Monday, April 29, 2024

Summer 2024 Box Office Predictions

An image from Ryusuke Hamaguchi's new movie Evil Does Not Exist, which hits U.S. theaters on May 3. It did not make my list of projected top ten biggest Summer 2024 movies, but I just wanted to put it on people's radars because I've heard great things and Hamaguchi is a filmmaking champ.

Well folks, it's time again, For the tenth time in the history of Land of the Nerds (Jesus, time goes fast), it's time for a summer box office predictions column. Which movies will be at the top of summer 2024? Which movies could struggle? We'll get to the bottom of some of those questions here as I explore my projections for the top 10 biggest movies of summer 2024. It's still up in the air what movies will be go the distance as the most lucrative titles of the season, but what is clear is that summer 2024 is bound to be a very odd and muted summer. As I wrote on Collider a while back, major studios are killing this industry. They sent titles like Apartment 7A and Turtles All The Way Down to Paramount+ and Max, respectively, instead of putting them in theaters. They refuse to pay artists liveable wages, thus causing a work stoppage that Hollywood is still reeling from. 

Then there are all the big studios just combining and reducing competition in the marketplace. In 2016, 20th Century Fox provided six movies to theaters during the summer. In 2015, they provided five features during the same season, ditto for summer 2014. This summer, they'll only be providing two theatrical releases, while in the summer of 2024 they only had one title (The Boogeyman) hitting theaters. Thanks Disney for gobbling up that studio and costing thousands of working-class people their jobs! With major studios actively hurting the theatrical film industry through all these means (and tons of other practices), the theatrical marketplace can never hope to get to pre-COVID levels. People want to go to the movies. Major studios are failing them, as seen by the sparse summer 2024 slate.

Anyway! Leftist rant out of the way, let's look at what titles could be the ten biggest movies of summer 2024! Unfortunately, not a ton of original blockbusters or even pre-existing IP getting adapted for the big screen for the first time, so not a ton of chances for sleeper hits this year. Onward with my projections for the ten biggest movies of the summer! Remember, all opening weekend predictions are for three-day openings unless noted otherwise!

10. The Fall Guy

The Hollywood Reporter divulged a few days ago that The Fall Guy is headed for a $35 million opening weekend as the kick-off movie for summer 2024. That sounds about right to me. Sure, Fall Guy leads Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt are hot off their respective roles in the 2023 Barbenheimer craze that brought them to new box office heights as performers. However, one summer's hit does not automatically mean you'll mimic that success the next time the temperatures start to rise. Just as Tom Cruise, who couldn't make the Top Gun: Maverick lightning of 2022 strike twice for Dead Reckoning in 2023. Aside from their summer 2023 hits, a $35-ish million bow for The Fall Guy would be right in the typical box office range for Gosling and Blunt movies. That would make Fall Guy the biggest non-Barbie domestic opening ever for Gosling and the biggest non-Oppenheimer/Quiet Place domestic opening ever for Blunt. Plus, it'd be in the same neighborhood as the $30 million bow for director David Leitch's last movie, Bullet Train. Maybe something slightly north of $35 million sounds about right for this one, which will hope to have the legs of a romantic-comedy rather than a typical first weekend of May tentpole.

Projected Opening Weekend: $37 million

Projected Domestic Total: $110 million


The coin toss of the summer. On the one hand, nobody needed a Twister sequel. The original isn't that well-known or driving up a massive fanbase these days. Also, it's opening one week before Deadpool & Wolverine. That having been said, Glen Powell appears to be on a hot streak right now and this being a PG-13 disaster movie might give it enough unique qualities to separate it from R-rated superhero movie Deadpool & WolverineWorld War Z and San Andreas also demonstrated that underestimating disaster movies can be a big mistake. I doubt this breaks out big time (and that inexplicable $200 million budget looms large over the proceedings) but Twisters will probably gust up enough enthusiasm to exceed lower expectations. 

Projected Opening Weekend: $44 million

Projected Domestic Total: $135 million

8. Furiosa

This and Twisters are the two movies of the summer that could go anywhere. Mad Max: Fury Road was a solid box office performer in May 2015 (it was way leggier than usual for an R-rated summer blockbuster sequel), but its gross in the neighborhood of $155 million domestically wasn't massive (it's debatable if the feature turned any kind of profit in its worldwide run). In the years since, Fury Road became an Oscar juggernaut and one of the most beloved action films in history. However, is all that hubbub just confined to internet geeks? Nine years later, will a prequel abandoning Charlize Theron going to lure in all the Fury Road fans? Also, franchise newcomer Chris Hemsworth is kind of cursed as a non-Marvel leading man. Outside of the MCU (exempting Star Trek, which he only cameoed in), he's only appeared in one movie that cleared $150 million domestically. I'll err on the side of caution and say this will narrowly become his second title ever to clear that mark. That would also mean this becomes Anya Taylor-Joy first-ever non-Shyamalan live-action movie to exceed $41.2 million domestically. Two lead performers who aren't huge outside of Mario and Thor movies does have me wondering if this Furiosa will have a ceiling in how big it gets...but then again, perhaps all the Fury Road goodwill is much more potent than one expects.

Projected Opening Weekend: $56 million

Projected Domestic Total: $155 million

7. Bad Boys: Ride or Die 

The biggest problem Bad Boys: Ride or Die has to face is that it's another Bad Boys movie. Bad Boys For Life in 2020 got a box office boost by being the first installment in the franchise in 17 years. Ride or Die, meanwhile, is a lot less special. It's promoting itself as more of what you'd like. It's hard to imagine this making as much money domestically as the last Bad Boys, but offering more of the same does mean this entry will pull in a lot of longtime fans of this franchise. No records will get shattered here, but Ride or Die will do fine this summer and handily exceed the domestic hauls of the first two Bad Boys.

Projected Opening Weekend: $55 million

Projected Domestic Total: $150 million

6. IF

If the first box office tracking for IF is any indication, we've got a sleeper hit on our hands here. The lone potential original blockbuster of the summer, IF is currently on track for a $38-42 million debut with a good chance of actually opening higher. Considering the current drought of family movies in the marketplace, I'd wager this Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends pastiche has a solid shot at exceeding those initial numbers. An opening in the mid-40 millions would set IF up for a nice leggy haul, especially since its second weekend coincides with Memorial Day weekend. I'm no Ryan Reynolds fan personally (he's great in Adventureland though!), but this movie does seem poised to continue his box office hot streak.

Projected Opening Weekend: $44 million

Projected Domestic Total: $155 million

5. A Quiet Place: Day One 

Nothing suggests just what a weird summer it's going to be like how, currently, it doesn't look like we'll have more than three movies crack $200 million domestically. A Quiet Place: Day One, though, may come closest. Before the pandemic shut everything down, A Quiet Place Part II was tracking to debut to roughly $72 million. A year later, it ended up grossing $48.3 million, slightly below its predecessor's bow thanks to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on theatrical exhibition. Let's be clear, that sequel still did outstanding business under those circumstances. If this prequel spin-off can openly anywhere near $60 million (and I think it can), it'll likely ride the 4th of July holiday week and summer weekdays to a final haul close to the original A Quiet Place. Maybe Day One, in other words, can get that major box office boost Part II simply couldn't because of external factors.

Projected Opening Weekend: $61 million

Projected Domestic Total: $175 million

4. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Those damn dirty apes have been pretty consistent in terms of domestic opening weekends in the 21st century. Across all four of the Apes movies launched since 2000, they've all landed in the $54-72 million range in their North American launches. Early box office tracking has Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes debuting to $56 million, which sounds about right. Losing Andy Serkis and Caesar puts this one at a bit of a disadvantage. However, the trailers and posters have promised moviegoers plenty of new elements compared to the last three entires thanks to a 300-year long time jump. That and the emphasis on IMAX showings should help make this one a big-screen event for general moviegoers. Best of all, Planet of the Apes movies aren't like Marvel Cinematic Universe or Twilight films where everyone goes out and sees them exclusively on opening days. If word-of-mouth on Kingdom is good, it should play for a nice while in the summer marketplace. Expect those Apes to keep on chugging in movie theaters, hopefully next time with a big musical number in tow.

