Are movies dying? This is the question occupying the minds of many members of “Film Twitter” over the past two years, largely prompted by the pandemic. But there is the argument that movies have been dying for a while, at least for adults, and the pandemic just forced us to notice.
A co-worker said a very interesting thing to me the other day when we discussed that the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled pitcher Clayton Kershaw from a game in the seventh inning, even though he was throwing a perfect game. As a baseball fan, he was absolutely disgusted by the decision, comparing it to movies, saying, “I don’t want to live in a world where all we have are Marvel movies.” While his comment stunned me at the time, the more I think about it, the more I see the comparison. He was making the point that the decision to pull Kershaw was based on analytics, not baseball. The statistics forced him out of the game — the probability of injury, the long-term health risk, and the ever-hated-among-old-school-baseball fans: the pitch count. In the same way, studios have been making decisions about what movies to make based on analytics rather than old-school moviemaking.
In the olden days (before the ‘90s), movies got made based on scripts, a star, or a director’s vision. Now, movies are generally made based on who they can be sold to. Every studio wants to make money on a movie, but before, it used to be a crapshoot, a matter of instinct, a gut feeling. Paramount+ is about to release a ten-part series called The Offer, about a studio that took a risk back in 1972 in making a small movie that nobody believed in — The Godfather. Even though the “money men” resisted it, the film got made because there was artistic passion driving it. Nobody knew if it would be a flop or not, but the filmmakers knew it could be a good movie. The fact that it ended up making money and becoming a phenomenon was gravy.
These days, no studio can afford to take that risk. The gravy must be guaranteed. And the best gravy of all is appealing to a younger demographic and the foreign market, which currently translates to sci-fi, special effects-driven, superhero movies, aka NOT movies for adults. That’s where the money is, and that’s where studios now trust their investments. You can’t blame them for it. Just like in the Kershaw decision, the numbers make the call. But, just like the Kershaw decision turned off many baseball fans who long for what baseball used to be, studio movies are turning off longtime movie fans, especially adults, who are now turning to television streaming services to find content aimed at them.
But maybe there is a way to have both. Maybe there is a way to save movies, bring back adults without losing the teens, keep the appeal to the foreign markets without sacrificing the pursuit of artistic excellence, and save the Oscars while we’re at it.
All we need is another Titanic.
In 1997, James Cameron made a movie that re-defined the term blockbuster. Much like The Godfather, Titanic had built up its own lore even before the movie was released. Stories of budget overruns plagued the production, and it became the stuff of scandal as its cost rose to making the film the most expensive film ever made (at the time). But Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount, who co-financed the movie, let Cameron continue, and the film eventually came out to much fanfare. It undoubtedly attracted a lot of interest due to the many headlines it already had made and all the potential headlines it promised—the disaster about a disaster was too good to miss.
But then something happened. People started to see the movie. And they loved it. They told their friends and family, and they loved it. And they went back, again and again. Titanic became more than a phenomenon. It became a cultural touchpoint, the film everyone talked about, and everyone had to see. It eventually worked its way to becoming the biggest box office success in movie history. And although its record has now been surpassed seven times over, it was a legitimate sensation, a film still beloved and talked about.
What was the secret behind Titanic’s success? It wasn’t an established IP. It wasn’t based on a best-selling book or even a comic book, nor was it a sequel. It didn’t even have fully-established movie stars in it. So what did it have? Everything else.
Titanic appealed to what’s known in the movie industry as the “four quadrants.” These four quadrants are loosely defined as the four demographics of movie audiences: young women (under 25), adult women (over 25), young men (under 25), and adult men (over 25). Most movies aim for at least two quadrants. Most tent-pole movies try to aim at all four, but it is a challenging goal to achieve. Titanic had it all. It was a love story, a historical epic, a disaster movie, and a special-effects bonanza all in one. It featured cutting-edge technology and a simple, relatable story of star-crossed lovers. It told a true story of one of the world’s most famous moments in history. It featured two rising young movie stars. It was directed by a popular action and sci-fi filmmaker who promised eye-popping effects.
Titanic appealed to all ages, from teenage girls who were there for the love story and Leo to teenage boys who wanted to watch the boat sink to adult women who were there for the history, the love story, and a strong female character (and maybe also Leo), to adult men who were there for the epic scope, the history, and the sinking of the boat. Hell, we were all there for the sinking of the ship. It had it all, and everyone wanted to see it and keep seeing it. I ask you, what was the last movie your teenage son and your grandmother both wanted to see?
When a movie appeals to all four quadrants, it generally is a success. But it is a tricky needle to thread. Most studios don’t even try, preferring to aim for a much lower bar, going for the easiest and richest of quadrants, the under-25 male demographic, which has proven to be their most important successful approach, at least recently.
To prove my point, here are the domestic box office champions in each of the twenty-five years since Titanic:
1998 Saving Private Ryan
1999 Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas
2001 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004 Shrek 2
2005 Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
2007 Spider-Man 3
2008 The Dark Knight
2010 Toy Story 3
2011 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
2012 The Avengers
2013 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
2014 American Sniper
2015 Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
2016 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
2017 Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
2018 Black Panther
2019 Avengers: Endgame
2020 Bad Boys for Life
2021 Spider-Man: No Way Home
2022 The Batman (so far)
This list begs the obvious question: Have studios just stopped trying to make four-quadrant movies? If they don’t even need to, why would they? Or maybe we’re missing the obvious answer: four-quadrant movies are much harder to make than we think. Maybe Titanic was a unicorn, the one film that discovered the special sauce, that one-in-a-million movie that had everything fall into place and had the luck of timing and chemistry. But, then again, maybe it was a success because there were artists who believed in it, and the money people didn’t stand in their way. Is it even possible to achieve this again in this world of analytics and safe bets?
The answer is: we have to try. If there is any hope of saving the theatrical movie-going experience for everyone, especially adults, one solution may be that one-in-a-million movie that gets everyone to want to go to the movies again. We need something to capture the imagination of all the people who have never been interested in the movies or those who gave up on them long ago. We need a film that will bring everyone into the tent, break through the walls of our echo chambers, and appeal to everyone. Movies used to be a common bond. We need that one unifying experience to bring us all together again.
Movies are in crisis. A reflection of that crisis is in the ratings for the Academy Awards. Ratings had been plummeting long before COVID, and that’s because the general public wasn’t invested in the movies being honored. If you take a wild guess as to what the highest-rated Oscar telecast was, you probably wouldn’t be wrong. That’s right; it was the year Titanic won eleven Oscars, including Best Picture. That year, 1998, 57.25 million viewers watched the show.
To put it in perspective, this year’s Oscars drew just 26.6 million. Now, there are obviously many more distractions and reasons why movie attendance and the Oscars are far below Titanic’s levels. Still, there is also nothing to suggest another Titanic couldn’t change everything. The monumental success of Spider-Man: No Way Home last year, despite coming out during a pandemic, shows that people are still wanting to go to the movies. Once the pandemic is more under control, even adults might be willing to go back to the movies. But there has to be something there for them. We need something to compel everyone to turn off their TV, put down their phone, pause their video game, and come together in a darkened theater, reveling in the communal experience of film again.
We need a passionate artist, and we need a studio willing to take the gamble. Do we want to believe Titanic was a once-in-a-lifetime rarity? It has been done once, and I refuse to believe it can’t be done again. We have the chance to save the Oscars. We have the chance to save movies. There is a chance for another perfect game…we just need someone willing to let them pitch.