Everyone has a theory about the decline of the Academy Awards, the sinking ratings that have led to endless Oscar reinventions. The show is too long; no, the show is too desperate to pander to short attention spans. The movies are too woke; no, the academy voters aren’t diverse enough. Hollywood makes too many superhero movies; no, the academy doesn’t nominate enough superhero movies. (A querulous voice from the back row: Why can’t they just bring back Billy Crystal?)
My favored theory is that the Oscars are declining because the movies they were made to showcase have been slowly disappearing. The ideal Oscar nominee is a high-middlebrow movie, aspiring to real artistry and sometimes achieving it, that’s made to be watched on the big screen, with famous stars, vivid cinematography and a memorable score. It’s neither a difficult film for the art-house crowd nor a comic-book blockbuster but a film for the largest possible audience of serious adults — the kind of movie that was commonplace in the not-so-distant days when Oscar races regularly threw up conflicts in which every moviegoer had a stake: Titanic against L.A. Confidential, Saving Private Ryan against Shakespeare in Love, Braveheart against Sense and Sensibility against Apollo 13.
That analysis explains why this year’s Academy Awards — reworked yet again, with various technical awards taped in advance and a trio of hosts added — have a particular sense of an ending about them. There are 10 best picture nominees, and many of them look like the kind of Oscar movies that the show so desperately needs. West Side Story: Steven Spielberg directing an update of a classic musical! King Richard”: a stirring sports movie lifted by a bravura Will Smith performance! Dune: an epic adaptation of a science-fiction classic! Don’t Look Up: a big-issue movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence! Drive My Car: a three-hour Japanese film about the complex relationship between a widowed thespian and his young female chauffeur!
OK, maybe that last one appeals to a slightly more niche audience. But the point is that this year’s nominees offer their share of famous actors, major directors and classic Hollywood genres. And yet, for all of that, almost nobody went to see them in the theaters. When the nominees were announced in February, nine of the 10 had made less than $40 million in domestic box office. The only exception, Dune, barely exceeded $100 million domestically, making it the 13th-highest-grossing movie of 2021. All told, the 10 nominees together have earned barely one-fourth as much at the domestic box office as Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Even when Hollywood tries to conjure the old magic, in other words, the public isn’t there for it anymore.
True, this was a COVID-shadowed year, which especially hurt the kinds of films that older moviegoers frequent. Remove the delta and omicron waves from the equation, and probably West Side Story and King Richard would have done a little better. And many of the best picture nominees were released on streaming and in theaters simultaneously, while Don’t Look Up was a big streaming hit for Netflix after a brief, pro forma theatrical release.
But an unusual crisis accelerating a technological transformation is a good moment to clarify where we stand right now. Sure, non-superhero-movie box office totals will bounce back in 2022, and next year’s best picture nominees will probably earn a little more in theaters.
Within the larger arc of Hollywood history, though, this is the time to call it: We aren’t just watching the decline of the Oscars; we’re watching the End of the Movies.
A long time coming …
That ending doesn’t mean that motion pictures are about to disappear. Just as historical events have continued after Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of the End of History, so, too, will self-contained, roughly two-hour stories — many of them fun, some of them brilliant — continue to play on screens for people’s entertainment, as one product among many in a vast and profitable content industry.
No, what looks finished is The Movies — big-screen entertainment as the central American popular art form, the key engine of American celebrity, the main aspirational space of American actors and storytellers, a pop-culture church with its own icons and scriptures and rites of adult initiation.
This end has been a long time coming — foreshadowed in the spread of television, the invention of the VCR, the rise of cable TV and Hollywood’s constant “It’s the pictures that got small” mythologisation of its own disappearing past.
But for decades these flights of nostalgia coexisted with continued power, and the influence of the smaller screen grew without dislodging the big screen from its commanding cultural position. TV in the 1960s and ’70s was incredibly successful but also incredibly disposable, its endless episodes standing in relation to the movies as newspaper opinion pieces stand to best-selling books. The VHS tape created a different way to bond with a successful movie, a new life for films neglected in their initial run, a new source of revenue — but the main point of all that revenue was to fund the next Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts vehicle, with direct-to-video entertainment as the minor leagues rather than The Show.
There have been television stars since Milton Berle, and the ’80s and ’90s saw the slow emergence of what we now think of as prestige TV. But if you wanted true glory, real celebrity or everlasting artistic acclaim, you still had to put your work up in movie theaters, creating self-contained works of art on a larger-than-life scale and see how critics and audiences reacted.
If you succeeded, you were Robert Altman (who directed small-screen episodes of shows like Bonanza and U.S. Marshal for years before his big-screen breakthrough) or Bruce Willis (who went from Moonlighting to Die Hard). If you tried to make the leap and failed — like Shelley Long after Cheers or David Caruso leaving NYPD Blue — you were forever a cautionary tale and proof that the movies still stood alone, a mountain not just anyone could climb.
