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Slap Fight!

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There is nothing more vicious or stupid than an argument about taste, and that’s exactly what Martin Scorsese gave the world when he tried to watch a Marvel movie, gave up, and told the press that he didn’t think they were cinema, saying they were more like roller coaster rides.
Cue outrage from just about everyone. I saw one random comment that said Scorsese was just jealous because he hadn’t made a good movie since 1990. Apparently, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, and freaking masterpiece Silence are all terrible films.
If there were to be a king of cinema geekdom, I think Scorsese would be it. (Quentin Tarantino would be the Clown Prince.) Not only is he one of the great filmmakers, but he knows more about the history of film and he’s done more for film preservation than just about any individual in history. Seeing him on Criterion Collection discs talking about preserving films (such as this from Laurence Olivier’s Richard III) is wonderful because he obviously has a great love for the medium in general.
Well, I think there’s an explanation for what Scorsese said, and I think it goes beyond his New York Times defense from this week.
Levels of Movies
The word cinema means something to film geeks. It’s not just a synonym for movies. Back in the day, I read Ain’t It Cool News all the time. I never really liked the opinions of Harry Knowles, the owner and editor (his fulsome praise of the American Godzilla was literally bought by the studio), but he did say something that’s stuck with me. He said that, in his mind, there were four different levels of movies. The flick, the movie, the film, and cinema.
The classifications were all about ambition. The flick just wanted to entertain you on the lowest common denominator. The movie wanted to tell a story. The film wanted to take advantage of the art form in every way it could. Cinema wanted to advance the art form.
Now, it’s a model that I don’t really subscribe to myself, but I think it’s useful. It’s how I can give something like Independence Day a three star (out of four) rating and also something more ambitious, like Full Metal Jacket. The former has more modest goals that I feel it achieves rather well. The latter has more ambitious goals that I feel don’t quite hit as well as they could. The former is a flick. The latter is a film (maybe cinema), according to Knowles’ model. They’re both just about the same level of successful given their intended goals, though I would never claim them to be of equal quality.
Scorsese

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This is a similar place that Scorsese is coming from. He says of the cinema of his youth, “It was about characters – the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.”
So, Scorsese remembers a time when Fuller, Bergman, Gene Kelly, Anger, Godard, and Siegel were not only making movies but attracting large audiences across the world, including in America. It wasn’t just the B-movie genre stuff that was attracting large audiences, it was stuff like Persona by Bergman and Z by Costa-Gavras.
In addition to his yearning for yesteryear, he’s also had some recent things in his life that have shaded his view. He mentions his inability to get funding from anyone for The Irishman, his newest movie, except Netflix because every studio was terrified of funding the admittedly expensive film. Studios wouldn’t touch it because they didn’t know how to sell it and find an audience, so Scorsese went to the streaming giant, and theaters revolted in response. They condemned him for his choice going so far as to boycott screening the film in New York City for its limited run (it ended up in a stage theater on Broadway).
Well, Scorsese’s movie preceding The Irishman was Silence. Paramount funded it to a tune of $46 million, and it made $7 million in the United States. The distributor completely bungled the distribution, refusing to play it at any festival and dumping it into a small number of theaters right after Christmas where it, rather predictably, bombed. The studio failed the film. The theaters failed the film by not giving enough of a chance. Audience failed the film by not going. And, Silence is arguably Scorsese greatest film. It’s the sort of movie that could have found traction and an audience a few decades ago, but it got completely lost in a season dominated by Rogue One, Doctor Strange, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
And, to make it even worse, The Wolf of Wall Street, the movie that preceded Silence was completely independently financed. No major studios would give him the money, and it ended up his biggest box office success.
I would say that Scorsese’s frustration with the modern filmmaking world stems from his own personal experiences and is rather fully justified. Studios don’t treat him well. Theaters don’t want to give him any support after he had made them a lot of money. And he blames the studios mainly for this.
Homogenization