Projected Opening Weekend: $63 million

Projected Domestic Total: $178 million

3. Inside Out 2

Inside Out 2 feels assured to secure the spot as the third-biggest movie of summer 2024 domestically. The question now, though, is how much it actually makes. I'm just not feeling like there's the extreme hype here that greeted the pre-release marketing cycles of Toy Story 3 and Incredibles 2. Maybe people are just a tad burnt out on Disney sequels? There's enough residual love for the first movie to get this one to a decent opening weekend, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it openly slightly lower than the original Inside Out before having weaker legs. That would still result in a hefty box office haul heads and shoulders above all other animated Disney films released after 2020. Maybe that'll be enough for the Mouse House this go around?

Projected Opening Weekend: $84 million

Projected Domestic Total: $240 million

2. Despicable Me 4

I'm pretty sure every box office geek has the same two movies predicted for the top two slots of summer 2024. That supposed assuredness makes me wonder if something is gonna come up out of nowhere and suddenly push these two out of the top spots...nobody thought Top Gun: Maverick and Barbie would dominate the last two summers, after all. Still, for now, I'll go the safe route and say Despicable Me 4 will have no trouble becoming the second-biggest movie of the summer domestically. Despicable Me 3 making less than Minions domestically does make me wonder if the main entries in this series are now slightly less popular than installments focusing just on the sentient cornpops. Plus, Minions: The Rise of Gru struck it big two summers back after so much pent-up anticipation for its release. That phenomenon doesn't exist here for Despicable Me 4. Otherwise, though, this one's a box office slam-dunk. Gru will continue his box office hot streak, without question.

Projected Opening Weekend: $70 million ($120 million five day)

Projected Domestic Total: $320 million

1. Deadpool and Wolverine

Unless something goes seriously wrong with Deadpool and Wolverine (and things could go haywire...did anyone predict The Marvels making under $90 million before it opened?), The Passion of the Christ will no longer be the biggest R-rated movie in history domestically come Labor Day weekend. That 20-year-long record is likely getting shattered here, especially since the first Deadpool in 2016 was only $20 million away from dethroning it. Eight years of ticket price inflation, a greater emphasis on costly IMAX tickets, emphasizing Hugh Jackman's Wolverine in the marketing, Deadpool & Wolverine should reach that. An R-rating and the simple fact that a bunch of 20th Century Fox Marvel characters meeting up isn't as enticing as the return of Alfred Molina's Doc Ock will keep this one from hitting Spider-Man: No Way Home numbers. However, it should at least get to Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness numbers domestically and could do a pinch better if the sparser summer 2024 slate leaves audiences hungry for big spectacle by the end of July.

Projected Opening Weekend: $175 million

Projected Domestic Total: $420 million (this is not a pun)

Saturday, April 27, 2024

The People's Joker Clowns Around To Create Unforgettably Anarchic Cinema

Inevitably, The People's Joker profoundly touched me in many scenes in how well it crystallized aspects of growing up and existing as a trans woman. Several experiences of mine that I'd never been able to put into words or feel comfortable talking about were right there on the silver screen, as if writer/director/star Vera Drew had plucked them directly from my brain. What also impressed me, though, was how The People's Joker resonated with me in terms of capturing the era I grew up in. This is a movie that won't be for everyone, that's baked into its DNA. But it's totally been hard-wired to strike a chord with folks like myself who grew up in a pop culture landscape dominated by superheroes, government molded by surveillance state legislation, and inescapable corporations, and found escapism through Adult Swim/FilmCow surrealism. In other words, this is for all the lonely neurodivergent folks who turned to endless revisits of Too Many Cooks or The Walrus Song for a respite from capitalism dystopia. 

Tapping so precisely into that relevant vein reinforces the endless specificity defining the bedrock of The People's JokerThis is a movie for folks in the here and now as well as a motion picture befuddled at what constitutes the "status quo" of modern existence. Much like fellow standout 2024 motion picture Do Not Expect Too Much From The End of the Worldcontains so much rage at the messed up status of our world. That movie used heavy traffic and cum-stained dresses to express its dissatisfaction with existing in modern capitalism. The People's Joker uses an anarchic clown and jokes at the expense of stand-up comedians to convey the same irritation. Different tools, same end result. Life is both a tragedy and a comedy. The People's Joker is here to make you feel a little less alone navigating that existential quagmire.

Every comic book movie protagonist has some sort of "origin story." The one for Vera/Joker the Harlequin (Vera Drew) sees her growing up as a deeply closeted trans woman in Smallville. Once she reaches adulthood, she moves to Gotham City to pursue a dream of becoming a stand-up comedy. Disillusioned with the minimal opportunities for fulfilling comedy in this domain, Joker and pal The Penguin (Nathan Faustynstart their own underground comedy club. Here, Joker refines her persona and wardrobe while starting up a romance with Mr. J (Kane Distler), a clown who looks a little "damaged". Far be it from me to spoil all the anarchic bedlam that follows from there!

There is no one "proper" way to visually adapt the mythology of Batman. The characters Bill Finger and Bob Kane created back in the late 1930s have been interpreted by artists as varied as Zack Snyder, Joel Schumacher, Paul Dini, and so many others. The People's Joker ingeniously reflects this through its endlessly varied visual style. Everything from hand-drawn animation to action figures to puppets to recreations of the aesthetic of 90s PC games like Doom is used to realize realms and characters from DC Comics mythology. It's all so bursting with imagination and makes for the ultimate cinematic testament to how expansive the world of Batman adaptations is. Who says you can't harken back to the Adam West and Frank Miller interpretations of this character in the same movie? Plus, this endless cavalcade of flourishes makes the proceedings incredibly fun to watch. You just never know what striking imagery or filmmaking techniques will burst onto the screen next. Navigating everyday life is often a deeply unpredictable experience. The People's Joker's visual malleability captures that nicely.  

That's the other key thing about The People's Joker: it's riotously entertaining. Queer misbehavior has always made for the best rebellious cinema. Thank goodness The People's Joker (like fellow 2024 new queer cinema classic Love Lies Bleeding) keeps that tradition alive. This is a motion picture that isn't interested in making trans people "palatable" or "digestible" to cis-het folks. This is a feature where a key moment of Joker's gender discovery is set to a rowdy Mimi Zama song that proclaims on the soundtrack "walk like a bitch/but I talk like a faggot/I don't give a fuck if I'm ladylike." Finally, all my angsty nights of listening to loud Lauren Sanderson tunes while prancing around my apartment in flowery dresses have been reflected on-screen! Representation matters folks!

In all seriousness, that scene rippling with attitude and defiance encapsulates the intoxicating subversiveness of The People's Joker. This motion picture is all about brutally dark jokes, violence, and endless mayhem. Random concussions are the name of the game here, not adhering to a traditional three-act narrative structure or other impulses of mainstream cinema. It's the stuff of studio executive nightmares. One can only imagine Target or Warner Bros. executives asking Vera Drew to tone it down so they could still Joker-themed merchandise to transphobic bigots. Being the kind of material that would make David Zaslav white as a ghost also underscore why The People's Joker is so irresistibly fun. Once you dip your toes into a movie radiating this much confidence, it's hard not to immerse yourself in the whirlpool of cinematic chaos.

