrity.  Instead, he went mainstream on his terms, making movies that he wanted to make that could also reach the mainstream target audience.  He still wants to continue making movies, and hopefully Hollywood grants him at least one more chance to step behind the camera once again.  As we celebrate another Pride Month, we definitely need to recognize just how important someone like John Waters was in getting us to the point where we could express that pride openly.  And if he had to do that in some shocking and often grotesque ways, well, thank goodness he did so without shame and with a whole lot of courage; and some sick, twisted ideas as well.

Let’s All Go to the Movies – Things That Hollywood Can Do to Help Save the Theatrical Experience

It’s hard to think of what the theatrical experience was like 10, 20, or more years ago.  The theater experience has been an ever evolving thing with the times, with multiple changes made by the theater chains done in order to boost the amount of people coming through their doors.  But one thing is for sure, this century old industry has never had a easy road to success.  It takes a lot to get people to leave the comforts of their home and pay money to sit in a dark room with a bunch of strangers.  To make that happen, movie theaters need to be special places and not just a place to see a movie.  That’s why so many movie theaters today are trying very hard to make their venues more than just a theater.  With the increasing standard of lounge style seating in every theater and in some places interactive features like the 4DX experience with motion seats and in theater effects, movie theaters are making the effort to lure audiences back after several years of struggle.  When the competition is the living room, people need to be reminded that movie theaters offer a far better experience that immerses you better into the movies.  But, not every movie theater can change so quickly with the times, and that has led to a bit of a contraction within the industry.  Thankfully, the movie theater industry is not dead yet, but they have been barely hanging on after it’s near Armageddon during the Covid-19 pandemic.  And hopes of a huge bounce back post-pandemic have largely faded due to a variety of factors, but mostly the lack of event worthy films in the market.  There certainly have been some incredibly successful films in this post-pandemic era, but they have been coming few and far between compared to how they performed in the last decade.  It seems increasingly like the box office may never in fact reach the same highs of the 2010’s ever again, as the future looks increasingly less favorable to the theater business.  But, is that something that Hollywood wants to see happen?

To understand the state of the movie theater industry, we have to examine what is ailing it.  First of all, the under-performance of movies at the box office.  Box office is a tricky barometer for gauging a movie’s success, because it’s the most immediate information we get about how a movie is performing.  Movie studios pay very close attention to the box office receipts, because it’s a definable number that they can gauge their economic outlook on, which is helpful for getting the attention of investors.  But because box office numbers are public record, this can be a double edged sword as a movie’s failure can also be a visible thing.  Unfortunately, too much has been made about these immediate box office numbers as a defining factor in a movie’s success.  There are many cases where movies became bigger hits outside of their initial runs in theaters like The Big Lebowski (1998), Fight Club (1999) and The Iron Giant (1999) due to success in home video.  Sometimes it’s not about how well a movie opens, but rather about how long it’s remembered that helps to separate the successes from the failures.  Sadly, Hollywood over time put too much value in theatrical performances, especially in how movies do in their opening weekend, and it unfortunately leads to many films getting abandoned before they actually have a chance to build momentum.  It was definitely a true thing for movies before the pandemic, but the economic bind that the market disruption has put the studios through has made this reality even worse.  Unless a movie delivers on expectations, some of which may be unrealistic, the studios are likely to abandon it and leave movie theaters hanging with a movie that has to perform all on it’s own.  You see this now even with big movies; a less than stellar opening weekend, and the marketing for that film immediately dries up.  There isn’t even enough time to wait and see if word of mouth can help turn the fortunes of a movie around.  Studios are more willing to throw in the towel opening weekend and focus on what’s next than giving a movie a chance. and it increasingly gives movie theaters a hard time as more and more movies are shuffled through.

Of course the changes in the streaming market have changed the dynamic.  A lot of the movies that once used to give audiences a variety of choices at the movie theater have since moved to streaming, leaving the theaters with far fewer choices as a result.  The mid-ranged budget movies like comedies and action thrillers no longer are believed to be competitive with the likes of mega franchises like the MCU.  So, these movies have gone over to streaming instead, mainly because they don’t have to feel the pressure of showing strong box office numbers once they release.  Twenty years ago, comedic movies were seen as some of the strongest performers at the box office.  Even bad comedies like Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill (2011) were still capable of pulling over $100 million at the box office.  Now, those kinds of broad comedies are absent at the box office.  Sandler himself even abandoned theaters all together, as his Happy Madison production company now makes everything exclusively for Netflix.  It’s crazy to think that in the last five years the only Adam Sandler film released in theaters was the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019).  But this is where Netflix and other streamers have made a huge difference in the variety of movies that make it to the big screen.  Now, movie theaters can only depend on big studio tent-poles to bring audiences in, as well as small, low risk independents to fill in the rest.  The middle range that helped to give movie theaters an extra boost is all but dried up.  No more $50 million movies capable of grossing $200 million.  For most tent-poles now, $200 million has now become the minimum needed to turn a profit, and some movies now even require more.  With the bar for profitability now so high, it’s easy to see why more studios are opting for the streaming option, because if no one watches their movie, they won’t get that stigma of a public box office failure attached to their film.