The late 1990s were this cultural order’s years of twilight glow. Computer-generated effects were just maturing, creating intimations of a new age of cinematic wonder. Indie cinema nurtured a new generation of auteurs. Nineteen ninety-nine is a candidate for the best year in movies ever — the year of Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Election, Three Kings and The Insider, so on down a roster that justifies not just a Top 10 but a Top 50 list in hindsight.
Tellingly, Oscar viewership actually rose from the late 1980s onward, peaking in 1998, when Titanic won best picture, which (despite its snobbish detractors) was also a victory for The Movies as a whole — classic Hollywood meeting the special-effects era, bringing the whole country to the multiplex for an experience that simply wouldn’t have been the same in a living room.
To be a teenager in that era was to experience the movies, still, as a key place of initiation. I remember my impotent teenage fury at being turned away from an R-rated action movie (I can’t recall if it was “Con Air” or “Executive Decision”) and the frisson of being “adult” enough to see Eyes Wide Shut (another one of those 1999 greats — overhyped then, underrated now) on its opening weekend. And the initiation wasn’t just into a general adulthood but into a specific lingua franca: There were certain movies you simply had to watch, from “Austin Powers” to “The Matrix” (1999 again!), to function socially as a college student, to understand the jokes and references that stitched together an entire social world.
Just another form of content?
What happened next was complicated in that many different forces were at work but simple in that they all had the same effect — which was to finally knock the movies off their pedestal, transform them into just another form of content.
The happiest of these changes was a creative breakthrough on television, beginning in earnest with Sopranos-era HBO, which enabled small-screen entertainment to vie with the movies as a stage for high-level acting, writing and directing.
The other changes were — well, let’s call them ambiguous at best. Globalization widened the market for Hollywood productions, but the global audience pushed the business toward a simpler style of storytelling that translated more easily across languages and cultures, with less complexity and idiosyncrasy and fewer cultural specifics.
The internet, the laptop and the iPhone personalized entertainment and delivered it more immediately, in a way that also widened Hollywood’s potential audience — but habituated people to small screens, isolated viewing and intermittent watching, the opposite of the cinema’s communalism.
Special effects opened spectacular (if sometimes antiseptic-seeming) vistas and enabled long-unfilmable stories to reach big screens. But the effects-driven blockbuster, more than its 1980s antecedents, empowered a fandom culture that offered built-in audiences to studios, but at the price of subordinating traditional aspects of cinema to the demands of the Jedi religion or the Marvel cult. And all these shifts encouraged and were encouraged by a more general teenage-ification of Western culture, the extension of adolescent tastes and entertainment habits deeper into whatever adulthood means today.
Over time, this combination of forces pushed Hollywood in two directions. On the one hand, toward a reliance on superhero movies and other “presold” properties, largely pitched to teenage tastes and sensibilities, to sustain the theatrical side of the business. (The landscape of the past year, in which the new Spider-Man and Batman movies between them have made over a billion dollars domestically while Oscar hopefuls have made a pittance, is just an exaggerated version of the pre-COVID dominance of effects-driven sequels and reboots over original storytelling.) On the other hand, toward a churn of content generation to feed home entertainment and streaming platforms, in which there’s little to distinguish the typical movie — in terms of casting, direction or promotion — from the TV serials with which it competes for space across a range of personal devices.
Under these pressures, much of what the movies did in American culture, even 20 years ago, is essentially unimaginable today. The internet has replaced the multiplex as a zone of adult initiation. There’s no way for a few hit movies to supply a cultural lingua franca, given the sheer range of entertainment options and the repetitive and derivative nature of the movies that draw the largest audiences.
The possibility of a movie star as a transcendent or iconic figure, too, seems increasingly dated. Superhero franchises can make an actor famous, but often only as a disposable servant of the brand. The genres that used to establish a strong identification between actor and audience — the non-superhero action movie, the historical epic, the broad comedy, the meet-cute romance — have all rapidly declined.
The televised serial can establish a bond between the audience and a specific character, but the bond doesn’t translate into that actor’s other stories as easily as the larger-than-life aspect of movie stardom did. The great male actors of TV’s antihero epoch are forever their characters — always Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Al Swearengen — and recent female star turns in serial entertainment, like Jodie Comer in Killing Eve or Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit, haven’t carried their audiences with them into their motion-picture follow-ups.
It is important not to be ungrateful for what this era has given us instead — Comer and Taylor-Joy’s TV work included. The surfeit of content is extraordinary, and the serial television drama has narrative capacities that even the most sprawling movies lack. In our most recent week of TV viewing, my wife and I have toggled between the ripely entertaining basketball drama Winning Time and a terrific Amanda Seyfried turn as Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout; next week we’ll turn to the long-delayed third season of Donald Glover’s magical-realist serial Atlanta. Not every stretch of new content is like this, but the caliber of instantly available TV entertainment exceeds anything on cable 20 years ago.
But these productions are still a different kind of thing from The Movies as they were — because of their reduced cultural influence, the relative smallness of their stars, their lost communal power, but above all because stories told for smaller screens cede certain artistic powers in advance.
