Steven Spielberg is sticking up for the movies that made him. In an interview with Deadline (which is a very good read, if brief, especially for someone of Spielberg’s stature), the beloved director talks about his new – and newly-Oscar-nominated – film, The Fabelmans, as well as the Academy Awards nominating blockbusters and why no one seems to be going to the movies anymore, especially for dramas. He has some interesting perspectives on those last two points, although there are some caveats on the first, and I disagree with him on the second.
“I’m really encouraged by that. It came late for the film that should have been nominated a number of years ago, Christopher Nolan’s, The Dark Knight… That movie would have definitely garnered a Best Picture Nomination today, so having these two blockbusters solidly presented on the top 10 list is something we should all be celebrating.”
I think he’s right about that, although The Dark Knight would have been nominated a year after it was snubbed, too. The expanded nominee list came from the backlash against the Academy not nominating The Dark Knight, and the next year, they nominated Avatar, District 9, and Up, none of which would have been there if only five nominees were allowed. None of them won, of course, just like The Dark Knight wouldn’t have won, because this has always been for show, a tactic to get people interested in the Oscars, or at least keep them interested. I think people eventually got wise to the bait and switch, though; Black Panther, Dune, and Mad Max: Fury Road were effectively ads to get people to watch Green Book, Coda, and Spotlight take home the statue (although Spotlight actually was my favorite film of that year, but that’s beside the point).
More importantly, I like seeing someone like Steven Spielberg argue the merits of blockbuster movies. There’s a stigma against that sort of film – action, spectacle, excitement – that has always annoyed me. I don’t like dismissing a movie out of hand because of its genre, and the criticisms of action movies and the like are often rote and lazy, like they were written once and copied into every review of anything where a gun goes off, or a punch is thrown. Any film is capable of sweeping you up in its story and getting you emotionally involved in its characters, making you identify with grand, human themes or consider the world from another perspective. It’s unsurprising that Spielberg understands that because he does it better than maybe anyone, but while I’m fine with people like Martin Scorsese having their opinion (one which Marvel has been working overtime to validate in the past few years), I’m glad some think differently, too. Unlike the Academy, however, Spielberg actually means it.
His other point about dramas and moviegoing habits misses something important:
“I think it will come back, but it’s coming back slowly, especially for dramas,” says the director.
He references two DreamWorks and Sam Mendes movies: Oscar Best Picture Winner American Beauty from 1999 and 1917 which debuted in 2019. American Beauty grossed over $130M domestic, $356M WW while 1917 did $159.2M U.S/Canada, $384.5M.
Per Spielberg, 1917 would still fare well today, however, “American Beauty probably wouldn’t have done anywhere what it did in 1999.”
I agree; American Beauty would probably not be a hit today, although I think 1917 would. But his reasoning is faulty because he blames the pandemic and lockdowns:
“I think the pandemic really encouraged a lot of audiences, not just middle-aged audiences, but younger, to stay at home and watch on the medium screens in their houses… We have a social need to be together in the world, I don’t think that will be stopped by a pandemic… It can be frustrated by the pandemic, but eventually we’ll see more adult films doing decent numbers in movie theaters.”
But people are going to the movies; they saw Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, and Spider-Man: No Way Home in droves, driving them well over $1 billion – over $2 billion in Avatar’s case. And those aren’t the only movies that have made money; Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness made almost $1 billion, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever did well for itself, if not nearly what Disney wanted. Other movies were successful relative to their genres as well. A Man Called Otto has only been out in wide release for a week and a half, and it’s already over $35 million domestically and $57 worldwide; a Marvel movie with those numbers would be a disaster, but for a small, sentimental dramedy with Tom Hanks, it’s pretty damn good. And it’s well ahead of The Fabelmans, which has been in theaters significantly longer and was directed by Steven Spielberg.
That a Steven Spielberg movie is doing so poorly is the crux of why American Beauty would probably not do well today but 1917 would: people have lost trust in Hollywood and once-admired filmmakers. Steven Spielberg is perhaps the most recognized and popular director in movie history, someone even an occasional moviegoer knows and at least some of whose movies he probably loves. But in the current climate – woke lurks around every corner – he has squandered that trust with the way he approached West Side Story. The original West Side Story is one of the most beloved movies Hollywood has ever produced, a universally recognized classic, and Spielberg not only remade it but declared the original racist and recast it with authentic Latin actors, and refused to use subtitles (which are now also racist – as is refusing to watch movies with them, because we’re determined to make the universe collapse on itself in a black hole of wokeness) when the actors were speaking Spanish. The result was a bomb, and now people are hesitant to see a Steven Spielberg movie.
Sam Mendes, the director of both American Beauty and 1917, doesn’t have nearly the prestige of a Steven Spielberg; he isn’t known to general audiences, and doesn’t sell a film on his name alone. In a way, that’s to his advantage; people won’t associate his work with anything negative unless he makes waves, which he never has, as far as I can tell. American Beauty is a movie that deals with family trouble, underage infatuation, homosexuality, an unfaithful wife, and other themes begging to be throttled by the woke lens. Even if the movie were made exactly the same as it was in 1999, with intelligence and honesty, audiences wouldn’t trust it, as they didn’t trust The Fabelmans despite it not being woke (to my understanding; I haven’t seen it, but I haven’t heard any woke-related criticisms of it either). However, 1917 is a war movie about World War I; it’s hard to woke-ify that, so people would be more likely to take a chance on that film than American Beauty.
That trust can be seen in the disparities between different studios releasing films in the same genres or mediums. Disney’s animated movies took a drubbing this past year, but Dreamworks was cranking out hits. The Bad Guys and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish both did exceedingly well – and Puss in Boots is still in the top three after a month in theaters. Lightyear and Strange World, on the other hand, were bombs, and both happened after their publicity tours leaned into identity politics. As a result, Lightyear struck out on Father’s Day weekend, while Puss in Boots is going strong with the Avatar juggernaut as its competition. You can’t blame the pandemic/lockdowns for the failures when similar movies were successes, but you can compare the trust earned and lost by the studios and filmmakers.
As a final thought, I think Steven Spielberg is absolutely right about people wanting to go to the movies and experience cinema with a crowd of their fellow film fans. But they’ve got to have a reason to go, and when Hollywood is not only openly hostile to its audience but advertising a smug lecture instead of a human story or just a good time, they don’t have it.