There’s been a sea change in the way Hollywood makes theatrical movies.
COVID has altered the landscape in ways I’m not sure we can foresee, but also might only have accelerated trends already underway: shorter release windows, simultaneous streaming debuts, and a general erosion of the theatre as the place to see new movies.
But the market has been in flux for more than a decade — the rise and global reach of Marvel Studios, in particular, has cemented the four-quadrant blockbuster as the dominant mode for Hollywood studios. There are fewer mega-movie stars these days — at least outside of the worlds of franchise IP. The sheer volume of quality television (and the decreasing price of enormous TVs) has certainly made me think twice about going out to the movies — even pre-pandemic.
In the broadest sense, these factors and more have led to the death of mid-budget films made for grownups, at least theatres. The prevailing trends are to go ultra-cheap (in Hollywood terms, anyway) a la Blumhouse, or with a big-budget would-be mega-blockbuster, with not much in-between — studios just aren’t looking to spend big money on a question mark. Movies are expensive to make, and people need a reason to go to a theatre: it’s hard to build audience enthusiasm around a quieter film that you’ll be able to watch at home, with much cheaper popcorn, in a month or two.
This isn’t a screed, or an argument that movies used to be better. When we look back, we only think of the best and most memorable movies, which skews our perspective. Lots of crappy stuff got made in every era of filmmaking — there are great movies being made today that would never have had a chance 30 years ago, and vice versa.
Some of the sorts of movies we don’t see anymore feel like losses, others we’re better off without. Some of this is cyclical: A few years ago, I’d have said we’d never again see a big-budget, all-star whodunnit of the kind that used to be popular — but that was before Knives Out and Murder on the Orient Express, both of which have sequels on the way (though admittedly the latter is being funded by Netflix). That aside, and for a variety of reasons, the following 25 movies could certainly never be made today.
As Good as It Gets (1997)
There was a time when writer/director James L. Brooks could command budgets in the many tens of millions of dollars — As Good as It Gets cost $US50 (A$67) million to make (equivalent to $US85 (A$113) million today), which is on the low end of the typical Brooks-movie budget from the era: 2004’s Spanglish cost $US80 (A$107) million, and 2010’s forgotten How Do You Know came in at a whopping $US120 (A$160) million (at a time when that was real money). With Brooks, specifically, some of that has to do with an increasingly hit-or-miss record: his hits made plenty of money and won awards; his misses were real tragedies. But the broader message is that risk-averse studios simply no longer want to put that kind of money into something without a guaranteed audience. Scanning the budgets of romantic comedies over the past few years, they tend to max out around $US30 (A$40) million, with most running between $US10–$US20 ($13-$27) million.
Something’s Gotta Give (2003)
Likewise with Something’s Gotta Give: the movie cost $US80 (A$107) million and made back every penny, and then some. But, again, studios just aren’t spending that kind of money on rom-coms anymore. There’s also a limited market for non-genre movies marketed to adults; by “adults,” I mean people middle-aged and beyond. Today, this movie would drop straight in HBO Max.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
I’m the last person to go running around complaining about “cancel culture:” audiences have a right to have feelings about inflammatory material, and if they don’t want to spend their money on movies filled with lazy sexist, racist, or queer-phobic tropes, that’s just how it goes. Blazing Saddles isn’t really guilty of any of that, even if bits taken out of context could give that impression. Mel Brooks is, in many ways, an equal opportunity offender, but he’s smart enough to know that some targets (in this case, racist white guys) are practically demanding to be skewered. There are jokes, and then there’s the fire he directs at the ignorant.
That being said, it would be truly shocking if a studio bankrolled something like Blazing Saddles anytime soon, particularly with a white man at the helm. A failure to walk the line that Brooks walked so ably here could easily push something like this into offensive territory; likewise, parodying racism in 2021 is just as likely to ignite an alt-right Twitterstorm that’s going to keep butts out of seats.
Life of Brian (1979)
Pre-Reagan (and nearly pre-Thatcher) 1979 was probably the last time we’d see a Christian-themed religious farce this pointed without it being accompanied by reams and reams of bullshit — fewer than ten years later, devout Catholic Martin Scorsese’s very serious The Last Temptation of Christ was met with boycotts, death threats, and the bombing of a theatre full of people in Paris. Years later, video stores like Blockbuster refused to even carry the VHS tape, all because of doctrinal disagreements that seem, frankly, rather obscure to less devout viewers. Although I’ve no doubt that there are plenty of things the faithful find objectionable in the popular films of the 2020s, the market isn’t going to bear a movie with so much potential to alienate so many potential ticket buyers.
Female Trouble (1972)
Likewise, I’m not sure there’s much (if any) room in today’s market for John Waters’ brand of low-budget bad taste. Granted, there wasn’t really a market in the ‘70s, either, but there was space for the kind of innovation that could generate a future cult classic. It’s wonderful that anyone can make a film in 2021 with little more than a phone, but the resulting volume of content means that most of it gets lost in the noise, and an awful lot of attempts at this sort of boundary-smashing filmmaking wind up looking like toned-down pastiche. If one does land, you probably aren’t catching it at the local art house, but as a digital rental.
