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[OPINION] Where did all the good films go?

By Sydney Cañamo Published Oct 06, 2023 5:00 am

With the world slowly recovering from the pandemic, the comeback of the film industry and the reopening of cinemas were things I highly anticipated. Contrary to how I imagined, I found myself disappointed; I craved new films that would move my soul, or at the very least make me say that my time or movie ticket was worth it.

Even eagerly awaited Marvel movies like Ant-Man: Quantumania and Thor: Love and Thunder lost their oomph for a lot of fans. Nothing particularly stood out from the past three installments of the Metro Manila Film Festivals (MMFF), with underwhelming flicks like the Gonzaga sisters’ The Exorsis and Vice Ganda’s Partners in Crime. Although Mikhail Red’s Deleter intrigued moviegoers and ruled the box office, it still received mixed reviews.

Film appreciation may be subjective, but I’m sure a lot would agree that we are oversaturated with films following the same formula: subpar production, big names and predictable storylines.

The film industry’s main driving force is profit, and it dictates most decisions in a project. Movies make money not just through ticket sales, but from merchandising, royalties, DVDs and, recently, video streaming. The big studios, however, were challenged by the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix, which spend billions of dollars in “content production” and “home entertainment” that more consumers are patronizing, especially in the midst of the global pandemic. Instead of going to the cinemas, families can now just opt to be entertained by “content” from their living rooms. This has caused a great shift in how the film industry does business—and consequently, the kind of movies they produce.

Films and television will lose their originality and staying power as streaming platforms tailor-make what they assume viewers want rather than showing them something they wouldn’t expect.

There is little room for experimentation because it’s harder for studios to make a profit, and for many of them, a film’s profitability outweighs its artistic value. Veteran actor Matt Damon explained in a Hot Ones interview that, due to the obsolescence of the DVD, slice-of-life films were “suddenly a massive gamble in a way that it wasn’t in the 1990s when they were making all those kinds of movies—the kind of movies that I loved.” As Damon puts it, this intensified risk aversion by the big studios led them to fund movies that play it safe (read: sequels) and market heavily on their line-up of “bankable” A-listers.

Major studios and platforms also use nostalgia to get us to watch their movies. Walt Disney Studios and their streaming counterpart Disney+, for example, offer not-so-great live action remakes of their animated classics—or, in Disenchanted’s case, sequels of well-loved titles released 15 years prior. In their review of the Enchanted sequel, writer Marya Gates articulated its noticeable commercialization: “Like most things stamped Disney these days, the film feels just like the mass-produced bobbles for sale at the Disney store.” Instead of experimenting with new film concepts, it seems that Disney, which purchased Marvel and Star Wars, is more caught up with maximizing profit from their portfolio of well-loved franchises and building worlds around it until we can’t keep up anymore—but there’s nothing really new.

This leads to another cause for the scarcity of good movies: new media platforms value quantity over quality. It takes me longer to choose what I want to watch on Netflix than the time I spend actually watching. The streaming service is filled with titles that they hyper-curate for us, and more keep coming every week. To maintain subscribers, streaming platforms use algorithms to give them notes about themes, plots, and structures that appeal most to viewers. As cinematographer Jake Ures explained in Jacobin magazine, “Films and television will lose their originality and staying power as streaming platforms tailor-make what they assume viewers want rather than showing them something they wouldn’t expect.”

In short, economic and financial factors limit the creation of film to a box, and as the industry evolves, the tighter and more suffocating the box becomes.

Not all is lost, though. Independent film studios outside mainstream corporations embrace experimentation and create wiggle room for budding filmmakers to execute their artistic visions. A24 has been a key player in distributing and producing films that break the mold, from films that tackle realistic narratives like Aftersun and The Whale, to experimental pictures such as Best Picture Winner Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, or Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.

In the Philippines, independent film festivals like Cinemalaya continue to provide avenues for films that tell the stories of the marginalized: for example, a single, middle-aged pregnant woman in 12 Weeks, or a Moro child soldier aspiring to be an athlete in The Baseball Player. Recent Filipino releases like Leonor Will Never Die and short film The Headhunter’s Daughter also made waves globally, bagging awards at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival in the United States. This just goes to show that film is definitely still alive, especially locally. We, as patrons of cinema, and hopefully the Philippine government, have to redirect our support to the creators who may not have space in mainstream entertainment.

I have to admit, some commercial movies can be a great escape from our monotonous lives. Sometimes, a cheesy “good-enough” movie I chance upon on Netflix becomes my breather or background noise during stressful nights. Then again, I find myself thinking about a quote from Walt Disney (that ironically, didn’t age well): “We don’t make movies to make more money. We make money to make more movies.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of PhilSTAR L!fe, its parent company and affiliates, or its staff.