Tár is one of my favorite movies from 2022, thanks to a herculean performance by Cate Blanchett alongside Todd Field’s bold direction. For Field, this is only his third feature as director and his first in sixteen years. With such sporadic output and little connective tissue to his past work, I find his contributions to Tár fascinating to dissect. The film is Kubrickian in its clinical detail, subtle yet purposeful, messy and enigmatic, with an open provocation for the audience to get on board with the film’s unique wavelength or head for the exits.
Nowhere is that challenge clearer than in Tár’s opening thirty or so minutes. Like the fictitious composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Blanchett), the opener is bold and uncompromising in a way that feels tailor made to rankle some audiences. On an otherwise sparsely attended weeknight screening, I saw several moviegoers visibly impatient, sighing and shifting audibly in their seats.
Before I dive into that opening, it’s essential to set the larger context: Tár is a nearly three hour movie for which most is a patient “slice of life” character study. We learn about Tár (Blanchett) as she works through her musical projects and interacts with her wife and colleagues. Except for a guest lecture at Juilliard where Tár criticizes a student, onscreen conflict is mostly muted for the opening half or so of the film.
Over Warner Discovery’s Q2 earnings call, the new media behemoth announced plans to merge HBO Max and Discovery Plus as a single service in 2023. While we’ve got a solid year to evaluate if CEO David Zaslav’s bet will be a financial hit, early signs are worrisome.
Sticking to safe, proven programming was always what I expected from the new, post-Netflix dip “content perspective” era. But early signs point to Zaslov and his team taking Warner Discovery into extreme, creatively bankrupt directions. Their actions risk driving away their existing subscriber base.
On the day of the earnings call, low performing TV series and movies disappeared off HBO Max to save residuals. Zaslav and friends also canceled a nearly finished $90 million superhero movie – Batgirl – as a tax write-off. A tone deaf presentation simplified HBO Max as “male skew” when some of the service’s biggest breakouts like Hacks and The Flight Attendant reach much broader audiences.
After a decade of rapid growth, Netflix took a tumble over the past quarter, for the first time losing more subscribers than it signed up. Wall Street’s reaction has been swift, with the market slashing Netflix’s valuation to less than half of its value from a few weeks prior.
Many schadenfreude-fueled takes revel in watching the king of streaming take a hit, but Netflix’s downturn won’t improve film watching habits or shake up streaming’s ascendance. The availability and discoverability challenges on streaming – clunky user interfaces, ruthless algorithms – won’t improve. Mega budget streaming sites will survive. What will change are the type of shows and movies that streaming sites buy, produce, and green light going forward.
Mainstream movies have crept up in length. A few years ago, feature-length films regularly ran a tight 90 or 100 minutes; today, that brevity feels increasingly rare. Almost half of the movies I watched that came out in 2021 ran for 130 minutes or longer, many from genres that historically tend to be shorter: action (F9, No Time to Die, The Matrix Resurrections, The Suicide Squad), biopics (King Richard), coming of age comedy romances (Licorice Pizza, Red Rocket), and neo-noir (Nightmare Alley). I suspect inflated runtimes trend beyond my tastes.
Superhero movies are a significant influence. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Comics have produced the biggest movies around for almost a decade, seen worldwide with record profits, and generate endless discourse everywhere from film journals to Twitter. They also tend to run long. Most MCU movies have a runtime over two hours, with installments from the popular Spiderman and Avengers series regularly exceeding two and a half hours.
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.
Several times this year, I’ve written about the decline of theaters and the rise of streaming, exacerbated through the effects of the pandemic. While there has been a recent theatrical comeback for big franchise properties, smaller budget indies haven’t enjoyed the same success. It’s harder than ever to find movies that aren’t a gigantic four-quadrant blockbuster on the big screen. For the exception of those fortunate enough to live in a film hub like New York or LA, moviegoing is a bifurcated experience: Marvel, James Bond, and other mega family-friendly IPs play at every cineplex around town, transitioning over time to heavily marketed streaming, VOD, and Blu-ray opportunities. Everything else gets quietly dumped off direct to VOD or streaming.
That void in theatrical availability is a lost opportunity that streaming can’t replicate. Powerful sound on a giant screen can give an enveloping, immersive quality to a film. In an increasingly distracted world where multi-tasking is the norm, theaters are a rare setting optimized for focus on a particular movie image. Audience reactions – laughter, clapping, gasps, cheers – provide a unique character.
Last week I caught a screening of Titane at the TIFF Bell Center here in Toronto, the first theater experience I’ve had in over a year and a half. It was an arresting ride with excellent sound, a high quality projection, and welcoming staff. But as the lights came up, even in a theater that can seat hundreds for an eight PM show, I counted only six people in the audience.
My knee jerk reaction was that a mix of pandemic caution and Titane‘s penchant for body horror and violence (Palme D’Or winner aside) kept many at home. But afterward, I had a sinking feeling the screening’s low attendance may be part of a larger trend.
Back in January, writing about the pandemic’s impact on cinema, I predicted theaters’ only path to survival would be on the backs of four quadrant blockbusters. Distributors would push smaller budget independent movies to VOD and streaming services. Ten months later, I’ve seen little to dissuade my opinion. Frankly, the state of indie movies in theaters is at best uncertain, at worst fairly bleak.
Popular streaming services like Netflix make it challenging to find films older than a few years. As these services increasingly dominate our movie watching time, fewer will be watching older movies. The net effect accelerates an already on the rise movie monoculture dominated by Disney, DC, and Fast and Furious. Fewer films that aren’t blockbuster franchises get made.
The problem starts with streaming service UI patterns, most of which have the same opening interface: a big highlighted promo area up top, followed by long rows of thumbnail content segmented into categories. As I wrote earlier, categorization in the rows can feel arbitrary. Navigating through a single row requires too much horizontal scrolling. In addition, the promo area dominates the visual hierarchy but rarely offers more than a single movie or TV series at a time.
So streaming UI makes browsing dicey for any film. Considering older films tend to be a fraction of the content on the opening page, they, in turn, become exponentially more difficult to find.
The pandemic has upended movie watching. Our theaters are now our homes, with streaming services like Netflix and HBO Max our de facto movie watching hubs. Even long after COVID-19 is behind us, film distribution will not revert to the way it was in 2019. Brick and mortar theaters stay in shambles. Premium VOD will be untenable. Subscription services increasingly dominate.
Paradoxically, a movie watching landscape under the control of new technology can make finding content to match your tastes more difficult. Algorithms are not the answer. Instead, you’ll have to use some proactiveness and legwork to find your next great film.
That’s because almost every streaming service makes hunting for good content an ordeal. So much content can appear at once. Most services are intentionally obtuse with the details and it’s hard to know when a service adds or removes movies. Categorization can feel vague, misleading, and manipulative. A service will happily pay inflated prices for critically acclaimed festival winners and then proceed to bury them off the home page.
With Wonder Woman 1984 debuting here in Canada as a $30 CAD rental, I can’t help but consider the premium video on demand (VOD) market on shaky, unstable ground. Long term I suspect it’s more of a stopgap action out of studio desperation than viable future for movies.
At a glance it shouldn’t be this way. Premium VOD is a great value alternative to theaters. While VOD means the loss of a theater level screen and sound you avoid the time and coordination of commute, loud audience members, and pay a lot less. Here in Toronto, a $30 CAD rental matches two tickets at $15 a pop. Add in transportation costs and expensive concessions and there’s a significant savings with premium VOD. Also, by swapping out the theater middlemen in exchange for streaming distributors like Apple and Amazon, studios ensure a higher percentage of box office income from every sale.