How Streaming Has Rewritten the Script for Movies – The New York Times

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Critic’s notebook
As a business and a cultural pursuit, Hollywood is in a state of chaos that has been growing year by year.
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This article is part of our special section on the DealBook Summit that included business and policy leaders from around the world.
In the months after its Memorial Day weekend opening, “Top Gun: Maverick” earned almost $1.5 billion at the global box office. The number came as less of a surprise than a relief. The movie, buzzed about for decades and delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, was as close to a sure bet as Hollywood money allows. Outside of the three big Disney profit centers — Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar — there isn’t much that can match the appeal of an action movie starring Tom Cruise.
It’s true that Cruise turned 60 this year, and the first “Top Gun” hit theaters in the pre-Jurassic (Park) year of 1986. But if the audience was going to show up to the multiplexes for anything, it would surely be something like this.
A lot was riding on that “if,” and the success of “Maverick,” directed by Joseph Kosinski and carefully updated with respect to geo, gender and generational politics, allowed many industry players and observers to declare — not for the first or last time — that movies were back.
The reality is more complicated. Audiences did go back to the movies in 2022 — to “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “The Batman” to “Elvis” and “Nope” — but not the way they did in 2018 and 2019. Even then, before the pandemic, the landscape was shifting. As a business and a cultural pursuit, the movies are in a state of chaos that has been growing year by year, as the disruptive force of streaming has rewritten the script. With so many options available at home, the pull of the multiplex and the art house isn’t as strong as it used to be. We make our choices differently, according to patterns and preferences that aren’t yet fully established.
The broad outlines of the change are clear enough, even if the outcome is, as ever unknowable. The screenwriter William Goldman’s axiom that “nobody knows anything” in Hollywood remains a good rule of thumb. Anyone who predicts the future of movies (this writer included) is either bluffing, guessing or indulging in wishful thinking.
Right now, what we do know is that nearly all the surviving Hollywood studios are also streaming platforms. Tech companies like Netflix, Amazon and Apple are also movie studios. As these organizations compete for our time and attention, what they are selling isn’t tickets but subscriptions. Except when they are also selling tickets.
Selling both has proved to be a tricky proposition. In the last year, Warner Bros. and Disney both ousted leaders, Jason Kilar and Bob Chapek, who had been installed to oversee the integration of streaming and theatrical distribution. The big synergistic plans they had proposed were abandoned in favor of … something else. Disney brought back Chapek’s predecessor, Robert A. Iger, who had presided over an era of imperial expansion. Warner undertook extensive reshuffling in the wake of a change in corporate ownership. Netflix, meanwhile, endured a rocky spring and stuck with its strategy of chasing awards and prestige with expensive movies that might show up in theaters for a week or two.
Chaos and uncertainty aren’t new in the movie business. The death of movies has been announced at least once a decade since the beginning of the sound era. The last golden age usually coincides with the adolescence and early adulthood of whoever is writing the obituary. Why don’t they make them like that any more? It’s not even a rhetorical question; it’s just a complaint.
Which brings us back to “Top Gun: Maverick,” which seemed to be an example of how they used to make them (at least when I was a kid), and succeeded according to an old-fashioned standard of measurement. A lot of people bought a lot of tickets.
One thing that has disappeared in the streaming age is a coherent criterion of success. The platforms are protective of their analytics: one thing nobody knows is how many viewers watched — or finished watching — a given movie. It’s even harder to determine how many new subscribers signed up for the purpose of watching that movie. The point of the subscription model, in any case, is to provide inexhaustible algorithmic abundance, a deep and diverse reservoir of content at everyone’s fingertips. The traditional goal was to launch a blockbuster that everyone wanted to see. Now, as long as everyone is watching something, the algorithm will be satisfied.
This means that the reasons for watching have changed. In the old days of the studio system — and even after, into the ’70s and ’80s — an annual poll of exhibitors produced a list of stars ranked in order of box office clout. The methods weren’t entirely scientific, and competing lists appeared (notably in Variety), but the idea was that star power could be quantified. The three major tabulators of data agreed, for example, that in 1946 Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman were the king and queen of the box office.
Popular performers like Crosby and Bergman — and exhibitor poll mainstays like Abbot and Costello, Judy Garland, Betty Grable and Bob Hope — were said to “open” a movie, to bring in crowds who might not know anything about the picture other than who was in it. Not that these stars, in the era of studio power, were shakers and movers in the system. They were its products. The studios gave them new names and endowed them with carefully constructed personas. Marion Morrison was renamed John Wayne. Constance Ockelman turned into Veronica Lake, and Norma Jean Baker into Marilyn Monroe. Humphrey Bogart, a wealthy doctor’s son who had been thrown out of Phillips Academy, became Humphrey Bogart, hard-boiled cynic and all-around tough guy.
After World War II, stars won more freedom to choose their projects and profit from them, and their cultural cachet grew along with their perceived box office clout. Movie stardom became a global phenomenon, and new styles of acting conquered Hollywood. To some extent, the rise of the Method — associated with new stars like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Natalie Wood and Monroe herself — replaced artifice with authenticity, but the glamour of stars hardly faded. In spite of competition from television, from professional sports, and from rock ’n' roll, movies remained at the summit of mass culture, and movie stardom established the gold standard of modern celebrity.
The ascendance of the stars endured so long that it came to seem like a fact of nature, a principle of literal rather than metaphorical astronomy. The movies changed every decade, through the New Hollywood of the ’70s through the blockbuster era of the ’80s, the indie-boom ’90s and the digital 21st century, but new stars kept coming. Their power and their salaries grew, but so did the public appetite for their on-screen presence. Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Sandra Bullock. We know them when we see them.
But it may be possible that we don’t anymore, or not as well as we used to. The current sense that movies are in trouble, that their reign at the summit of popular art may be coming to an end, arises at least partly from the intimation that stardom itself has faded. The annual ritual of lamenting the diminished relevance and ratings of the Oscars sometimes focuses on lame hosts, obscure movies or the decline of real-time television viewership. But the problem has more to do with the parade of fabulously dressed people whose hopes and disappointments comprise the spectacle. Every year we witness the reversal of Norma Desmond’s cry in “Sunset Boulevard.” She and other silent stars, she insisted, were as big as ever. “It’s the pictures that got small.” Now, with more pictures than ever, of every size and shape, it’s the stars who have shrunk.
That isn’t necessarily a tragedy. There are a lot of other ways to be famous, and the rise of social media influencers and other micro-celebrities can be seen as a democratic upswelling against the old Hollywood aristocracy. As the luster of stars has ebbed, the quality of acting has blossomed. From the indie wave of the ’90s through the golden age of prestige television and into the current streaming bonanza, the range and diversity of performances have been staggering. And the ranks of stars — confined in the postwar decades to ethnically neutral white actors plus Sidney Poitier — has broadened to include more Black, Asian, Latino and international performers than before.
The old consensus — the idea that everyone was watching the same thing, and worshiping the same idols — was always a bit of a fantasy, and always based on a narrow conception of who “everyone” might be. The current movie reality is more pluralistic, less centralized, and also — like everything else — more intensely polarized and politicized.
The exceptions remind us that the old rules no longer apply. “Top Gun: Maverick” wasn’t a sign that movies were back. It was a throwback to the way we used to imagine the movies and their stars.
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