I read a very good thinkpiece a while back which I can’t find now (despite vigorous searching) but which I’m going to reprise here and add some commentary of my own. This piece made the quite wise point that box office numbers and pop-cultural impact are diverging in a very interesting way. New films routinely put up enormous totals without having anything resembling the deep and pervasive salience of the blockbusters of yesteryear. This is particularly true of this year, in which no fewer than FOUR new films entered the all-time top ten worldwide grossing films list: Jurassic World, Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions. I may be insulting some fans of those films, but none of them really felt like an event, a conversation-starter. Yet only a handful of films in the history of the medium have earned more money than they have.
There are, as is well known, certain reasons which could almost be called accounting factors which in part explain this development. Inflation, the rising cost of tickets (even above inflation, I believe), the increasing prominence of premium tickets (IMAX, 3D), and so forth. As the thinkpiece I can’t find pointed out, order is restored once some rudimentary operations are performed to screen out (apologies for the pun) these latter-day corruptions. In the adjusted top ten, we find only one film from the 2000s, let alone from 2015. Instead, we find films that truly did transform conversations about film and about much else: Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, E. T., Doctor Zhivago, Snow White. (A fuller list can be found here, although this list is only domestic U.S. adjusted for inflation, while Wikipedia estimates for the top ten are global.)
Of course, the impetus for considering this phenomenon is precisely the way that The Force Awakens already is both a popular cultural event of enormous magnitude and a box office trampler. But it is also interesting to note that, even taking into account typical studio caution about clamping down on expectations in advance of a film’s release, there was real doubt about whether TFA could actually unseat Jurassic World for the largest opening week ever, and indeed, globally it seems to have missed (though largely due to the decision to delay opening in China). There is a chance that it will not finish (globally) all that far above Jurassic World when all is said and done. And yet how different these two films are in terms of the oxygen they’ve consumed in our culture over the past year. The conventional wisdom is that all of this is merely a product of the new and unchallengeable dominance of sequels and franchises and “cinematic universes,” and indeed, the four films from 2015 which entered the top ten are all sequels.
As is The Force Awakens, though, and unless we want to give up on the premise that TFA is a different kind of cultural event than those other films, I think we ought perhaps to look elsewhere to account for what seems to me a very real divergence between box office and cultural salience. For what we as a culture do not seem to have trouble orchestrating a conversation around is sequential storytelling, as we can see from the gigabytes of thinkpieces on television which are published each year.
Nor does it seem to me that the tired trope of a disconnect between cultural elites and mass audiences seems to account for this phenomenon. For what is so striking is not the popularity of these films but rather their passionless popularity. Many people truly loved Avengers, but getting out to see Age of Ultron seemed to have been a chore even to fans of Marvel films; at least, there seemed to have been plenty of carping about it as a serious letdown. In years past, I feel, a generally negative response like that would have made Age of Ultron a solid but not spectacular box office hit, like Iron Man 2. Similarly, my feeling about the reception of Minions was not that audiences found it better than or even as enjoyable as its predecessor, Despicable Me. There was no word of mouth–go and see this film! It was more, “well, it’ll keep your kids entertained for 90 minutes.” And yet it made over a billion dollars worldwide.The same lack of real enthusiasm can be found, it should be said, even earlier: did anyone, even Tolkien obsessives, really care that there were three Hobbit films?
What is confusing to me, then, is how little it seems to matter in terms of box office results how much a film is built up, how much it is anticipated, how much passion and enthusiasm it engenders. The response, it appears, exceeds the stimulus: films gross higher than one can account for in terms of pent up desire or even interest.
I don’t really know how to make sense of this phenomenon, although I want to caution you that I offer these observations not as a condemnation or as a plaint for a purer form of moviegoing. I don’t want to attribute this to some nefarious potency of advertising or publicity, as Hollywood certainly makes its share of bombs. And I feel reflexively skeptical of attributing the phenomenon to an increasingly herd-like approach to moviegoing: if everyone else is seeing it, then I should too. For the real reason to watch or read or attend something that everyone else is seeing is that you will be able to talk to “everyone” about it; mass culture is meant to lubricate social interaction, not to make your consumer choices for you. But that is what I don’t really see about the new blockbusters: talk, the kind of iconic “water-cooler” conversations that make blockbusters into popular or mass culture.
Perhaps, as Ray intimated in his post, the blockbuster as a cultural form has definitively changed. Perhaps the blockbuster is no longer popular culture, but rather, one might almost say, unpopular culture.