Most of the 21st century has been dominated by sequels, reboots, and cinematic universes. Comic book movies from studios like Marvel Studios and DC Films have reigned supreme with sprawling, CGI-heavy epics starring their flagship characters. In 2019, Avengers: Endgame raked in almost three billion dollars at the worldwide box office. Before that, long-running franchises like Harry Potter, Fast and Furious, and The Hunger Games broke records with big-budget blockbuster features.
But in 2023, it seems we’re undergoing a cinematic sea change. The post-pandemic entertainment landscape has been far less kind to these big tentpole popcorn flicks. Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny, which saw an 81-year-old Harrison Ford return to reprise his role as the legendary archaeologist, came and went with surprisingly little fanfare and a slim box office return.
In the comic book movie world, DC and Warner Bros’ The Flash proved to be one of the biggest flops in recent memory. Not even the once-unassailable Marvel Studios has been immune to these changes. One of its most recent films, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, earned the MCU its second-ever Rotten Tomato, marking the first time in Marvel Studios’ storied history that fans and critics stood united in shared dislike of an MCU feature. Other post-pandemic installments such as Thor: Love and Thunder, Eternals, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness have also underperformed at the box office and received middling critical praise.
In online film circles, a chorus of fans clamoring for original, risky ideas from movie studios has been loudening for years. And for years, Hollywood studio bigwigs have ignored it. But now, with the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon sweeping social media and filling movie theaters across the globe, it seems all but a foregone conclusion that studios will have to sit up and take notice of the implicit demands film fans are making with their ticket purchases: “we want art back at the movies.”
Why Barbenheimer matters
It might seem like just another kitschy meme train to hop on for a few days, but the Barbenheimer moment could be a harbinger for momentous shifts in the film industry. These two films might be polar opposites from a stylistic standpoint, but what they share in common makes all the difference: they’re not reboots or sequels, and they’re both made by highly talented and respected auteur filmmakers in Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan.
Don’t get us wrong. We understand that Barbie is a movie centered around the world’s most famous doll, and Oppenheimer is a biopic. Neither are “original” ideas in the purest sense, but they both push the envelope in their respective genres and deliver artful visuals and thoughtful commentary. In short, they brought cinema back to the multiplexes in a lone summer weekend while both overperforming financially. Aside from a few notable exceptions like the Spider-Verse films, are there any franchise features we can say the same about?
While Barbenheimer is undoubtedly a boon to the long-demoralized spirits of film buffs, we haven’t yet mentioned the elephant in the room: the WGA writers’ strike. Audiences might be more primed to pay to see original ideas in theaters than they have been for decades, but we won’t be able to see those ideas brought to fruition until the studios come to their senses. Once things get back on track and screenwriters can start clacking away at their keyboards again, we may very well see more films like Barbie and Oppenheimer than The Flash and Dial of Destiny.
If you’re still unconvinced that we’ll ever see an end to the endless stream of uninspired and recycled IP films we’ve been getting in recent years, don’t fret: there is a historical precedent for this brand of cinematic tide shifting. Let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane.
History may repeat itself
If we’re looking for a historical analog to the current big blockbuster era we live in, the 1960s and early 70s would be the closest fit. In those days, films like Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire boasted big-name A-listers and outsized production budgets. To put things in perspective, Cleopatra had a $44 million budget. Accounting for our current inflation rates, that would roughly equal a $440 million budget in 2023. The production was plagued with setbacks, the film received scathing reviews, and it barely broke even at the box office.
In response to the colossal failures of Cleopatra and similar cinematic behemoths of the time, Hollywood flipped the script. The maximalism and glamor of the 60s gave way to the personal, auteur-driven filmmaking of the 70s. These films had smaller budgets, but they were helmed by directors and performers who knew how to make a lot out of a little. Many film fans view this era as cinema’s golden age: a time when studios took risks on artists that had a clear vision and knew how to execute it. Landmark films like Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, and The Godfather were all released during this time.
But in the 2020s, the ethos of these golden-age filmmakers hasn’t disappeared entirely. It’s rare to find in theaters but not uncommon on streaming platforms like Netflix and Max. Throughout much of the last decade, the auteurs have flocked to the small screen in droves to see their visions brought to life. Even Martin Scorsese, one of the 70s most renowned and respected filmmakers, went to Netflix to make his mafia magnum opus, The Irishman.
It’s all well and fine to watch a top-tier show or movie at home alone on your laptop, but if we’re being honest, it can never compare to the theater experience. If nothing else, the Barbenheimer phenomenon proved that no matter how much binge-worthy content the streaming platforms release, people will still come by the boatload for the communal experience of the cinema – if the movies are good, that is.
What happens next?
As we mentioned briefly above, nothing will happen until the WGA writers’ strike reaches a fair conclusion. But if we’re assuming, for the sake of argument, that an agreement is imminent, there are a lot of ways this can go. An unfortunate outcome would result in the studios disregarding public demand and continuing their onslaught of lazy soft reboots and sequels. In a more favorable turn of events, the sky would be the limit for original ideas in theaters.
Studios like A24 have been producing high-quality, low-budget features for years now. Maybe the big kids on the block like Disney and Warner Bros will take a page out of the indie film playbook and finally realize they don’t have to inject half a million dollars into every production to make a decent profit. The horror studio Blumhouse Productions has also benefited from a low-budget, high-output ethos. Blumhouse features almost always do well because the studio reigns in the budgets, generally keeping them under a manageable $20 million. Whether the quality is up to snuff varies from film to film, but that’s a story for another day.
There’s no telling how this will all shake out, but for the first time in a long time, it feels like there’s a viable path forward for cinema. Well, as long as the writers’ strike comes to a prompt conclusion, that is. All we film fans can do is take our small victories where we can and hope for the best.