“It’s been an off year.” At dinner parties, industry screenings, or at the gym, I’ve been hearing this with alarming frequency. My sister Lisa, who lives in Northern California, bluntly asked on a family chat, “What has happened to movies?!”
Good question. As a voting Academy member, I was stuck early on in finding 10 movies to nominate for the best picture Oscar. I’m not going to tell you how I voted, but I stopped at five—and it wasn’t easy getting there. (One of my picks, the Indian epic RRR, did not make the cut.) When the 10 nominations appeared last week, I found myself longing for the good old days when we were limited to half as many.
What happened? Box office was down about 35 percent in 2022 compared to 2019. The media constantly tells us that audiences are still afraid of Covid, or that the streaming services are to blame, or ticket prices are too high, or TikTok and video games are more interesting to Gen Z than movies. The problem, I think, is much simpler than that: We need to make better movies. And we need to tell stories that resonate more with general audiences.
2022 may be remembered as the year when Hollywood’s expectations and reality collided like a four-car pileup on the 101. And nowhere was it more on display than with the “awards” movies—supposedly the best we have to offer. So many of them skewed way outside the mainstream. When I saw the first trailer for Babylon, I was excited. Here’s a movie packed with stars, from the gifted director Damien Chazelle. What could go wrong? Plenty. Was I supposed to recommend Babylon to my octogenarian stepmother when an obese man is peed on by a prostitute in the opening sequence? There was a new offering from one of my favorite directors, David O. Russell. But by the time Amsterdam hit the screen, word of mouth was so terrible, I couldn’t bear to watch it.
No fewer than five great filmmakers decided to release autobiographical/nostalgia pieces this year. Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Bardo disappeared quickly. White Noise, from Noah Baumbach, was mostly that, despite being based on a classic book. James Gray’s Armageddon Time, well-intentioned as it was, failed in theaters, as did The Fabelmans, though Steven Spielberg’s memoir scored eight nominations. (Spielberg’s formative years were certainly movie-worthy and I enjoyed that film.)
What are we doing? Many of these movies were double trouble: they cost a lot and were aimed at a small audience. Babylon’s budget was a reported $110 million (Paramount says $80 million), and earned just $15 million domestic. Amsterdam cost $80 million and brought in about the same. Empire of Light cost a reported $60 million and is sitting at less than $5 million. As the young hustler tells Tom Cruise in The Color of Money, “It’s like a nightmare, isn’t it? And it just keeps getting worse.”
Sure, there are always flops, many of them pricey. And Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water are both best picture nominees and have grossed a combined $3.5 billion worldwide. Despite these anomalies, the film business feels increasingly disconnected from the culture. Maybe we were distracted during Covid as we struggled to balance the drive to stay alive with the need to entertain. Isolation may have disconnected us from what moviegoers want. We have refused to serve the audience—those paying customers, the very people that keep our boats afloat.
Look at the hits: Top Gun delivered in just over 2 hours exactly what the audience wanted to see. Everything Everywhere All at Once was innovative and exciting to watch. It featured standout acting and was full of surprises. Avatar delivered on its promise to up the ante for those who loved the first one.
So I’m not saying there weren’t hits, or good movies that found their audience. But the Top 10 of 2022 consisted of nine sequels and one reboot (The Batman). And by and large, the original movies we put in theaters did not connect: Strange World, She Said, Bros, Moonfall, Tár, The Northman, The 355. The themes were not relatable, the stories did not move viewers to tears or laughter, and I think it’s safe to say that audiences in Cincinnati, Kansas City or Des Moines knew that many were not for them. Even Pixar’s Lightyear, based on perhaps the most beloved animated franchise in Toy Story, cost $200 million and missed its audience. That is a massive unforced error.
If I were assembling a studio slate, here’s what I would do. First, I’d insist on movies with stories that broad audiences are most likely to care about. At every greenlight meeting, the creative and marketing teams would be required to identify the specific audience for the movie and articulate why that audience will show up. The studios say that they already do this, but the results suggest they aren’t doing it well enough. We need to further challenge our filmmakers before the pictures go into production. While conventional wisdom says that mid-priced comedies and dramas are now only for streaming, I wouldn’t give up so easily. Just this past weekend, Paramount’s 80 For Brady opened to $12.5 million on a budget of $28 million. Sony’s A Man Called Otto has collected $83 million on a $50 million budget. I’m told by my screenwriter friends that laughs alone are not enough for theaters. If comic actors want to make action-comedies instead of only straight-up laughers, I say let them.
By aiming for the fences with outrageous spends on inaccessible stories, we’ve moved away from our core product. Where is this year’s Field of Dreams? Or Animal House, or Pretty Woman? I believe if we give moviegoers something to be excited about, they will come back. When Paramount realized the horror flick Smile was testing well, executives brought it to theaters instead of streaming. It grossed $261 million on a budget of only $17 million. That’s very good movie moneyball. If the film business was a baseball team, our coach would probably stress the need to get back to fundamentals.
People still want to go to the movies. But they want to see stories that resonate with them, with themes and characters they care about. Soon, one of the 10 nominated movies we’ve chosen will be declared best picture. But you might win a bar bet in six months by asking a stranger to name the winner. It was an off year, but let’s hope that it’s not a sign of what’s to come. The talent is there. The audience is hungry. We just need to step up our game.
David Friendly is the Oscar nominated producer of Little Miss Sunshine. He’s currently in pre-production on a four part docuseries, Hot Stuff, for MGM+ about the rise and fall of disco.