The current problems for the film industry stem from these long in the making disruptions, but a lot of the problems they face are also self inflicted wounds that could’ve easily been prevented.  For one thing, the lagging box office of this Summer in particular is very much attributable to the needlessly prolonged strikes that occurred last year.  In the end, the studios ultimately acquiesced to the demands of the unions, showing that they could’ve easily reached a deal early on, but chose to string things out in the hopes that they could make the unions cave, which they didn’t.  So, Hollywood has no one else to blame for a work stoppage that went 6 months longer than it had to, and we are only now a year later beginning to feel the cost of that blunder.  The Summer 2024 movie season has not been on fire thus far.  So far, we’ve seen two movies perform well under expectations (Fall Guy and Furiosa) and another that is meeting expectations but not exceeding them (Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes).  Some worry that this is a sign that the Summer season will be one of the worst ever, which is going to put pressure on a movie theater industry that is still reeling from the pandemic.  We’ve already seen a record low Memorial Day weekend, and given the lack of overall films due to the gap made by the strikes, there’s few films on the horizon that look to reverse the trend.  Also the lack of restraint on the way movies are budgeted is making it near impossible for for the theatrical market to pull it’s wait in showing that it can turn a profit for these movies, so many are trying to compensate by raising the prices of a ticket.  But, raising ticket prices is having it’s own negative effect on the movies, as cash strapped customers are more willing to stay home than spend a whole bunch of money on a movie.  It’s this combination of ticket inflation and the underwhelming product coming out of the studios that has led to this perfect storm of problems plaguing both the studios and the movie theater business, though it’s especially harder on the theaters.

The thing is, there are movies that still are managing to drive business to the movie theaters.  Since the re-opening of the theaters post-pandemic, we’ve seen record shattering runs for movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), and Top Gun: Maverick (2022).  Even this year, movies like Dune: Part Two (2024) and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (2024) have managed to demonstrate strong box office holds over multiple weeks.  It’s just that Hollywood is looking at all these examples of success, and not absorbing the lessons.  The thing that all of these movies had in common was that they were events.  They were the kinds of movies that demanded the attention of the audience, and were clearly movies that were meant to be experienced and not just watched.  Unfortunately, there’s no organic way to manifest a larger than life movie event that will generate the kind of box office that these movies did.  The Barbenheimer phenomenon was the biggest story in movies last year precisely because it was so unexpected.  The movies Barbie (2023) and Oppenheimer (2023) were expected to do well, but not to the tune of over $2 billion dollars collectively at the box office.  Movie theaters very much needed that Barbenheimer effect, but it’s something that could only have manifested in that particular moment, so it’s not something that can be conjured on demand.  But what Hollywood can do is to try to make movies that that are distinct from one another.  When the studios try to play things safe, all their movies will tend to just look the same, and audiences will eventually grow tired of that.  It’s something that is especially plaguing the super hero franchises at the moment.  The problem though is that Hollywood takes it’s time to adjust course and try new things.  Sequels and prequels are more likely to get the greenlight before any new intellectual property is ever gambled with by the industry.  And given that the examples I gave of the movies that performed spectacularly well in the last couple years were also franchise movies, the chances of anything new coming out of Hollywood anytime soon seem pretty remote.  But, the fact is that Hollywood has the capability of bringing audiences out to the theaters if they focus on the appeal of these movies and making them worthy of the big screen.  What ultimately draws audiences out of their living rooms is knowing that a theater gives them something more.