The ‘80s were a golden age for disturbing movies marketed to kids (see also: The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure), with Gremlins being a great example. Helmed by director Joe Dante, fresh off The Howling, it combines horror-movie level creature effects with a darkly comic tone that makes everything that much more deranged — especially given the movie’s broad marketing, which included video games, easy reader books, and endless dolls and toys. It’s not that we’re not still making spooky movies for kids, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in the last couple of decades to match the movie’s gremlin blender scene. Or the part with the microwave. Or the bit about the dad who dressed up as Santa and died in the chimney. Come to think of it, it might be for the best that we don’t sell toys from movies like this anymore.
Police Academy (1984)
There are plenty of boob jokes in this otherwise amiable series of goofball movies (all on the slightly-less-raunchy side of ‘80s comedy), but we’re not likely to get a movie about wacky, incompetent cops again. For some, it would be unfunnily on target, while the blue lives matter-types would picket. Pass.
The venerable genre that is the teenage sex comedy probably hit its peak with director Bob Clark’s Porky’s, largely thanks to the talents of director Bob Clark (Black Christmas, A Christmas Story). Like Porky’s, though, pretty much every example of the (almost exclusively white and male) genre involved at least one wacky bit in which some guys find a way to get a peek inside the women’s locker room (or a similar violation), and/or rapey bits about duping women into having sex. There’s a reason more modern examples of the genre, from Blockers to Booksmart, have foregrounded women.
The last time a historical epic performed at anywhere near the level of Titanic was 2000’s Gladiator, which still didn’t do a quarter of what James Cameron’s blockbuster did. More recent epics like Troy, Alexander, Exodus, Pompeii, and Kingdom of Heaven, have largely underperformed, the occasional 20th century war movie like Dunkirk or 1917 excepted. It’s not that Hollywood doesn’t still try to play in that pond, but the investments are much lower. Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, for instance cost half of what Titanic did (25 years later), and still got crushed at the box office (fairly or not) by Halloween Kills, a movie that was also free to stream the same day it was released.
Soul Man (1986)
Though ostensibly well-intentioned, this is a movie about a white man who uses blackface (or, technically, “tanning pills”) to get a scholarship for which he would otherwise not be eligible — and which he gets, actual Black people apparently being unable to compete.
It all ultimately teaches him about being Black…or something. Imma just leave it there.
Tootsie’s a classic, no question, and was wildly popular when it was released — earning the year’s second-highest box office returns as well as a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. It’s also the story of a man who comes to feel the opportunities for women are so much greater than those for men that he has no choice but to secretly dress in drag to audition for a soap opera part. The idea that a male character is best situated to teach audiences about what it is to be a woman is wildly dated, and the understated concern about women taking over all the jobs seems a little…premature. The more recent musical version plays with those notions a bit in ways that work, so it’s not that a Tootsie remake could never happen, but certainly not in its original form. (The musical also didn’t exactly set the Great White Way alight; it closed after 293 shows, which is not a lot for a major production.)
The Last Samurai (2003)
“Let’s tell the story of the Meiji Restoration in Japan. We’ll get Tom Cruise to star!” …I’m sure that there are still studio execs who’d buy that pitch in a heartbeat, but fewer of them…I think?
I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007)
The whole “Let’s explore minorities with straight white men!” genre is pretty well dead, at least one hopes.
You know why.
The 42-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It (2010)
There was a pop culture moment not so long ago when each and every successful film genre got a quickie knock-off parody, starting with the not-at-all-bad Scary Movie, which satirized teen slasher movies like Scream. But after a few passable examples (Not Another Teen Movie), the type devolved into an unending stream of movies that mostly just repeated lines and bits from more popular films (often themselves comedies), like your drunk uncle reciting the plot of You Don’t Mess With the Zohan during the worst Thanksgiving dinner of your life. Occasionally they could pull off a decent dad-joke title (like the Twilight parody Breaking Wind), but others don’t even go that far, with lazy names like Superhero Movie, Meet the Spartans, The Starving Games, and Paranormal Movie. But it’s hard to make zeitgeist-skewering movies when there is no more zeitgeist. I doubt anyone’s too sad that we’re not doing these anymore
Driving Miss Daisy (1990)
There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with a film that approaches race through a white lens. A quality movie like Driving Miss Daisy or, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, holds the hands of white viewers by depicting white characters forced to come to terms with their own racism, or, at least, that of the world around them. It’s just that, for many decades, the white point of view was seen as the only valid one by studios, and Black filmmakers were rarely afforded the opportunity to present stories dealing with race and racism on their own terms, without the need to foreground white characters. It still happens (looking at you, Green Book), but it’s increasingly tired and tiresome, and something we’re thankfully seeing a lot less of.