Best of all, though, The People's Joker does something that I truly love in cinema: alternate between silliness and something emotionally tangible and make both elements work. Some R-rated comedies (especially modern ones) get too caught up in didactic character arcs or overly convoluted plot mechanics to force sentimentality on you. There are better ways of making you realize you care about the silly characters on-screen. Just look at The Muppet Movie, which caps off a movie of "myth" puns, and Mel Brooks cameos with this emotionally stirring speech from Kermit about how "I've got a dream too...and it gets better the more people you share it with." Suddenly, you realize how much you care about these felt beings. Even those Adult Swim and FilmCow videos I mentioned earlier often wouldn't work if there wasn't a grain of relatable human behavior in there that keeps you invested in the escalating mayhem. The short film "OMG BISCOFF SPREAD", for example, uses surreal imagery to represent the experience of being exposed to some delicious new food for the first time. Sometimes, the only proper response to a fresh yummy sensation is to wander off to a beach and softly whisper "it's made out of fucking cookies."

The comedic absurdity of Muppets, Eric Andre Show sketches, or Llamas with Hats shorts is so oddly soothing because, finally, here's some chaos with purpose to it. Here's mayhem and absurdity that isn't out to make the planet uninhabitable, but instead makes you titter. Many FilmCow videos feature outlandish figures engaging in normal chit-chat amidst horrifying circumstances. That weasel and sentient coat are just like me and my friends trying to exist as trans folks in the political Hellscape of Texas! In the case of Kermit and friends, all the lunacy might even cap off with you getting a little choked up. We cannot escape the terrifying unpredictability of life, but pop culture thriving on absurdist humor can give us a mechanism to cope with it. 

That's the artistic legacy The People's Joker evokes. In the middle of all the anarchy and jokes about "incels" or problematic celebrities, you get hooked on this universe. Whenever Vera Drew gets openly raw about her life, trauma, identity, it hits with a thousand times more emotional impact than all straightforward dramas from cis-filmmakers about trans folks combined. Something emotionally tangible has been uncovered even in a universe of ridiculous sets and props intentionally designed to eschew reality. Jim Henson and FilmCow would be proud.

Watching The People's Joker, I couldn't believe this movie existed. Not just because of the endless legal issues it faced leading up to its release, but rather that this movie is so unabashedly trans. Delightfully so! I couldn't have imagined this motion picture existing when I was a superhero movie fanatic in my early 20s constantly imagining scenarios where a trans actor would show up in a Marvel film (how did I think I was cis-gendered for so much of my life?!?) Perhaps Laverne Cox would be in Ant-Man! The Tangerine leads could show up in Avengers: Infinity War for a cameo! None of that came true, though. The People's Joker is more than I could have ever hoped for in comic book movie trans rep, not least of all because it's such a deviously entertaining feature. Modeled in the shadow of the 2019 Joker film, The People's Joker harkens back to many classic movies but it's no hollow knock-off. This is an idiosyncratic motion picture so overflowing with bold decisions and wit that it'll put a smile on the face of any moviegoer. In other words, if you thought you'd seen everything a comic book movie could offer, well, "wait'll you get a load of The People's Joker!"

Friday, April 26, 2024

Challengers Rules the Court With Lots of Steamy Thrills

"Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power." So said Oscar Wilde in a statement Challengers takes to heart. This motion picture about a tormented love triangle between a trio of tennis players see's sex seeping into the corner of every frame. Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) cannot eat churros together or unwrap racquets on the court without evoking phallic undercurrents. Meanwhile, every move of Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) oozes confidence and planning. She knows these two men are obsessed with her. How can she use that to her advantage? The prospect of sex and the attraction between sweating human bodies is palpable throughout Challengers. No wonder it's so much darn fun to watch.

Director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter Jason Kuritzkes take a non-linear approach to chronicling the relationship between Duncan, Donaldson, and Zweig. After we start this story in 2019, we immediately flash back to 2006 when Donaldson and Zweig were still long-time buddies. They love tennis almost as much as they care for each other. Then they get a chance to meet with Tashi Duncan, a tennis superstar. They're both immediately smitten. After the three share a magical night together, their lives are forever intertwined. Their individual dynamics especially get put into a tailspin when a severe knee injury puts Duncan's career on ice. Her time on the court may be finished...but her time on the court isn't through. She eventually moves on to coaching Donaldson while warding off the lingering advances of cash-strapped Zweig.

Challengers is so damn extra. Guadagnino already demonstrated his love for maximalist cinema with the gloriously unhinged mayhem of Suspiria and the juxtaposition of intimate romance with grisly cannibalism in Bones and All. Challengers is more grounded in terms of its plotline, but it's also a flowery production in execution. After an opening sequence intentionally framing a tennis match with aloof camerawork reminiscent of how these games are shown on TV, Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom quickly throw themselves into the lively camerawork that populates the rest of the movie. Challengers finds so many unique angles to frame these physically exhausting duels through while also incorporating great touches (like beams of sweat dripping onto the camera) that make the proceedings extra immersive. The camera doesn't have to be moving for viewers to feel like they're on the court! 

We live in an age of movies and TV shows informing all their blocking around looking good in TikTok's or Facebook Reel videos. The precise wider shots and vivid camerawork of Challengers is a welcome reprieve from those stifling norms. Even a conceptually simple scene like Duncan and Zweig's tense bedroom conversation is framed through memorable camerawork. Here, we see these two exchange brutal words in an extended single take and a camera bouncing back and forth between these participants (almost like it's a tennis match!). Even the non-linear storytelling helps inform some wonderful imagery. Cutting between Zweig and Donaldson practically naked in a sauna and a flashback to an encounter between fully-clothed Zweig and Duncan in a hotel lobby...ingenious. The juxtaposition between these environments (one all "proper" and sleek, the other full of exposed muscles and wooden walls) alone is striking to the eye. The ambiguity over which of these scenes most"exposes" these tennis players makes for a tantalizing thematic bedrock to this stretch of the story. Challengers is a delight for the eyeballs even beyond the endlessly attractive souls inhabiting the screen.

Something else that's welcome about this movie? Despite all the maximalist touches, it feels like it inhabits the real world more than many modern mainstream American movies. People are horny all the time and opt to take cigarette breaks. Throwaway characters (like a rambunctious older couple encountering Zweig at a motel lobby) have vivid interior lives. The proceedings all take place in "largely" normal American confines, like an Applebee's parking lot, hotel rooms, or a college cafeteria. Even the big tennis match that serves as framing device for Challengers doesn't take place at Wimbeldon. It's set at a country club with a limited number of attendees.  Challengers occupies something that's consciously reality in its backdrops while its characters navigate messy sensual emotions. Plus, much like in his underrated classic Bones and All, Guadagnino demonstrates a great eye for framing these everyday domiciles. These elements of the director's latest movie are not superb just because of external trends in American cinema. However, recent shifts in this country's cinema do make it extra exciting to see Challengers commit to on-screen depictions of boners and working-class environments.

Understandably, most folks showing up to Challengers aren't here for the Mukdeeprom cinematography or to engage in discussions of phallic undertones in the on-screen imagery. They're here for Zendaya in her biggest movie role to date. Needless to say, she's an absolute force on the screen. Her depiction of Toshi Duncan is absolutely alive with endlessly planning and calculating. It's not even like she's playing chess while the two male leads are playing checkers. Zendaya depicts this former tennis superstar as playing some game we can't even comprehend while the other characters struggle to make sense of Tic-Tac-Toe. Just a big scene where Zendaya captures Duncan berating Zweig for all the failures in his life (which has big "I'm your mother" Hereditary monologue energy) alone cements her Challengers performance as something for the ages. Impressively, Faist and O'Connor don't get swallowed up by the film's lead lady and still leave a mark in their respective performances. I especially liked how O'Connor's turn as Zweig seems to have been defined by picturing what would happen if Dennis from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia became a bulked-up tennis star. 

Just as memorable as the three stars in Challengers is a rollicking score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It's been a little over a decade since this duo began regularly creating film scores with The Social Network. They've been largely crushing it with their unforgettable works since then. Even with that track record, though, they still astonish with their propulsive electronic compositions for Challengers. One's seat practically vibrates with all the energy their tracks create. The passionate internal lives of these tennis veterans are perfectly rendered in a sonic form through tracks that exude so much verve. Sexual dynamics and yearning inevitably permeate Reznor and Ross's works because, after all, "everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power." Needless to say, Challengers has quite a lot of artistic power at its disposal.

