Since the silent era, a century’s worth of movies has told us how to love, how to die, how to dress, how to behave. But things have changed a lot since the silent era, which raises the question: Are movies still vital to our lives? Are they still at the core of our cultural life? Do they still matter?
Beyond Hollywood’s scrambled economics, one of the biggest threats to its hegemony is social media — TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and X-formerly-known-as-Twitter — with which it has always had an uncomfortable relationship, alternately its victim or master. Thanks to the gravitational pull of social media, as well as the pandemic and two strikes, the studios and theaters have endured a disastrous stretch, and even the streamers, after enjoying a several decades-long honeymoon (the so-called era of “Peak TV”), started to falter. A dense fog of doom and gloom settled over the industry.
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Social media, of course, can be a help as well as a hindrance. In the case of Game of Thrones, its roar was so loud — analyzing, recapping and speculating about the outcome of the final season — that the last episode boasted 19.3 million viewers. It so amplified the show’s impact that by the time it reached its final season, it had created a national conversation that supplanted the old watercooler chitchat of yore. As HBO CEO Casey Bloys told me, “There’s an entire ecosystem of people who write about television, and want to talk about it, and get on social media and criticize it or praise it, or whatever. The effect of all of it together is to keep the show in the cultural conversation.” A good example is Sony’s Anyone But You, a critical dud but a surprise hit on TikTok, where users reenacted the title sequence then flocked to see it in theaters, giving the lie to the conventional wisdom that rom-coms are box office poison.
Social media, however, is nothing if not fickle, and even Game of Thrones felt its sting when it turned against the show and roasted that final season. In the case of HBO’s Westworld, on the other hand, the kiss of social media proved fatal. Love killed. Fans had so much agency that they inadvertently ruined the show by anticipating plot twists so accurately that Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, trying to stay ahead of the curve, were forced to complicate them so much that no one could follow them, and the show went off the air. Social media became a Frankenstein of sorts, a foe, not a friend.
Worse, as social media has evolved (and the political environment devolved), it has primarily become a platform for settling scores where the angriest, shrillest and weirdest users get the most engagement. True, Hollywood “product” can be laced with disagreeable messages, but it has one big thing going for it. To state the obvious, it’s entertaining, emotionally satisfying and, on occasion, even profound — advantages art will always have over social media.
Social media may be able to create national conversations, but those conversations have to be about something, and Hollywood, writ large, often provides that something. Take last summer’s social media-driven Barbenheimer phenomenon, when the slyly feminist Barbie and the dense, talky, challenging Oppenheimer became an unlikely tandem that single- (or double-) handedly revived the zombie box office that had been knocked on its heels by the one-two-three punch of streaming, the pandemic and the strikes. Together they proved that audiences can actually think, as well as rail at one another on social media.
Oppenheimer launched such a reckoning about the weaponization of scientific research and the morality of dropping the bomb (twice), given the obscene number of casualties as well as the arms race it incited. But it also challenged cultural shibboleths, as only films can do, or do more effectively than other art forms like literature or painting. At three hours, Oppenheimer moves slowly but breaks things anyway, mostly rules that dictate how we should and shouldn’t behave. In an era of superheroes and comfort viewing (thanks, Ted Lasso), Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer is an antihero, a rarity as the lead of a $100 million Imax film. He is flawed. He cheats on his wife, is not particularly likable and is aloof and arrogant. Oppenheimer is Big Science’s version of the antiheroes of the ’70s: the Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Barbie, meanwhile, arrived in a cloud of pink, which has an altogether different meaning as the other half of Barbenheimer, written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (“Baumwig”? “Gerbach”?), where, as America Ferrera’s Gloria says, “It is literally impossible to be a woman … thin, but not too thin … You can be a boss, but you can’t be mean … You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear …” The climactic speech about how society’s expectations make it “literally impossible to be a woman” resonated particularly loudly on social media, becoming instantly iconic. She, too, is an antihero, or at least an anti-Barbie for just being human, plagued by real-world afflictions like flat feet, cellulite and fear of death.
There are as many good to great movies out there now as there have ever been, the only difference being that they’re not all in theaters. Forget overpraised fare like Priscilla and Leave the World Behind, as well as movies like the overwrought Saltburn or tough-love tearjerkers like The Holdovers. Think features like Killers of the Flower Moon, Past Lives, Poor Things, The Zone of Interest, Fallen Leaves, May December, Anatomy of a Fall, Promising Young Woman, just to name a few, as well as documentaries like Errol Morris’ The Pigeon Tunnel or Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, Beyond Utopia, Little Richard: I Am Everything and American Symphony.
Like Oppenheimer, like Barbie, these films break rules and rarely have happy endings. And yet, they matter — a lot, in a way that print and social media do not and cannot. So, to get back to the question with which we started: “Does Hollywood still matter?” The answer is a resounding “Yes!”
Peter Biskind is the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood and many other books. His latest is Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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