Hollywood v ‘The Masses’

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The lede on the New York Times‘s box office roundup from the weekend is … odd.

The disconnect between Hollywood’s taste and that of the masses has rarely been more sharply drawn as it was over the weekend, as the stylish "Atomic Blonde" sputtered and "The Emoji Movie" pushed past horrified critics to become a box office success.

Let's leave aside the "Hollywood v the masses" framing. Well, actually, hold on, let's address this. I mean, Hollywood is the masses. The whole point of Hollywood is to cater to the lowest common denominator in order to secure filthy lucre so as to allow film executives to procure tax-subsidized Tesla sports cars. That's why it exists. "Hollywood" as a concept is little more than a mass-channeling profit center. No big deal, that's just what it is.

Instead, let's note what's absent from the lede.

Take another look, I've got time.

So, the interesting thing about that lede—which is nominally the first paragraph about the weekend's winners and losers at the box office—is that it totally omits the highest-grossing picture of the weekend: Dunkirk. Which is rather strange, if you think about it, since you'd imagine there's something interesting about the fact that a well-reviewed film that eschews traditional narrative structures, completely lacks star power, and is tied to no preexisting cinematic properties has now been number one at the box office for two weekends in a row in the summer blockbuster season.

Now look: I'm not suggesting that Dunkirk, is, like, the latest installment of the Cremaster Cycle or anything. But the simple fact that it got made and is holding its own in the marketplace is a bit of a triumph in and of itself; if it can hold on for a little while longer and do Interstellar-level numbers (that film topped out at $188M domestic), we should all be happy. Art's not dead, etc.

More interestingly, though, is the fact that this summer has largely served as a repudiation of what Hollywood thinks "the masses" are into, at least as far as the United States is concerned. Leaving aside big budget comic book films, pretty much everything from the genre of "franchise tentpole" has underperformed. Fate of the Furious, entry eight in that series, did a middling $225 million; the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie did just $171 million; the new Transformers has grossed under $130 million thus far. War for the Planet of the Apes, which has been entirely overpraised, won't crack $150 million. Baywatch grossed just $58 million against a $69 million (nice) budget.

Meanwhile, audiences have flocked to the big budget flicks that still manage a semblance of quality: Wonder WomanGuardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming are the biggest hits of the summer and by a fairly wide margin, with each grossing over $300 million (probably; Homecoming has a little way to go but it should get there). These flicks are all solidly "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes, with between 82 and 93 percent positive reviews. And some of the quality mid-budget stuff has exceeded expectations: I don't know if anyone really thought of Baby Driver as a $100 million grosser, but Edgar Wright's $34 million heist-musical is headed toward that figure. And Atomic Blonde—a hard-R, intricately plotted action-spy movie—can hardly be considered a flop with a $20 million opening against a $30 million budget. Wow, the only new family movie in the last month slightly outperformed the R-Rated Bisexual Lady John Wick movie? I'm shocked, shocked.

Yes yes, foreign grosses, I know: "the masses" are now Chinese as much as American. But numbers have been relatively mediocre overseas as well; only The Fate of the Furious has performed as well as expected.

My point, I guess, is that maybe we should give "the masses" a little credit? Bad movies are underperforming, good movies are holding their own. So maybe Hollywood needs to adjust how it sees "the masses." And I don't mean by releasing a Marvel or DCEU movie every month instead of every six months.