Friday, April 12, 2024

In Laman's Terms: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Was Just Mid At CinemaCon 2024?

I wasn't at CinemaCon 2024. My fellow Outside Scoop hosts Ryan Scott and Jeremy Fuster did attend the annual Las Vegas event (in which movie studios show off their upcoming features to movie theater owners)! I'm sure the next episode of The Outside Scoop will be chock full of amazing insights from the duo into what upcoming movies look especially choice. For now, though, I thought I'd divulge my thoughts on which studios brought the most buzz to CinemaCon. We're in a transitional period for theatrical cinema. Multiple major studios that have existed for decades are now on the selling block. The public personas executives and studio heads put on at CinemaCon (not to mention the kind of projects they announce) speak volumes about what the near future of cinema looks like. 

Let's dive into that future by exploring what studios brought the goods, which ones stumbled, and which ones just registered as "meh" with their CinemaCon 2024 announcements.

Paramount Pictures Came Out Guns A-Blazing

Ten years ago, the 2014 Paramount Pictures CinemaCon panel focused almost exclusively on three movies: Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), and Hercules. It was a reflection of how few options the studio had in the mid-2010s with its DreamWorks Animation and Marvel Studios distribution deals firmly in the past. Cut to yesterday, though, and Paramount Pictures came out to theater owners with a slew of wildly varying movies headed to theaters. This included a new Damien Chazelle movie (Babylon stans rise up, we won!), a new Scary Movie sequel, an Edgar Wright Running Man remake, and the long-gestating musical comedy from Kendrick Lamar and the South Park guys. Oh, and there were also new Transformers and Ninja Turtles movies announced, because the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Paramount's explosive 2022 and scoring two major sleeper hits at the start of 2024 seems to have emboldened the studio to finally get a well-rounded slate of theatrical movies together. Heck, the studio even seems to have finally figured out its animated movie problem. For years, Paramount struggled to get a steady stream of new animated movies released. At CinemaCon 2024, though Paramount showed off six different theatrical animated movies destined for theaters over the next 30 months. Little strange Paramount didn't finally announce when Rosemary's Baby prequel Apartment 7A is finally coming out, but otherwise, strong presentation from Paramount. 

Disney And Amazon MGM Studios Kinda Jogged In Place

Disney is in the middle of a transition period for its movie studios. David Greenbaum is only a little over a month into taking over as the head of the studio's movie divisions. Inevitably, the future is a little murky for the Mouse House, so not much was announced at CinemaCon 2024. Still, it was amusing that the studio didn't bring much new to the event. The Mouse House mostly just showed off lengthy pieces of footage from summer 2024 tentpoles like Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes and Inside Out 2. No mention of Searchlight Pictures releases, as near as I could tell. A forgettable panel with no big announcements.

Amazon MGM Studios did a closed-door showcase to exhibitors on its ramped up theatrical slate and revealed that new Bart Layton and Luca Guadagnino movies were headed to theaters in 2025. That's all well and good, but I was stuck by Deadline noting that Amazon MGM Studios was planning to send only 11 movies to theaters through 2026. The studio said it planned to do more than 11, but c'mon, those numbers are still meager. Movie theaters need product. Amazon has more money than God. It can afford to send out digital prints and market new movies. A deluge of new Amazon Studios releases (like Holland, Michigan, You're Cordially Invited, The Accountant 2, and Unstoppable, to name a few) are in various stages of production for inevitable streaming premieres. 

Amazon MGM Studios should be sending as many movies inhabiting as many genres as possible to the big screen. Not just action films and award-season contenders. Movie theater exhibitors and moviegoers shouldn't be thankful to corporations for crumbs when it comes to sending titles to theaters. I had a similar thought reading updates on the Warner Bros. CinemaCon panel this year. Some of its upcoming titles sound fun, but it's hard to ignore the Coyote vs. Acme in the room the whole time. How many of these forthcoming features will actually make it to the big screen? Will Zaslav chuck them in a wastebin to get himself a few extra pennies? 

Amazon, WarnerDiscovery, and other companies jeopardized the big screen experience by shoveling everything to streaming. Now they want to come to CinemaCon as "heroes" because they'll send a Dwayne Johnson/Chris Evans Christmas movie to multiplexes? Forget that! You don't get to be the arsonist and the fireman. When Amazon MGM Studios announces a commitment to making 21 new theatrical movies a year like Warner Bros. did back in 2011 or the 17-18 new theatrical movies 20th Century Fox supplied up until 2018, then we'll talk. Currently, Amazon MGM Studios only has seven theatrical releases scheulded for 2023 (I'm being generous and counting the one-week IMAX release The Blue Angels). That's the same number MGM released in 2021 without Amazon money at its back. 2021 was also when movie theaters were largely closed for the first three months of the year. Congratulations for maintaining the status quo and calling it something new Amazon! That's the Silicon Valley way! We should be demanding more from the few companies that have (almost certainly illegally) assumed so much control over the film industry. Otherwise, you end up with the Warner Bros. Pictures and Amazon MGM Studios CinemaCon presentations, which treated baseline competency as some kind of miracle worth applauding. 

What's Going On, Lionsgate?

Now that we've got that leftist anti-corporation ramble out of the way, let's look over at Lionsgate. The indie studio that's too big to be a Relativity Media but never large or steady enough to be one of Big Five, Lionsgate showed up to CinemaCon with promises of big franchises...kind of. More footage from the studios The Crow reboot was dropped along with a new release date of August 23rd. How ironic that this and Kraven the Hunter are now opening back to back to close out summer 2023. Lionsgate also announced a big partnership with Blumhouse Productions to remake a slew of Lionsgate horror movies starting with The Blair Witch Project. That sounds like a shady prospect and not just because the folks behind the original movie have allegedly failed to get properly compensated for their work on that feature. How many "classic" Lionsgate horror movies are there? Is Blumhouse about to reboot The Cabin in the Woods? Are we due for a Cabin Fever legacy sequel? A Bigger Midnight Meat Train? This whole enterprise sounds like a boondoggle in the making.

Nosferatu Sounds Awesome!!

The most exciting presentation at CinemaCon, as a distant spectator bimbo in Dallas, Texas, was easily the first footage from the new Robert Eggers movie, Nosferatu. This production (the latest remake of the classic F.W. Murnau movie) sounds like it could be something special, not to mention as visually evocative as the other features Eggers has helmed. I'll be counting down the minutes until I can bear witness to this Willem Dafoe/Eggers collaboration! This footage came out during the Universal Pictures/Focus Features presentation, which, of course, hinged heavily on more Wicked: Part One material. To say I'm dubious of this feature sustaining two full-length movies is an understatement. However, it keeps sounding like Universal has a massive hit in the making here. 

Have You Seen These Movies?

Finally, let's look at what wasn't shown at CinemaCon: a bevy of movies shot between 2020 and 2022 that major studios have acquired and/or financed, yet still don't have release dates. It seems like the big studios were stockpiling these titles to help fill in the gaps left in the release schedule by the two big 2023 strikes. However, it's getting bizarre how little information is out there for some of these titles that have been sitting on shelves for years now. For instance, the Legendary Pictures release The Toxic Avenger premiered last September to solid reviews. One might think either Columbia Pictures or Warner Bros. (the two go-to studios for Legendary) would pick it up. Still no word on when this one will see the light of day beyond Fantastic Fest. The Anthony Ramos astronaut movie Distant, meanwhile, was shot back at the end of 2020 for Universal. Still no word on where it is.