First, they cede the expansive powers inherent in the scale of the moviegoing experience. Not just larger-than-life acting but also the immersive elements of the cinematic arts, from cinematography to music and sound editing, which inherently matter less when experienced on smaller screens and may get less attention when those smaller screens are understood to be their primary destination.
Just to choose examples among this year’s best picture nominees: Movies like Dune, West Side Story and Nightmare Alley are all profoundly different experiences in a theater than they are at home. In this sense, it’s fitting that the awards marginalized in this year’s rejiggered Oscars include those for score, sound and film editing — because a world where more and more movies are made primarily for streaming platforms will be a world that cares less about audiovisual immersion.
Second, the serial television that dominates our era also cedes the power achieved in condensation. This is the alchemy that you get when you’re forced to tell an entire story in one go, when the artistic exertions of an entire team are distilled into under three hours of cinema, when there’s no promise of a second season or multiepisode arc to develop your ideas and you have to say whatever you want to say right here and now.
This power is why the greatest movies feel more complete than almost any long-form television. Even the best serial will tend to have an unnecessary season, a mediocre run of episodes or a limp guest-star run, and many potentially great shows, from Lost to Game of Thrones, have been utterly wrecked by not having some sense of their destination in advance. Whereas a great movie is more likely to be a world unto itself, a self-enclosed experience to which the viewers can give themselves completely.
This takes nothing away from the potential artistic advantages of length. There are things The Sopranos did across its running time, with character development and psychology, that no movie could achieve.
But The Godfather is still the more perfect work of art.
Restoration and preservation
So what should fans of that perfection be looking for in a world where multiplatform content is king, the small screen is more powerful than the big one and the superhero blockbuster and the TV serial together rule the culture?
Two things: restoration and preservation.
Restoration doesn’t mean bringing back the lost landscape of 1998. But it means hoping for a world where big-screen entertainment in the older style — mass-market movies that aren’t just comic-book blockbusters — becomes somewhat more viable, more lucrative and more attractive to audiences than it seems to be today.
One hope lies in the changing landscape of geopolitics, the current age of partial deglobalisation. With China becoming less hospitable to Western releases in the past few years and Russia headed for cultural autarky, it’s possible to imagine a modest renaissance for movies that trade some potential global reach for a more specifically American appeal — movies that aspire to earn $100 million on a $50 million budget or $50 million on a $15 million budget, instead of spending hundreds of millions on production and promotion in the hopes of earning a billion worldwide.
The more important potential shift, though, might be in the theatrical experience, which is currently designed to cram as many trailers and ads as possible in front of those billion-dollar movies and squeeze out as many ticket and popcorn dollars — all of which makes moviegoing much less attractive to grown-ups looking for a manageable night out.
One response to this problem is the differential pricing that some theater chains have experimented with, which could be part of a broader differentiation in the experience that different kinds of movies promise. If the latest Marvel spectacle is packing theaters while the potential West Side Story audience waits to see it on TV at home, why not make the West Side Story experience more accessible — with a low-cost ticket, fewer previews, a simpler in-and-out trip that’s more compatible with, say, going out to dinner? Today’s struggling multiplexes are full of unsold seats. Why not see if a streamlined experience for non-Marvel movies could sell more of them?
But because these hopes have their limits, because West Side Story making $80 million domestically instead of $40 million won’t fundamentally change the business of Hollywood, lovers of The Movies have to think about preservation as well.
That means understanding their position as somewhat akin to lovers of theater or opera or ballet, who have understood for generations that certain forms of aesthetic experience won’t be sustained and handed down automatically. They need encouragement and patronage, to educate people into loves that earlier eras took for granted — and in our current cultural climate, to inculcate adult tastes over and above adolescent ones.
In the case of movies, that support should take two overlapping forms. First, an emphasis on making it easier for theaters to play older movies, which are likely to be invisible to casual viewers amid the ruthless presentism of the streaming industry, even as corporate overlords are tempted to guard classic titles in their vaults.
Second, an emphasis on making the encounter with great cinema a part of a liberal arts education. Since the liberal arts are themselves in crisis, this may sound a bit like suggesting that we add a wing to a burning house. But at this point, 20th-century cinema is a potential bridge backward for 21st-century young people, a connection point to the older art forms that shaped The Movies as they were. And for institutions, old or new, that care about excellence and greatness, emphasizing the best of cinema is an alternative to a frantic rush for relevance that characterizes a lot of academic pop-cultural engagement at the moment.
One of my formative experiences as a moviegoer came in college, sitting in a darkened lecture hall, watching Blade Runner and When We Were Kings as a cinematic supplement to a course on heroism in ancient Greece. At that moment, in 1998, I was still encountering American culture’s dominant popular art form; today a student having the same experience would be encountering an art form whose dominance belongs somewhat to the past.
But that’s true as well of so much else we would want that student to encounter, from the “Iliad” and Aeschylus to Shakespeare and the 19th-century novel and beyond. Even if the End of the Movies cannot be commercially or technologically reversed, there is cultural life after this kind of death. It’s just up to us, now, to decide how abundant it will be.