While running errands the other day, one of my favorite local afternoon talk radio shows noted that Hollywood is facing its worst box-office run in 25 years and then opened up the phone lines to ask listeners whether or not they still go to the movies.
Most of the callers griped about overpriced tickets, texting moviegoers and subpar material – noting that it’s better to simply rent a DVD or watch something on demand in the comfort of their own home. Others are too busy playing video games, keeping up with friends and family on social media or other hobbies.
All of these developments were starting to take hold in the early 2000s when I closely covered Hollywood for various trade publications. Among the most worried were theater chain owners, known in Tinsel Town as “exhibitors.”
Fast forward to 2017, which industry insiders consider another golden age for television, and you’d be hard pressed to find really good quality cinema. Most of the fare these days is formulaic and uninspiring, dominated by so-called franchise pictures and tired sequels, car chases, mind-numbing violence and eye-popping visual effects. It’s not my idea of a fun night out, and apparently most Americans agree.
But as an avid moviegoer, I simply look for alternatives and frequently choose an art house theater a block and a half from my home that features the best independent and foreign films money can buy.
Rarely do I come across a blockbuster that speaks to me on a cerebral or emotional level, and when I’m truly lucky, I get a little of both. One such film (don’t laugh) is “Cars 3.” Yes, an animated film aimed primarily at children, but also one that can appeal to grownups. This release proves once again that Disney Pixar hands down has the best track record of any movie studio in Hollywood history when it comes to quality cinema. If only the other major studios would tear a page from their impressive playbook, then maybe they, too, would be firing on all cylinders – literally and figuratively.
The reason is simple: a terrific story at the core that’s perfectly told, has wonderful pacing, a compelling subplot, wonderful character development and killer themes around which anyone at any age can wrap their hearts and minds. “Cars 3” is a thoughtful film, and I think the best of all three in this winning franchise.
What I like about this film is all the wonderful lessons it teaches the little ones, though I still haven’t been able to convince my own 6 and 8 year olds to see it (they’ve outgrown this particular franchise!). They also translate so well to my principle topic of interest for nearly 30 years, which is the workplace.
In the end, it’s a film about following your occupational dreams (i.e., moving from “trainer” to race car driver), knowing when it’s time to do something else (i.e., retiring from racing to mentor a rising star), honoring the past (i.e., recognizing the contributions of trailblazers) and being fully in charge of your own destiny (i.e., not allowing others to force your fate). Ironically, critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes give it only a satisfactory rating, which I suppose just goes to show how subjective it is to measure the quality of movie content.
In my view, good stories are the missing ingredient in so many movies and have been for a long while – at least since the last truly golden age of cinema in the 1970s. If you offer a product or service that’s second to none in any business, then you’ll acquire customers.
That’s why TV is clobbering movies. There’s so much more creativity and choice on the small screen. And whereas movie stars used to look down upon their peers who did TV shows, they’re all drawn to that medium now for a number of reasons. One is they’re following the money – and lots of it. With Netflix and Amazon.com getting into the act, lucrative deals abound for top talent. A TV show’s schedule is also more 9-5 than on movie sets, so it’s appealing to both cast and crew members who’d rather live a more normal life. But that’s also where the entertainment industry’s mojo has been now for a while and probably will stay.
What Hollywood needs is more movie studios like Disney Pixar whose primary focus is on great storytelling. To paraphrase that famous line from “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.” Movie studio execs, along with theater chain owners, need to heed that call, or they’ll continue to lose the huge audiences they’ve been accustomed to seeing year after year.