The list goes on and on. The Sony/Blumhouse horror film They Listen (starring Katerine Waterston and John Cho) started filming in the final weeks of 2022. It hasn't received a new date after it got pushed from its Labor Day 2024 slot nine months ago. Sony/Screen Gems also has The Haunting in Wicker Park on a shelf somewhere, though amusingly that project now sounds like a Late Night With the Devil knock-off. Should've gotten it out sooner! Lionsgate still hasn't divulged its plans for either The Home or Freaky Tales. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. hasn't confirmed whether or not Max Original Movies The Parenting and Am I OK? (the latter of which they acquired back at Sundance 2022) are still going to streaming. On and on the list goes, including the Legendary Pictures release Brothers (shot in 2021), the aforementioned Apartment 7A, and the Dylan O'Brien/Eliza Scanlen thriller Caddo Lake (for Warner Bros./New Line Cinema). So many major titles from the big studios are just hanging in seemingly permanent limbo. Without any new info on their release status emerging from CinemaCon, it's hard to get too excited about the future of these outfits while all the gaps in the 2024 release schedule get even more irritating. They have the movies theaters need, they're just choosing not to release them.

In Laman's Terms: An Ode to The Transfixing Lived-In Realities of Stephen McKinley Henderson Performances

Movie stars are who we want to be. We strive to have the cool confidence of Humphrey Bogart. We yearn to have the commanding presence of Lupita Nyong’o. We clamor for the charm of Jean Arthur. We yearn for the immediately captivating aura of Amy Adams. We can live vicariously through these figures. They afford viewers a chance to be all the things we’re not in reality. Movie stars let moviegoers live out their fantasies. Character actors, meanwhile, captivate because they remind us of reality. Through these figures, we see the types of human beings we see every day at the store, at work, or anywhere else. They help normalize all the messy and flawed parts of our lives with their performances. On top of all that, they make the world of an individual movie feel alive. The best character actors leave an impression on you with minimal screentime. In just a few minutes, they make you believe the inhabitants of a fictional story have a far deeper life than just what the protagonist is going through. 

All these qualities and more are exemplified by the career of Stephen McKinley Henderson. Now anchoring the new release Civil War, Henderson has become a fixture of movies of all shapes and sizes in recent years. Why wouldn’t he? He embodies why character actors are so compelling. 

Born in 1949, Henderson got his start as an actor in the world of stage productions. He graced several acclaimed off-Broadway productions starting in 1986 and also appeared in multiple Broadway projects in the 2000s. Save for two small acting roles, Henderson did not appear in feature films until the 21st century. Even then, before 2011 (when he started showing up in wide theatrical releases and Best Picture nominees), it was only a smattering of minor roles in indie pictures. This quality of Henderson’s career is important to understanding why he works so well as a modern character actor. Not only did being immersed in Broadway help Henderson hone his craft, it also makes him a fresh face for moviegoers. 

Unless you’re one of the lucky few to have seen him perform off-Broadway or in London in the 1990s, chances are you don’t have decades of pre-conceived notions of “who” Henderson is. He doesn’t have a lengthy pre-2010 filmography that informs how people perceive his characters. This allows his roles in movies like Lady Bird, Dune, Causeway, and others to stand on their own two feet. These characters can feel like standalone creations rather than getting swallowed up by Henderson’s larger filmography. Of course, even if Henderson had decades of on-screen performances to his name, there’s a good chance he’d still immerse viewers in the various roles he’s inhabited.

For vivid proof of that, look no further than the 2011 feature Tower HeistThis is probably the only instance in history in which that Brett Ratner directorial vehicle will ever be used as a shining artistic example of something. Yet such praise is actually applicable here since this Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy comedy contains a supporting performance from Stephen McKinley Henderson as retiring doorman Lester. In his on-screen work, Henderson brings way more gravitas and lived-in believability to the role than this movie deserves! There's this shot in Tower Heist that's lingered in with me for years (before I even knew who Henderson was). It's a tight close-up of Lester's forlorn face in a hospital bed right after he attempted to commit suicide after losing his pension. It's such an evocative image because of the actor in the frame. Henderson doesn't need to speak a word. On his face is years of anguish. Uncertainty over what the future holds. So much of Tower Heist is hollow. In just this shot, Henderson communicates a fully-dimensional human being that grabs your attention and sympathy.

The rest of Tower Heist is surface-level fluff that never quite gets either its laughs or anger at the 1% vivid enough to make the movie reach its fullest potential. But good grief, Stephen McKinley Henderson still manages to excel as an actor here! He even gets the viewer to feel genuine euphoria in a moment during a closing montage showing Lester filled with joy after receiving a gift from Stiller's protagonist. Even if the motion picture he's inhabiting isn't the greatest in the world, Henderson will still leave an impression on you. When you put him in something extraordinary, well, then you're working with cinematic magic. Take his work in Lady Bird, for example.

One of the endless joys of Greta Gerwig as a writer and director is that she loves everyone in her movies. From waiters showing up for one scene to sometimes adversarial characters, she's got compassion in her soul for everybody and all their weird neuroses. You don't need to be "perfect" to get depicted with empathy in a Gerwig film. You can make plasters of your feet. You can be an asshole. You can look like Margot Robbie and still not feel "pretty" enough. Watching the relatable messy souls at the heart of Lady Bird, Little Women, and Barbie, Gerwig offers something quietly reassuring to the viewer. All her complicated characters deserve love. That quietly reminds one that all of us in our fragmented nuances deserve love too. So many performances across her three movies encapsulate this theme beautifully. One that my mind always goes back to is Henderson as theater teacher Father Leviatch in Lady Bird.

Stephen McKinley Henderson in Civil War

For starters, Henderson is inspired casting in this role and not just because he's a veteran of acting on stage. The soft-spoken but decisive persona Henderson evokes for Leviatch is just who you'd want guiding you down the world of acting as a vulnerable teaching. You get the sense that he has experience, but he's not overwhelming you with how much he knows. It's a perfect personality for this job...which makes the character's eventual emotional problems all the more impactful to witness. Henderson's performance and Gerwig's camera frame Leviatch's breakdown into tears in front of his students without an ounce of judgment nor is the sight of a grown man getting emotional played for cheap laughs. Henderson does not portray this extreme display of sorrow as a caricature but rather with such cutting reality. A dam has burst inside this man. That's an event that requires a deftly detailed performance, not mockery.

A later scene of Leviatch visiting Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalfe) about his emotional problems once again demonstrates Henderson's power to communicate so much in understated terms. Just his slightly hesitant line readings (and the way he emphasizes Leviatch wanting to keep this issue a secret) suggest how much courage it took for Leviatch to make this visit. You get the sense in Henderson's reserved physicality and line deliveries that this is a guy who bottled these feelings up for years and years. He doesn't need a massive monologue to communicate Leviatch's rich history. He evokes it beautifully. Greta Gerwig is a filmmaker who thrives on finding the captivating story in every on-screen figure. So too does Stephen McKinley Henderson find the rich humanity in every role he plays, especially in his Lady Bird character.

Performances like Henderson's have always been important in the history of cinema. Can you imagine countless vintage movies being as good as they were without the efforts of performers like Peter Lorre and Lionel Barrymore? But someone like Stephen McKinley Henderson is even more important now in the modern age of cinema. So many of our lead actors no longer look like discernible recognizable humans. It's the o'l "Everybody Is Beautiful And No One Is Horny" situation. Folks like Henry Cavill and Dwayne Johnson rock impossible bodies that only look like that because of water deprivation. Even Jake Gyllenhaal has now to get into his Road House physique to be a "proper" modern movie star. These forms have gone from being "aspirational" to just flat-out ridiculous. People look so far removed from anything resembling "normal" humans that it's hard to take them seriously.