There are many ways to make the movie theaters more of a destination to be sure.  Going back to the early days of cinema, the medium of film was a place to experiment with many different techniques.  The introductions of sound and color made movies a whole lot more special, and when televisions started to challenge the superiority of the movie theaters in terms of exhibition, a new type of experience called widescreen began to emerge.  There were also gimmicks that didn’t quite take off as well as people hoped, like 3D and Smell-O-Vision, but these two had the effect of making going to the movies more than just “going to the movies.” There were also mad wizards like William Castle who went so far as to install buzzers into the theater seats to make his horror movies that much more electrifying for his audiences.  One wishes that kind of showmanship extended out into movies today.  In some places, you do see movie theaters that do cater to more to their audiences than just screening a movie.  There’s the Alamo Drafthouse style of Dine-In theaters that give you restaurant service within a theater setting that goes well above just popcorn and soda.  Also, one thing that has been consistently growing in success in the theatrical market in the last few years has been IMAX.  The company that produces the film stock has seen their business grow at a time when the rest of Hollywood has been either stagnant or shrunken.  More audiences are interested in seeing movies in premium formats rather than the standard presentation.  It was a big reason why movies like Oppenheimer and Dune: Part Two were able to be as successful as they were is because the IMAX format was essential to the experience, and audiences were willing to pay the premium ticket price to see these movies in the most ideal way possible.  They were also movies shot specifically for the format, meaning you are not truly seeing the true version of the movie unless you were watching it in IMAX.  True, IMAX is not ideal for every kind of movie, but what is ideal is for more movies that are made with the intent of utilizing their place on a big screen.

One other big thing that Hollywood should consider is to expand the exclusivity window for their films in theaters.  One of the unfortunate outcomes of the pandemic on the theater industry is that the theater chains gave up ground to the studios to allow for movies to go to digital platform earlier than they did before.  Before the pandemic, movie theaters had a 90 day window of exclusivity that allowed them to generate as much revenue as possible from a theatrical run before the movie would be available to buy digitally on places like iTunes or Vudu.  With theaters closed during Covid, the studios began demanding that the chains loosen that restrictive window to allow them the freedom bank off of these movies without having to wait three months.  The exclusive window was cut in half and has remained that way ever since, even with things large back to normal.  This change also allowed studios to begin a day and date style of release in both theaters and on streaming.  Unfortunately for both the theaters and the studios, this has caused a change in audience behavior that has caused movies in general to make less money in the long run.  People are no longer running out to see a movie when they know that it will be streaming within a matter of weeks.  This is especially true for family films, as parents are finding that it’s much less expensive for them to wait for the movie to appear on streaming than to spend tons of money on tickets and snacks from concessions.  The studios need to realize that there is no economic advantage to closing that exclusivity window tighter.  What is fascinating to see is that the movies that actually perform the best on streaming platforms are the ones that had full theatrical runs.  Disney’s Moana (2016) has consistently been present in the top ten streaming charts every single week, making it the most streamed film ever, even eight years after it first appeared in theaters, where it also did well.  It seems that movie theaters are still the ideal way for a movie to have it’s first good impression and that streaming is better used for the residual success that a movie experiences in the years after.  The big flaw of streaming is that the algorithms that they run on are geared to the viewers tastes, and for a movie to be seen on the platform it has to come with some built in awareness on the part of the viewer.  Otherwise it just becomes yet another thumbnail that we scroll past.

A lot of people are trying to assess what is going on with movies in theaters, but I don’t think anyone has the answer to how to fix it.  Even I don’t know, and my suggestions are just based on a handful of historic examples.  But, the sad truth is that movie theaters may never recover to where they were before.  We may be in for a period of decline that ultimately will lead to a significantly reduced theater market.  That doesn’t mean that it will go extinct.  There will always be a demand for the theatrical experience; it’s just that this kind of group of movie fans will have to be catered to with fewer options.  It saddens me when I see any movie theater closing, but it’s something that we are probably going to see much more of in the coming years.  Demand is not meeting up with the supply, so a contraction is inevitable.  But those theaters that do survive will be all the more cherished.  I worry most for those small town, mom and pop movie theaters as they are sometimes the only outlet for rural communities to have that cinematic experience, especially the ones that program an art house selection of movies.  But, the movie theater industry did face one of the worst shocks to it’s system during the Covid-19 pandemic and most movie theaters are still here, which is a hopeful sign.  Now Hollywood just needs to figure it’s own self out and actually see the value in making the kinds of movies that drive people to the cinema.  Not everything needs to be an IMAX sized event, but we do need a reminder that any type of movie is better seen on a bigger screen.  Whether it takes gimmicks like 3D, exclusive merchandise like custom popcorn buckets, or viral marketing like AMC’s Nicole Kidman ad, there are many ways to get people to come back to the movies. There’s also the great sense of community that comes from laughing and cheering with a room full of strangers during a great cinematic experience.  Streaming offers a lot of nice things, but it can’t replace the aura of a theatrical experience.  In this regard, the Nicole Kidman ad says it all: it makes movies better.