The Crisis of the Middlebrow Movie

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Apropos of my exchange with Peter Suderman about the comic-bookification of the movies, Peter Bart has a piece (not online) in the latest Vanity Fair that's worth quoting:

Hollywood's seasoned corporate moguls, such as Brad Grey, at Paramount, and Alan Horn, at Warner Bros., acknowledge that the movie business is splitting into two distinct sectors, which have little if anything to do with each other. The principal focus of the major studios is to manufacture tent-pole pictures, most of them based on comic books and video games, and to connect these projects to a maze of ancillary promotions - toys, cars, tie-ins, etc. There has been growing skepticism about the "tween" films - not movies aimed at pre-teens but films such as Body of Lies and The Women, which despite stars qualify as neither franchise films made for teen males nor as "art" films for adults. In the tent-pole business, the concept is the star. Heath Ledger helped The Dark Knight, just as Robert Downey, Jr. added pizzazz to Iron Man, but they weren't the franchise. Tobey Maguire was almost replaced twice as Spider-Man when his demands became too exotic.

This leaves the art-house business to those veteran players who can cope with hardscrabble budgets and understand how to beat the bushes for acquisitions ...

I'm not really worried about the art-house business: Hardscrabble efforts like Rachel Getting Married or The Wrestler often turn out better than their glossier, "let's win an Oscar" counterparts anyway. (You could make five Wrestlers for what it cost to churn out The Reader, and I wish that somebody had.) But I am worried about the fate of the "tweener" - the mass-market, middlebrow films for grown-ups that the studios have traditionally excelled at making. Nobody should shed any tears over the box-office failure of The Women or Body of Lies, obviously, but they're useful stand-ins for genres that don't belong in the art house and don't come with a built-in teen-male audience: Genres like the smart action flick and the female tearjerker; the historical epic and the high-concept thriller, and so forth. In a Hollywood bifurcated the way Bart describes it, we wouldn't have had Jaws or Die Hard, Braveheart or Terms of Endearment, Pretty Woman or Silence of the Lambs or Saving Private Ryan. For that matter, we wouldn't have had original franchises like Indiana Jones or Back To The Future, Star Wars or The Matrix. Where's the comic book tie-in? The pre-existing audience? Why should a studio take the risk when it can just make another Friday the 13th instead?

This is an old concern of mine, and I don't want to overstate the problem: There are plenty of good middlebrow films being made, from thinking man's action movies like the Bourne saga to Pixar's high-concept family films to current hits like Slumdog Millionaire - which, like Juno last year, is earning mass-market grosses on an art house budget - and Coraline. (And of course, there are other dynamics at work besides comic-bookification: One reason that there aren't many big new historical epics being green-lit at the moment, for instance, is that we just endured a slew of lousy examples of the genre.) But as Hollywood adjusts to depression economics, I'm expecting the dynamic Bart describes to sharpen - and I expect that moviegoers will be the poorer for it.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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