Over the past several years, movies – specifically those that aren’t part of a blockbuster franchise or mega IP – don’t have the audience they used to. Compare four critically acclaimed dramas helmed by well regarded auteur directors, released two years apart: Licorice Pizza and The Power of the Dog in 2021, Parasite and 1917 in 2019. The difference is stark, with the 2021 films performing comparatively weak at the box office and anecdotally having far less attention among my friends and across social media.
Movies are aging into the rock music or baseball of entertainment, still enormously popular among a dedicated core audience, but with declining interest as other forms of media (primarily TV) fill the gap. The twin forces of the pandemic and the economic heft of massive entertainment conglomerates have only accelerated the phenomenon.
The weirdest part of this shift is that it feels almost entirely due to a chokehold of supply in the form of availability and discoverability, not demand in the form of evolving audience tastes. Rock music historically hasn’t been inclusive to women or minorities. Baseball can be slow to watch. People move on.
Movies, on the other hand, haven’t lost their touch. There are unquestionably more films than ever before, across diverse genres, created worldwide, inside and outside the studio system. Offerings beyond comic book heroes and the Furious franchise aren’t just slow portentous dramas. On any night, thanks to streaming and VOD, you can catch countless romantic comedies, horror, gonzo action, and much more. I watched over ninety films last year, many of which were exceptional, from Drive My Car to Pig and Shiva Baby.
But as I wrote about repeatedly last year, practical availability and discoverability are on the decline. Theater runs are shorter or skipped altogether. Many would be independent titles are locked behind and dumped on a single streaming service as disposable “content.” Countless older movies aren’t available digitally. Algorithms ensure all but the latest and buzziest movies are a chore to discover. Thanks to streaming wars and changing digital rights, a single title can vary in availability over time, with sudden pricing changes and blackouts hard to track for the casual viewer.
Award campaigns also drive an irregular release schedule over the year. The biggest dramas and other “award contenders” tend to build buzz and critical acclaim over multiple film festivals and then release en masse around a November to December sweet spot to stay fresh for critics’ awards and the Oscars. That pattern can make the holiday season full of high quality pictures with the biggest names above and below the line as contributors but leave much of the rest of the year in a comparative drought.
To paraphrase a tweet from the critic Matt Zoller Seitz, selecting films to watch are similar to shopping at a produce stand where only pears are available. If you buy a pear, it doesn’t mean you chose it over other fruit; real choice means having options. There are technically other fruits out there, but they are increasingly tucked away in hard to reach areas, are mislabeled, and only show up at the stand a few times per day.
As a big movie nut, I’m working through this phenomenon through what feels like the stages of grief. First came anger and denial; why won’t more people discover the awesomeness of Nic Cage disarming a chef with empathy in Pig alongside Spider-Man: No Way Home? Then through much of last year, through my writing, acceptance for the reality of what was happening. Maybe many movies will get a bit more niche and less popular. Maybe they will take extra legwork to find. Maybe this is the inevitable power of the internet contributing to media fragmentation. Maybe that’s ok.