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Film: An Industry in Peril

Updated: May 3, 2022

by Julia Peavey

As of early February, Spider-Man: No Way Home has grossed over 1.7 billion dollars globally - making it the sixth highest-earning movie of all time. It has been the hot theater topic of both 2021 and 2022, attracting millions of fans to see it once, twice, and many more times - a tenet for those worshiping the MCU in mass.

These same people have attacked nine-time Academy Award nominated director Martin Scorsese in legions over the past for years, for his comments that Marvel movies are "not cinema." He isn't the first renowned director to offer these criticisms. Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation) has called the entire Marvel Franchise "despicable;" Denis Villeneuve (Dune) has found the movies to be "cut and paste" versions of themselves; and two-time Cannes Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach described them as "commodities.”

However, Scorsese's comments in particular have drawn an increasingly petty, fanatical storm of displeasure - so much so that he felt compelled to publish an explanatory New York Times article in 2019. But the core of this bellicose argument, which has persisted with each frequent Marvel release, is misunderstanding.

Scorsese isn't saying that the superhero-centric, franchise-backed films are lesser than others just because they are not cinema. He isn't saying that people can't enjoy them, and he isn't saying that they aren't art. Instead, he recognizes them as a different form of art, one which can be packed with fan service, appeal to many people, and generate viewer satisfaction much like theme parks.

Cinema, of course, is defined differently for everyone - the term is not set in stone. But there is a truly vast, undeniable contrast between independent, niche, art house films and studio blockbusters rooted in vast corporate enterprises - one that viewers of all experience levels can recognize. People don't see The Godfather and expect to experience the same thing as they do when watching Iron Man 3, and it isn't right to classify the two creations as the same thing. Despite the offense some people have taken from the master filmmaker's observations of this distinction, in no way is he insulting those who enjoy popular artworks - multiple types of projects are valuable.

And so the vitality in understanding such a divide is this: Scorsese's "cinema" is indeed growing less accessible and increasingly overshadowed by big-budget franchises which prevent other types of films from being seen.

Over the last decade, only three of the top fifty highest grossing box office films aren't sequels, remakes, or products of a broader franchise (The Secret Life of Pets, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Zootopia). It's clear that money-backed, repetitively formed, rebooted movies are the ones making money, too often at the expense of other art.

As individuals subject themselves to only one media style, original, experimental, self-sufficient, and "cinematic" films from newer creators aren't even able to reach audiences in theatres and rarely ever make a profit. In all likelihood, the breakthrough hits of the most brilliant directors of modern times would have never received major recognition if they debuted today.

In addition, theatres themselves - an essential part of the aging film industry - are disappearing in the wake of corporate streaming services. Scorsese's cinema is an experience: a unique story consumed in another place, absorbed in a communal atmosphere, crafted with traditional form to be watched in a certain way. No matter how you label this experience, there's no way to ignore that its influence is diminishing.

As Scorsese puts it, "Moviegoers are better defined today as movie watchers.” Hence, the business of making movies has become tailored towards at-home consumers who are increasingly drawn towards repetitive works, much like many today are drawn towards only one news source. Streaming services have indeed provided unparalleled film access to the interested, but mountains of algorithmically skewed content must be sorted through first. Though creative freedom in the production and marketing process is often stifled, remake after remake is ensured as revenues pour in (thus continuing to make up a disproportionate amount of popular content). And so, in an unsettlingly rapid fashion, Disney and their formulaic forms of movies have oversaturated and dominated the film industry.

Marvel media in particular may be “cool” or well made, but their plots are neither genius nor revolutionary. While they may hold power, their emotional impact isn't always relatable or intricate - most of all, this style of movie doesn't make you rethink the human experience, it doesn't stir up thought and controversy, it contains no revelation, mystery, or true danger (in a multiverse world of endless sequels and prequels, nothing is at risk - the profitable maintain their plot armor).

Explorations of emotion and theme aren't the climactic moments in Marvel films (which tend to have brief character development as an addition to exciting fights and adrenaline-rushed showpieces) like they are in the cinema that's disappearing before viewers’ eyes. Even Marvel's most iconic visuals (particularly overcrowded battle scenes), won't be memorable in a time when current CGI effects are seen as stone age attempts.

Though Marvel movies (in their spoiler-packed grandiosity) may have jammed noisy theatres of cheering people and applause, they don't lead to truly meaningful reflections about daily life for a long time afterwards. This doesn't mean that they are objectively “bad.” Fun franchise movies are not worthless or evil, but the screen shouldn't just be reserved for things that are predictable and comfortable for viewers. Works solely based on comic books (and the feeding of an overly sensitive fan base) simply do not have the soul that someone like Scorsese acknowledges as his beloved cinema - an art he himself is a cornerstone of.

In a sense, it's like comparing a Michelin star restaurant to In-N-Out. In-N-Out is delicious every once in a while, but it's not healthy as a society to eat only fast food and not appreciate higher forms of artistry. There's no reason why a “chef” such as Scorsese shouldn't push back against people claiming his best dishes to be the same as In-N-Out's.

As long as people still have access to multiple styles of content, theatres are unifying in the sense that (unlike different restaurants) both experiences are offered at the same ticket price. But still, there are a finite amount of screens.

Artistic films won't stop existing, but without increased recognition they'll get pushed even further into online platforms and never reach a communal theater, limiting their production and potential. It's already harder to watch some films every year, while cyclical reboots of franchise hits abound.

Movies people automatically enjoy should continue to be made of course - but there must be a valued place for too-often overlooked, artistic narratives that stand alone.

Disney doesn't need people to defend its most popular products. Fully incentivized and hungry for profit, the corporation continues to undermine the roots of the traditional film industry; if consumer palettes don't expand beyond basic comfort levels to accept diverse artforms, the opportunity to experience the cinema which captured the minds of Scorsese's generation may truly disappear for most members of society.


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