The Colour Purple (1985)
I adore The Colour Purple. Whatever its structural flaws, it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s very best, and I’ve never not gotten sucked in after watching a couple of minutes. Nevertheless, this is a film about the Black American experience for which nearly every major behind-the-scenes figure is white (the very significant exception being co-producer and composer Quincy Jones). It’s remarkable, given that, that the film so scrupulously avoids the white-gaze-perspective problem that impacts so many other Black stories made by white filmmakers, and that it’s not afraid to explore the complexities of its characters. Genuinely remarkable. But that all says more about the talents of an all-time great director (and cast) than it does about the wisdom of outsourcing Black perspectives to white creators.
Mr. Mum (1983)
I’m not sure the premise here was particularly groundbreaking, even back in 1983. In the ‘80s we were doing an awful lot of pretending that traditional nuclear family roles were just beginning to break open, and that they hadn’t already been doing so for decades. So what we have in this (and similar movies of the era) is an extended I Love Lucy episode about a man who learns how hard it is to run a household when his wife goes to work.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
I don’t want to be too hard on Sixteen Candles. Like a lot of John Hughes’ filmic output, it manages to be maintain some charm in spite of a few significant issues, not the least of which is a central date rape — and that’s an achievement in and of itself.
Similarly, and with all due respect to the very talented Gedde Watanabe, Long Duk Dong is every Asian stereotype rolled up into one, all of them already stale by 1984.
Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
There’s a big heaping dose of gross ‘80s sexual politics here, particularly in the bit in which one of the main characters tricks a woman into having sex with him by making her think that he’s her actual boyfriend.
Even putting that aside, a “nerd” comedy in 2021 isn’t going to look anything like this. Unlike in the ‘80s, geeks and goobers pretty much run the entertainment world now. Even in The Big Bang Theory, the dweebs mostly all had solid relationships and well-paying jobs while spending their free time “geeking out” about globally popular pop culture entertainment.
Air Force One (1997)
Star power waxes and wanes, both in terms of individual celebrities and the overall power of stars to drive viewers to the theatres — thinking here of the infamous “box office poison” ad of the 1930s, taken out by theatre owners demanding that studios focus more on popular story-types and stop spending so much money on stars nobody cared about anymore. So who knows what the future holds, but individual stars don’t have nearly the power to get butts into the seats that they once did, victims of our franchise-driven movie culture.
Something like Air Force One might have done just fine back in the day, but Harrison Ford’s presence made it a blockbuster. Even a comparative bomb like Regarding Henry made money. Looking at today’s top earners, and a very different picture emerges: Robert Downey, Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson are the top box office draws by almost any measure, but, for each of them, that ranking’s almost entirely down to Marvel movies — even with the biggest star in the world on the poster, people weren’t rushing out to see Dolittle.
Ordinary People (1980)
Ordinary People wasn’t particularly expensive, but it represents the kind of adult-oriented family drama (almost completely lacking in high concept) that’s almost completely disappeared from movie theatres. The genre has, instead, split into two TV-friendly variations: the prestige drama series (like HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage), or the slightly less prestigious Lifetime/Hallmark-style TV movie.
The Reader (2008)
Two facts might surprise you about Academy Award Best Picture-nominated The Reader: it was relatively expensive, and it made a good bit of money…both of which are less likely occurrences in the modern market. It’s a type of film we used to call “Oscar bait,” but today’s Oscar winners tend to be indie fare like Nomadland more often than a studio picture like…well, Green Book.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Queer content in mainstream, theatrically released movies has been a bit of a mixed bag, even in the 2010s and 2020s. We’d expect that, given the critical and box office success of Brokeback Mountain and, to a lesser extent — because it was an indie — Moonlight (just to name a couple) there’d have been an explosion of mainstream LGBTQ+ cinema. It never materialised, in large part because bigger budgets have lead to greater risk aversion within studios, especially given the need to market movies globally. As tough a sell as gay stuff can be for some US audiences, there are huge overseas markets where that kind of thing is a non-starter. It’s why, after almost 25 Marvel movies, we’ve had one very brief, easily-clipped moment of an unnamed male character mentioning a date with another man…and why the big gay moment in Star Wars was a similarly blink-and-you-ll-miss-it. The upcoming Eternals seems set to include a bit more queer representation, but, at this point, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Luckily, streaming has opened up lots of avenues for queer-themed shows and movies, so it’s definitely not all bad.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
It’s tempting to make fun of You’ve Got Mail for the novelty with which it approaches something as exotic as “email,” but, in a lot of ways, this story would be even easier to make today, given that there are even more ways to connect anonymously. No, with this one we’re back to the problem of budget: studios either want to spend a ton of money on a known quantity or spend almost nothing and hope that they get lucky. You’ve Got Mail cost a whopping $US65 (A$87) million dollars (in 1998 dollars); that paid off thanks to the bankability of Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, and Nora Ephron, reuniting six years after Sleepless in Seattle. But stars don’t drive box office anymore…franchises do.