Thankfully, artists like Stephen McKinley Henderson still exist in this business. He's here to instantly exude a sense of lived-in reality that captivates your imagination. This is true even when he's only on-screen briefly, such as his one-scene appearance in Manchester by the Sea (where he's strikingly surrounded by shelves and all kinds of clutter). In that Kenneth Lonergan movie, Henderson communicates such long-term disillusionment with closed-off employee Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). Not anger, just quiet disappointment over his inability to get through to the man working for him. Once again, we get a lifetime of information masterfully communicated in the subtlest details of a Stephen McKinley Henderson. In an age of movie stars dominated by Ryan Reynolds and Chris Pratt, we need that kind of subtlety and authenticity more than ever. While his character in Lady Bird sadly noted "they didn't understand it" regarding his play, one can easily understand why Stephen McKinley Henderson is one of this generation's greatest character actors.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Civil War Is a Chillingly Nebulous Descent Into the American Apocalypse...And Then It Isn't

As Civil War begins, America is not in crisis. It's in shambles. A Second American Civil War has consumed the country, with the primary rivals in the fight being the United States of America and Western powers consisting of California and Texas (Florida is a separate faction aiding the latter group). Writer/director Alex Garland tells this saga through the eyes of journalists. Specifically, Civil War chronicles traumatized and weary Lee (Kirsten Dunst), the upbeat Joel (Wagner Moura), experienced Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and 23-year-old newbie photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny). This quartet is determined to travel from New York City to Washington D.C. to secure an interview with the unnamed President of the United States (Nick Offerman). 

Washington has become a battleground where journalists are "shot on sight," per Sammy. Yet this group continues on their mission, encountering the gruesome remains of America along their journey.

Civil War is the best movie Alex Garland has ever directed until it suddenly isn't. But before it runs out of steam, it's tremendously gripping. Many of Garland's greatest strengths as a filmmaker are put to great use here, namely his gift for striking displays of grotesquerie. This story does not take place in the nascent days of a grand conflict. Lee and company are inhabiting a country where unspeakable horrors are now everyday occurrences. This reality informs chilling images vividly realized by Garland and his go-to cinematographer Rob Hardy. A shot of two overpasses, one of which has "GO STEELERS" graffiti on it while the other is home to two hung corpses dangling in the wind, is a great example of this. Trivial interests and human rights violations co-existing in the same space. That sounds like America. A shot of piles of abandoned and brutalized cars stacked up on a pair of roads is similarly haunting and beautifully composed. The lack of information on what happened here just makes this sight all the more terrifying to witness.

That ambiguity ties into another central element of Civil War: its apolitical nature. Garland has been very open that the movie doesn't function as a treatise for any political side. Refusing to commit to an ideology means that Civil War can never function as impactfully as social commentary as works by filmmakers like Samuel Fuller, Boots Riley, and Lizzie Borden. However, initially, this tactic does make some sense. For the first 2/3 of Civil War, the focus is on four journalists navigating smaller bursts of conflict. They're rarely on the front lines of the action. They're just stuck in the crossfire of two snipers shooting at a trigger-happy adversary or an unnamed xenophobic soldier played by Jesse Plemons. 

In these intimate confines, Civil War's apolitical impulses feel more like a way to reflect how long this Second Civil War has lasted. Even the people fighting in it don't know what they're quarreling over. Personal grudges and brawls for survival have replaced larger ideological motivations. Plus, Garland thrives as a filmmaker in executing small-scale bursts of suspense, as seen by his previous artistic accomplishments in movies like 28 Days Later (for which he wrote the script) and Ex Machina (which he also directed). A scene where Jessie joyfully tries to leap from one moving car to another had me closing my eyes in dread. A later confrontation with a character played by Plemons leaves one clutching their breath thanks to how masterfully paced this set-piece is. It doesn't hurt that Plemons is also transfixing in this sequence!

The earlier parts of Civil War also find interesting moments for things to simmer and let us get to know our four journalists. An early sequence of this quartet settling down for the night at an abandoned freight yard is full of great touches, including the lived-in rapport between Dunst and Henderson. The smallest details of their interactions exude a rich history of friendship. Even the run-down backdrop of these nighttime conversations accentuates the bonds between these people. Everything is crumbling around them. Every slab of metal characters walk by is slathered in rust. Gunfire from distant battles rights up the night sky. Yet Joel still takes the time to let Lee know she's not alone. Exploring private bursts of human connection in times of incomprehensible strife informs Civil War's greatest sequences.

Unfortunately, those same qualities evaporate once the climax of Civil War arrives. For its final thirty minutes, Garland chronicles a nighttime assault on Washington D.C. The main characters easily get lost in the shuffle of this operation. This is the stretch of the story where the apolitical nature of Civil War also becomes an unfortunate problem. It's easy to forgive a dearth of specific social commentary when the feature is keeping you engaged with small-scale suspense sequences. However, once the screen is suddenly filled with military hardware and endless sounds of gunfire, the thematic hollowness engulfs the proceedings. Civil War's vagueness over the forces behind the Second American Civil War is an asset when it informs haunting shots of brutalized vehicles scattered across the road. Ambiguity is your friend when chronicling the aftermath of these skirmishes. Unfortunately, that same quality is a massive problem when Civil War just focuses on soldiers blowing stuff up.

Civil War previously got a lot of power leaving things to the viewer's imagination. Those first two acts functioning like Stalker by way of The Devil Came on Horseback crackle with ominous suspense. Once we're front-and-center on the battlefield, though, there just isn't much dramatic tension. Worse, whether intentional or not, Civil War devolving into a finale from a Peter Berg movie even reveals a bit of thematic timidity on the part of Garland. He's clearly comfortable with eschewing ambiguity when it comes to showing off the prowess of American military forces. However, he avoids addressing a slew of real-world sociopolitical issues informing America's modern political nightmare that Civil War is capitalizing on. Garland is happy to eschew ambiguity to indulge in traditional cinematic military-heavy imagery while avoiding wading into more "divisive" territory. It's quite common to see motion pictures dedicating screentime to the military (the Department of Defense and Pentagon encourage such projects!), this flaw isn't exclusive to Civil War, In the interest of fairness, it also isn't like any military branch of the movie comes out looking like "champs" thanks to all the unarmed civilians getting shot down. Depiction does not equal endorsement and Civil War depicting soldiers slaughtering people does not mean Garland thinks that's "awesome".

However, the best parts of Civil War previously relied on quiet suspense and unspeakable atrocities occurring in the daytime. It's a shame it all devolves into a dimly lit cacophony of noise that feels like it could be lifted from any other military drama. Even the dialogue becomes more didactic and clumsy in this stretch of the story while great actors like Dunst get stuck in the background in favor of more explosions. Such a conventional finish can't help but make one realize all the thematic potential left on the table, especially since Garland's "apolitical" PR stance ends up being nonsense (no art is apolitical, particularly ones this enamored with showcasing military vehicles and choppers). Initially, the nebulousness of Civil War is a great anchor for incredibly memorable suspenseful sequences. Too bad it all leads to a third act that betrays the movie's best qualities. One might even say Civil War wins some artistic battles, but struggles to win the war.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

In Laman's Terms: When Did The Sony Pictures Classics Box Office Slump Begin?

CW: References to Woody Allen

Over this past weekend, Sony Pictures Classics actually got a decent hit. Not an amazing overperformer, but Wicked Little Lies grossed around $1.5 million from roughly 1,000 theaters. That puts its wide release per theater average just slightly behind the wide release opening weekend per theater average of the studio's Stan & Ollie from five years ago. It also instantly puts the title on track to exceed the domestic hauls of the studio's biggest movies of the last two years (Living and Parallel Mothers), neither of which made over $3 million. That latter detail really reflects how Sony Pictures Classics has been in a weird box office slump for years now. What's going on? How is an arthouse studio with Sony money sometimes even falling behind Bleecker Street at the box office? Let's explore the answers to those questions, shall we?

For the full context of the history of Sony Pictures Classics, let's look at a very important chart. Courtesy of The-Numbers, this chart chronicles the annual box office haul of the studio every year from 1997 to 2024.

Save for the studio's massive 2001 (when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon bolstered the annual box office haul), the peak era of Sony Pictures Classics is from 2009-2015. Every year in this timespan, Sony Pictures Classics cleared $45 million domestically annually. All but two of those years saw grosses exceed $50 million. In hindsight, a key reason for this was Woody Allen. The distributor began releasing the man's movies annually with the 2009 title Whatever Works. While that feature went nowhere financially, the 2011 title Midnight in Paris revived Allen's career. Paris became the second-biggest Sony Classics release in history and his next three features each became among the only 26 Sony Pictures Classics movies to ever crack $10 million domestically. Even a lower-grossing entry like Magic in the Moonlight accounted for nearly 25% of the annual box office haul of Sony Pictures Classics.

