Corporations like Disney are buying out studios and exploiting nostalgia to distract audiences from the irrevocable harm they are inflicting on film, television and the people who create and consume them.
The film industry is going through tumultuous changes in the wake of COVID-19 and the rise of streaming platforms. Movie theaters are struggling and franchise films are dominating mainstream movie culture.
That being said, movies historically go through cycles of popularity and decline.
“It happened with the Western, it happened with the musical, it happened with comedy,” Lauren Steimer, Director of the film and media studies program said.
The question is whether or not the current trends are too large to stray from their current course. The Disney-Fox merger, in which Disney bought 21st Century Fox's TV and film assets, could ruin the traditional movie experience that was so essential to American culture.
“[The] Disney-Fox merger was the absolute wrong thing to let happen, but not because of Marvel and Star Wars,” Steimer said.
According to Steimer, the merger was harmful “because Disney has the most restrictive contracts.”
Small-town theaters in particular are hurt because they are forced to show Disney movies for a longer period of time, even after everyone in that area has seen it.
This affects arthouse theaters like Columbia’s Nickelodeon Theater. Thaddeus Jones, Director of Programming at the Nick, said he is concerned about the restrictions that come with working with corporations like Disney after the merger.
“You've seen a lot of arthouse fair films that would have been able to play a place like the Nickelodeon with minimal terms, now being subjugated to the terms of these larger distributors,” Jones said.
In that Disney-Fox merger, Disney acquired Fox Searchlight Pictures, which previously released independent films. This means that independent films that were distributed with reasonable terms could now demand restrictions similar to other films released by their new parent company, Disney.
It may seem like a drastic move to call for trustbusting, but an industry that was once split by an already small number of six corporations is now collapsing in on itself.
Franchise films are “obviously just structured to generate revenue because, instead of seeing one film, I now have to see nine films,” Julie Hubbert, a professor of film and media studies at USC, said.
After "Spider-Man: No Way Home" and "Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’" reintroduction of characters from old eras of superhero films, it feels like producers will never stop recycling our childhood memories and selling them back to us at the nostalgia premium.
There's an underlying feeling that our collective acceptance of this type of storytelling is hurting our standards for the media we consume.
“The most recent complaints have been that Hollywood has no new ideas,” Jones said.
The reality is Hollywood produces wonderful ideas every year. "Licorice Pizza," "The Last Duel" and "Last Night in Soho" were just some of the refreshing films released in theaters last year. All three of those films combined made $35,427,525 (and counting) domestically compared to Spider-Man’s $761,739,012 (and counting).
It shouldn't be expected that the combined gross of those three films would approach that of Spider-Man, though. Even going back to the 1980's, franchise blockbusters have outperformed dramas, but the gap has never been so wide (9 of the 10 highest-grossing films of 2021 belonged to existing franchises).
As if global domination of the box office is not enough, fans often take to social media to campaign for superhero films to win artistic achievement awards as well.
Speaking of global domination, “You're going to see some studios might get into the movie theater business,” Steimer said.
This would be possible because of a reversal of the Paramount decrees, which previously prevented studios from operating theaters.
If Disney or other large studios were to purchase or merge with larger theater chains, independent and less commercially viable films could be locked out of theaters entirely. This is especially problematic since independent artists will be pushed out for Marvel films that require script approval from the Department of Defense, which could be seen as spreading propaganda.
In fact, the 2019 release of "Captain Marvel" saw the Air Force place ads in more than 3,600 theaters and then saw a moderate increase in female enrollment.
Yet, not all hope is lost. Steimer said he was optimistic for the future of movies and independent theaters, especially those in cities like Columbia.
“They've usually showed things that are a little bit out of the mainstream and college audiences have usually been a little bit more willing to go see those things,” Steimer said.
Still, could non-franchise films like "Little Women," "Parasite" or "Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood" ever be runaway successes again, let alone all in the same year? Films are an American invention that made engaging in art together a staple of any family's weekend. People would experience the same films together across a wide range of stories and genres.
I’m doubtful we’ll ever return to that point as too many forces are working against it. The only films we experience together as a mass culture are soulless products that hold little individuality.
Cinema is losing its personality, but I hold onto some hope.
“As soon as these [franchise] films start underperforming, we'll shift to a new cycle and then something else, some other genre will then control the box office,” Steimer said.
I look forward to that shift.