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Do you know what the top ten box office movies of 1972 were? They were, in descending order of ticket sales: The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, Jeremiah Johnson, Cabaret, The Getaway, Last Tango in Paris, Fritz the Cat, The Valachi Papers, The Cowboys, and Pete ‘n’ Tillie. By genre, that would be mobster epic, disaster movie, western, musical, crime thriller, erotic drama, sex comedy cartoon, mob drama, John Wayne western, and romantic comedy. There isn’t a single sequel or remake in there.
Do you know what the top ten box office movies of 2018 were? They were, in descending order of ticket sales: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Deadpool 2, The Grinch, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. By genre that would be comic book movie, comic book movie, super hero movie, disaster and monster movie, comic book movie, children’s animation remake, adventure movie sequel, spy thriller sequel, comic book movie, and science fiction sequel. There’s not a single original film there.
To break it down another way, the movies in 1972 represent ten different studios ranging from independents like Allied Pictures to the major players such as Paramount and Warner Brothers. The 2019 films? They represent only five studios. Half of the pictures were released by Disney.
A lot has happened in the last forty-nine years. There’s a proliferation of other mediums to deliver adult content like pay television and streaming that weren’t available in the early 70s. Movies have changed along with such new developments, becoming exercises in bigger spectacles but they’re not actually attracting larger audiences.
Some back of the envelope math. The Godfather made $133,000,000 in 1972 when ticket prices were about $1.65. That comes to roughly 81,000,000 tickets sold. Black Panther made $700,000,000 in 2018 when ticket prices were about $9.11. That comes to roughly 76,000,000 tickets sold.
People are still going to the movies, but they’re going to vastly different movies than they used to. Who’s fault is that? Scorsese blames the studios and theaters first. They’re the ones chasing the exact same financial goal in the exact same way, flooding theaters with product that all feels the same and designed to engage audiences in the same way.

They’re not looking for new ways to attract audiences, they’re chasing the newest trend. Hollywood didn’t operate like that when Scorsese first started, and he sees no reason why they should continue.
Inception

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Christopher R Taylor pointed me in the direction of this article from GQ. It was written in 2010 in the wake of Inception’s success. It includes this section:

Before anybody saw the movie, the buzz within the industry was: It’s just a favor Warner Bros. is doing for Nolan because the studio needs him to make Batman 3. After it started to screen, the party line changed: It’s too smart for the room, too smart for the summer, too smart for the audience. Just before it opened, it shifted again: Nolan is only a brand-name director to Web geeks, and his drawing power is being wildly overestimated. After it grossed $62 million on its first weekend, the word was: Yeah, that’s pretty good, but it just means all the Nolan groupies came out early—now watch it drop like a stone.
And here was the buzz three months later, after Inception became the only release of 2010 to log eleven consecutive weeks in the top ten: Huh. Well, you never know.

I remember the success of Inception. It’s far from my favorite film, but it’s fun and original in a way that most studio backed films aren’t. I was actually pretty optimistic about the future of popular movies because of this movie’s success, but where are we nine years later? The only person who can still make big budget high concept movies that don’t have a tie to a pre-existing property is Christopher Nolan. Interstellar was big and made money. His next movie, Tenet will probably end up making money, and yet studios don’t want to take similar risks because they think it’s easier to make the money back if you slap a familiar name onto a product.
But, the William Golding turn of phrase, “Nobody Knows Anything” needs to come up. Sure, audiences like familiar things, but not always. Ghostbusters is a name we all know, but the 2016 remake bombed. Baywatch is a name we all know, but the movie version bombed. Terminator is a name we all know, but it’s most recent movie is in the middle of bombing right as we speak. But the Jumanji sequel was a money maker, so that justifies every giant gamble on an old property, apparently.
And off to the side is someone like Martin Scorsese, one of the kings of the movie world, and he can’t get anything funded by a major studio. When he does get a movie funded, the theaters treat him terribly. When he finds an alternate route for funding and release, all the people who’ve treated him terribly give him endless grief over it. And instead of helping him fund his next movie, they need to set the funds aside for the action buddy comedy reboot of Welcome Back, Kotter because people remember that title.
Bringing It Back to Marvel

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Scorsese doesn’t like Marvel movies. They’re not only not his cup of tea, and they don’t take advantage of the cinematic art form in ways that he finds satisfying.
That’s his taste. He admits it in his article. “The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies – of what they were and what they could be – that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri.”
He’s doing an old man thing of bemoaning the loss of a world that once was, but I think there’s more to it than that.
There’s something magical about the cinema experience. There are no distractions. You sit in your seat, the lights darken, and the whole outside world falls away leaving just the world the filmmaker creates on the screen before you. That’s an experience that’s really hard to replicate at home. Television doesn’t create the same sense of immersion that you get in a movie theater, and Scorsese most likely shares that view. Something gets lost when you have the lights on, your phone goes off, you have to make sure the sauce is still just right in the kitchen, and your kids are struggling to brush their teeth. It’s not just the content, it’s the delivery that’s important to Scorsese.
And that type of storytelling is getting driven from the theaters to television where he feels like it’s a less than ideal delivery. He also thinks that the movie going audience would embrace more mature fare if studios and theaters would give the opportunity to them. Americans used to go see a wide variety of films aimed at adults, and he wants them to do so again. There’s a selfish quality to that since those are the sorts of movies that Scorsese makes, but I still think he has a strong point. The world of cinema has lost something over the last few decades, and it is within the power of the studios to help the course correction. They won’t do it, of course, but they could.

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