It's also worth mentioning that Sony Pictures Classics was in a bit of a "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" scenario from 2009 to 2015.' This was a dark period for American arthouse cinema (hey, that should be the subject of a future In Laman's Terms column!). In 2008, Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures were both shut down. Miramax would finally cease operations in 2010 after being a shell of its former self in 2008 and 2009. A24 and NEON were years away from existing, let alone being notable arthouse players. Netflix still sent envelopes to your mailbox rather than plunking down $20+ million for the distribution rights to Sundance darlings. Fox Searchlight and Focus Features were still around in this era, but, the options for indie movies looking for arthouse distribution circa. 2010 weren't great. This gave Sony Pictures Classics an edge in getting buzzy titles and even just screens for its titles. Whereas Sony Pictures Classics was the 26th biggest studio domestically in 2023, this outfit was the 13th biggest studio of 2010 and the 14th biggest studio of 2012.

Unsurprisingly, the box office fortunes of Sony Pictures Classics took a downward spin once Woody Allen signed a deal to make movies with Amazon Studios. That deal kicked off with Cafe Society in 2016, a year when Sony Pictures Classics only cleared $32 million. This was the studio's lowest-grossing year domestically since 2004 and was weighed down by only one movie (The Lady in the Van) clearing $5 million. In this year, the studio had a string of severe box office duds like I Saw the Light, The Hollars, and The Bronze, the latter of which was the rare Sony Classics release to immediately bow in wide release. Unsurprisingly, Sony Pictures Classics slipped to the 17th spot among studios at the domestic box office in 2016. Among the studio's Sony Pictures Classics slipped behind were Bleecker Street, STX Entertainment (both of which were founded in 2015), and A24, which scored its first $20+ million grosser that year with The VVitch.

Sony Pictures Classics was feeling the lack of Woody Allen movies, but that wasn't the whole story here. After all, the man's 2015 feature Irrational Man was a box office flop, it wasn't like he was the only thing printing money for Sony Pictures Classics. Another issue was simply that the studio began missing out on the award season juggernauts that were previously the studio's bread-and-butter. In the history of Sony Pictures Classics, its biggest moneymakers have been Best Picture nominees like Howards End, Whiplash, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Capote, and others. As late as 2015, Sony Pictures Classics secured an impressive 18 Oscar nominations for a slew of movies. That was the second-highest number of Oscar nods for a single studio that year, only behind Fox Searchlight. Unsurprisingly, 2014 and 2015 (bolstered by box office hauls for those awards darling) each grossed $45+ million for Sony Pictures Classics.

Starting in 2015, though, studios like Netflix, Amazon, and others began shelling out big bucks for award season friendly movies. These outfits also began writing checks to filmmakers Sony Pictures Classics had worked with in the past, like Mike Leigh. It was all part of a long-term plan to make these outfits "respectable" studios. The heads of Sony Pictures Classics have been open in the past about not spending excessively on purchasing or marketing movies, a plan that sometimes works very well for them. However, this method was now getting steamrolled from Silicon Valley streamers with seemingly bottomless pockets. To rub salt into the wounds, Netflix was eyeballing subscribers from all around the world, meaning the streamer was going after international features that Sony Pictures Classics used to have a monopoly on.

The end result of these mid-2010s disruptions left Sony Pictures Classics with a much less diverse slate of titles than it used to handle. Sony Pictures Classics had always skewed a little older, but save for Call Me By Your Name, its 2017 line-up looked like it would only hold an interest for moviegoers over the age of 65. The studio also struggled to properly roll out and market buzzy foreign-language titles that it could've nailed in years past. Whereas A Separation actually made a solid $7 million in its 2012 theatrical run (which encompassed 282 locations at its peak), Toni Erdmann made just under $1.5 million domestically (it never played in more than 112 theaters). Sony Pictures Classics was getting hammered by excessive spending from its competitors, no question about that. However, it was also fumbling its release strategies for the quality movies it did secure distribution for. 

Plus, its slate was becoming narrower and narrower in focus. The days of Sony Pictures Classics distributing mainstream-skewing Chinese fare like Kung Fu Hustle were long in the past. Now the studio was largely selling quiet "quirky" British movies aimed at old white people in the hope of producing the next Lady in the Van. With intense competition from arthouse studio newcomers, a drastically less diverse slate, and only one Best Picture Oscar nominee (Call Me By Your Name) from 2015-2019, it's no wonder this is when the Sony Pictures Classics box office slump came into play. Things got so dire that the studio only released two movies (The Wife and Stan & Ollie) that cleared $5 million each domestically across 2018 and 2019!

With 2019 becoming the third-lowest grossing year for Sony Pictures Classics since 1997, it was clear the studio was in a box office dry spell. In just under a decade, Sony Pictures Classics had gone from being just outside the top ten biggest studios of the year domestically to barely cracking the top 20 biggest studios of 2019. Is there any hope for a major comeback for the studio? At this point, it's hard to tell. A recent announcement that Scarlett Johansson's directorial debut Eleanor the Great will be a collaboration between TriStar Pictures and Sony Pictures Classics (the first time that's ever happened) indicates Sony hasn't forgotten about this struggling arthouse division. Perhaps Pedro Almodovar's English-language debut The Room Next Door (which will likely drop by the end of 2024) will be a sleeper hit for the studio. For now, though, not even the decent wide release expansion of Wicked Little Lies can fight back the reality that Sony Pictures Classics has been in a box office slump that's lasted nearly a decade now. Even as other arthouse studios like Neon and IFC Films are climbing to new box office heights domestically, Sony Pictures Classics is stuck in a financial stupor that shows no signs of subsiding. 

In Laman's Terms: Which Movies Have Been Saved From Streaming Premieres And Why?

Back in May 2022, Nightbitch was bought up by Searchlight Pictures and Hulu. This development returned director Marielle Heller to the arthouse studio that distributed her 2018 feature Can You Ever Forgive Me? It also signaled that Hulu was eager to get into the world of original movies. The streamer and Searchlight had plunked down a reported $25 million for the project, which was set to debut as a Hulu Original Movie. Hulu had only started releasing original movies in October 2019, but since then, it had become a go-to home for COVID-affected movies like Palm Springs, Happiest Season, and The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Plus, as of March 2019, Hulu, Searchlight Pictures, and 20th Century Studios all fell under the Disney umbrella. As made clear in Disney's December 2020 quarterly earnings presentation, the Mouse House saw these two film studios primarily as ways to fill up Hulu with (shudders) "content".

Cut to April 2024 and Searchlight Pictures just announced that Nightbitch will now go exclusively to theaters on December 6, 2024. That high-profile release date mirrors the early December launchpad of Searchlight's 2023 hit Poor Things, a sign of confidence from the studio. Hulu's film ambitions have begun to dry up and it's not the only streamer to start sending its movies off to theatrical releases. There's suddenly a welcome wave of streaming titles headed for multiplexes, including this weekend's Monkey Man. Let's examine some of these titles and how they reflect the current state of streaming exclusive movies, shall we?

Leading off with Nightbitch, let's look at how 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures appear to be moving back towards theatrical-only releases. Hulu dropped 15 original movies throughout 2023, 10 of which came from these two film studios. For the first five months of 2024, Hulu will only be dropping four original movies, two of which (Self-Reliance and The Greatest Hits) got brief theatrical runs before their streaming premieres. Two of those four titles are Searchlight releases. None of them are 20th Century Studios projects. Searchlight only has one other movie (Dust) currently set for a Hulu launch. 20th Century Studios (as of this writing) has none, with upcoming projects from the studio like Ella McCay and Alien: Romulus (the latter of which was once set for a streaming bow) getting set for theatrical premieres.

