For the better part of several decades, Star Wars has been a favorite whipping boy of the film industry. Despite its massive success and even more massive profitability, it was viewed as the tidal wave that washed away something better.
The early and mid-’70s are often revered by cineastes as a true Golden Age of cinema, with the first generation of American Film School brats coming of age (which of course does include George Lucas as well as his friends Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese). Films like “The Godfather,” “Chinatown” and “Dog Day Afternoon” ruled the box office back then — until, at least in the popular narrative, Steven Spielberg and Lucas had to come along and ruin everything, turning Hollywood into a franchise machine, built to sell toys as much as tickets.
Now, in a very different Hollywood landscape, “Star Wars” is back to save the universe. The franchise that was once the pariah of Hollywood is now its Jedi Knight. With glowing reviews, massive advanced ticket sales and the express approval of Gen-X nerd icons like Patton Oswalt, the success of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is now long past being a foregone conclusion. In a world where the studios desperately need a savior, “Star Wars” has become its only hope.
Only a film like “Star Wars” has the cultural clout to break through the industry’s years-long morass. The problem is you can count films like “Star Wars” on one finger. Sure, on a dollars and cents level, this has not been a bad year for Hollywood. But only “Star Wars” will be remembered as a real victory.
“Jurassic World,” the year’s current No. 1 (a title it is almost certainly going to lose very soon), has raked in over $650 million and is currently the third most successful film of all time, without adjusting for inflation. But does anyone remember the film at all? People came, saw their dinosaurs and left.
The second “Avengers” movie, despite bringing in $460 million, is already considered a disappointment for failing to match the success of the first. “The Martian,” currently sitting at No. 7 on the list of 2015’s top-grossing films, is the highest ranking live-action entry that is not part of a larger franchise.
The highest-ranking “original” film on that list — not part of a series, or adapted from a book or real-life events — is Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” at No. 23 with a paltry $110 million at the box office. (Yes, technically, “San Andreas” is an original film and it ranks 18th with $155 million, but we’re considering The Rock his own franchise). The highest box office take for what we’d traditionally consider “Oscar Bait” is the Cold War collaboration “Bridge of Spies” from Spielberg and Hanks, just shy of $70 million.
The problems plaguing the movie industry aren’t new. They’ve been building for decades, and a review of the top films for the past 10 years shows a growing trend of forgettable big budget blockbusters without any critical leverage and a cluster of smaller films that rack up award nominations but never find a wider audience.
There are exceptions like “Gravity” and “Inception” — big budget, effects driven, star studded, with hot directors — but they remain exceptions. The last time a “prestige pic” busted the top 10 was 2006’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” (which came in 10th that year).
Again, these are problems Hollywood has had since at least the first “Star Wars” in 1977, but this year might be a tipping point. In addition to the increasing ease of watching video content at home (and the increasing annoyance, and potential threat, of going to see a movie in the theater), television has simply been the dominant force in today’s cultural conversation. “Star Wars” is the exception that proves the rule. There have probably been more articles written about “Star Wars” since Thanksgiving than articles about Christmas, and even the most die-hard fans have to be feeling a bit burned out.
By contrast, consider the way a zeitgeist-capturing cable show like “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones” can dominate the cultural conversation for months. The buildup for the new “Game of Thrones” season in April has already started, and as the premiere grows closer we will get any number of posts about what will happen this season. Why we’re still watching or why we’re no longer watching. Then we’ll get weekly recaps. We’ll get Facebook discussions and Twitter outrage, think pieces on sexism and violence, season wrap-ups and debates about next season. “Game of Thrones” can dominate — has dominated — the cultural conversation (for better or worse) from March to the end of June. And that’s not even counting the endless Jon Snow speculation that has threaded through the offseason.
At an event at USC in 2013, both Spielberg and Lucas predicted that an “Implosion” in the film industry was coming soon. They foretold a massive change to film (by which, to be clear, I mean movies you see in a theater). They predicted a shift, where theaters become more like Broadway, where tickets are much more expensive, $50 and up, and only the biggest events bring in the crowds.
In a way, this shift is huge for genre fans who have already been treated to two decades of superheroes, hobbits, Harry Potters and Hunger Games, but for those who want a more thoughtful and intimate version of cinema, the massive success of these franchises has sucked the life out of the market for smaller films.
For viewers, this isn’t necessarily that big of a deal. We have all become accustomed to having our more thoughtful pieces of video content delivered to us on our couch. There is a very solid argument that that is where they belong anyway. Maybe we as a culture have moved beyond the 20th century phenomenon of “the movie theater.”
Obviously, we shed no tears for the Hollywood execs who will be spending Christmas with giant piles of “Star Wars” money. But the movie industry, like many others, has been massively disrupted by digital, and the many ancillary jobs that the old industry supported, from poster makers to the kid who sells you popcorn, may go the way of the Blockbuster clerk.
“Star Wars” might just save Hollywood’s Christmas…and destroy its future.