It was always going to be challenging to transform Hulu (a place known for TV) into a launchpad for original movies. Disney's hesitancy over committing to this plan long-term was apparent when it pulled a slew of 20th Century Studios titles from Hulu in late May 2023. Dropping costly titles behind a paywall forever, that's just not going to fly. Plus, Disney's seen that even adult-skewing dramas like All of Us Strangers can make a tidy $19 million worldwide. Any money is good money for studios and theatrical releases bolster a movie's reputation before it debuts on streaming. No wonder Disney's brief foray into making Hulu the next Netflix is being abandoned in favor of letting Searchlight get back to releasing arthouse dramas theatrically year-round.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. sent a handful of Max original movies (House Party, Magic Mike's Last Dance, and Evil Dead Rise) to theaters in the first four months of 2023. Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures pumped up Smile from a Paramount+ original film to a big theatrical title after it scored strong test screening scores. That film turned into a major box office hit and a new franchise for the studio. Mean Girls was another Paramount+ feature that Paramount eventually opted to just bump up to In 2022, Paramount+ housed 15 original movies, while in 2023, the service housed 12 of such titles. For the first four months of 2024, Paramount+ has housed only three original movies and there aren't a ton of other original motion pictures on the 2024 horizon for the streamer. Paramount+ still has some major TV movies on the docket (like Michelle Yeoh's Star Trek: Section 31), but like Disney and Hulu, Paramount has clearly fallen out of love with streaming-exclusive movies.

Looking back on it, there was a common problem with many of the original movies these streamers embarked on. None of them wanted to sacrifice the "big blockbusters" everyone assumed would continue to dominate in the 2020s like they did in the 2010s. So they sent a slew of smaller titles to streaming instead. These projects didn't draw a lot of eyeballs to Hulu/Paramount+/Max, etc. In fact, they're just the kind of movies that require the promotional might of a theatrical release to get on people's radar. Would Late Night with the Devil have become such a conversation starter if it had gone straight to Shudder? Probably not. Sending projects like Finestkind and Not Okay to streaming immediately just sent those titles off to die. They could never compete in the endless landscape of competition that currently exists in the streaming marketplace. Even the mighty Netflix couldn't get its original movie Maestro to have anywhere near the viewership of classic 1990s Mel Gibson/Tommy Lee Jones action features on the platform. Folks recognize those vintage movies because they were theatrical events. They're gonna choose what they know over a new smaller streaming movie nobody's heard of. 

Plus, movies like The Holdovers and Where the Crawdads Sing have been doing well in theaters again. Studios have been reminded that more money can be made with smaller titles playing on the big screen than just dumping them on Hulu. Will we continue to see more and more projects like Monkey Man and Nightbitch get saved from the clutches of streaming premieres in favor of grand theatrical debuts? Let's cross our fingers that that's the case. Movie theaters need more movies, no doubt about it, and it clearly pays to bring these titles to the big screen. It's almost like that system's worked for over a century now or something....

Friday, April 5, 2024

Monkey Man is an Ambitious and Deeply Entertaining Ride


Summer 2021 (when The Green Knight premiered) was the summer of Dev Patel, but now a new season has dawned for this Oscar-nominated leading man. Now Patel has emerged as a filmmaker while also flexing his chops as an action movie star with Monkey Man (a project he also co-wrote the screenplay for). Excitingly, Monkey Man is much closer in quality to This is Spinal Tap than Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in the pantheon of "directorial debuts from actors turned filmmakers". True, this action movie bites off more than it could chew narratively. But it also pulsates with such verve and ambition! When a movie delivers action this gnarly, I simply must approve of it.

At the start of Monkey Man, Kid (Patel) is working odd jobs in pursuit of vengeance. Though he's primarily making money fighting in the ring under the alias "Monkey Man", he's also started to work as a janitor at a nearby swanky hangout spot. It's in this domicile that the rich, the powerful, and the corrupt all revel in their vices of choice. It is also a go-to spot for relaxation for a man responsible for so much torment in Kid's life. Monkey Man follows Kid in his quest for violent revenge, which eventually entangles the deeply popular (and xenophobic) public figure Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande).

Infectious energy radiates through so much of Monkey Man. An early scene showing a stolen wallet traveling across many working-class hands establishes Patel's love for fast-paced editing and lively camerawork. This is a movie that's on the go, just as Kid is always calculating his next move. The propulsive nature of Monkey Man's beginning and ending doesn't just make this feature exciting to watch. It also lends real impact to a more laidback and introspective second act. This stretch of the story appropriately stands out by in contrast to the rest of the film tonally. That intentional disconnect allows Kid's journey of self-discovery to feel impactful. 

Spanning vibes from contemplative to Edgar Wright-levels of propulsiveness crystallizes how enjoyably expansive the script for Monkey Man is. This screenplay has ambitions as big as the night sky itself, which does result in some jagged narrative elements. Most notably, eventual main antagonist Baba Shakti, though played with a captivating aura by Deshpande, is a bit too disconnected from Kid to sometimes feel like a sufficient "final boss" for the movie. It's easy to see why Kid has beef with police chief Rana (Sikandar Kher) given his direct personal connection to that man. Shakti represents how the evil of Rana goes all the way to the top, a thoughtful move that reflects the systemic rot informing Kid's traumatic past. However, Patel's script (co-written by Paul Angunawela and John Collee) still keeps Kid and Shakti a bit too far apart for much of Monkey Man. No matter the thematic intent behind Shakti's presence in the story, it's still hard to make him feel like the prime action movie adversary for Kid when he has so little direct connection to this character.

The jankier elements of the screenplay (whose foibles also include a lack of pay-off for supporting players like Pitobash's Alphonso) are easier to digest thanks to Monkey Man's most successful screenwriting flourishes. For one thing, it's great to see a 2020s action movie unafraid to get its hands dirty in modern politics. The script is peppered with explicit references to the struggles of Muslims and trans Indians, which lends real tangibility to the "David vs. Goliath" elements of the narrative. I was also struck by a great throwaway line from a TV reporter noting that, in response to attacks on marginalized populations in India, outside countries "condemn" the behavior but won't take any lasting actions to stop it (like economically penalizing uncaring Indian politicians). After months of the US merely saying "no, stop that" to an ongoing genocide, it's great to see a big theatrical release like Monkey Man clearly agitated over countries like America leaping into action to bomb people but not protect the oppressed. 

Where Monkey Man really excels, though, is as a visual exercise. Save for some early instances of shaky-cam, the whole movie looks fantastic. I love that this is a grimy action film unafraid to show people biting noses or trails of gore, but also doesn't just drape everything in dim lighting and shades of grey. The villainous club Kid briefly works at as part of his revenge scheme is coated in bright neon lighting, with streaks of blue and pink dancing across the faces of the corrupt. Meanwhile, harsh yellow color grading dominates the underground boxing scenes to suggest how removed this domain is from reality. Creative uses of such vivid hues are accompanied by sublime editing from Dávid Jancsó and Tim Murrell that show such care in timing. An unforgettable scene where Kid lashes out at a punching bag while a nearby onlooker bangs away on his drums especially makes outstanding use of tightly arranged cuts. Every cut to a new shot contributes to a mounting sense of energy, rather than a dilution of the scene's atmosphere.

Then there's the most important of Monkey Man: those action sequences. In his inaugural directorial effort, Patel shows an impressive command for realizing scrappy hand-to-hand skirmishes. It's always clear who is fighting who, things don't just devolve into visual incoherence to emphasize "intensity". Best of all, he's quite creative in figuring out how Kid can turn the objects around him (from fire extinguishers to a tank of fish to kitchen utensils) into deadly weapons. Needless to say, I had a big sloppy grin on my face throughout these fight sequences and so much else of Monkey Man (including its shockingly delightful trans representation). May there be so many more seasons of Director Dev Patel in our future.