By Brent Hankins
Family members and acquaintances often marvel at the number of films I see each year, and although my 2016 total far exceeded that of any previous year (to be fair, I attended three film festivals), I'll readily admit that even in a “normal” year, I probably spend far more time staring at a theater screen than your average consumer. It's not uncommon for someone I know to discover how many films I absorb and to shake their head in bewilderment. "I don't understand how you do it," they might say. "There are hardly any good movies anymore."
I beg to differ.
This is an argument I've encountered with somewhat alarming frequency over the past few years, and not just from people in my personal life. You can throw a rock and hit any number of blog posts or editorials about the perceived decline of cinema, and even some of the fabled "Hollywood elite" are getting into the mix. In 2015, Dustin Hoffman told Vanity Fair that film is "the worst it's ever been" in his 50-year career, and Ridley Scott recently trashed the superhero genre and said he thinks "cinema mainly is pretty bad."
Admittedly, there's a part of me that feels inclined to cautiously agree with these sentiments, at least when it pertains to mainstream fare - but the beauty of cinema is that it doesn't have to be limited to the mainstream. Despite what trailers and Facebook ads and social media marketing accounts might have you believe, there are other options available.
Wandering off the beaten path
That's not to say that I have something against mainstream cinema as a whole - on the contrary, I loved Captain America: Civil War and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just as much as the next person. But I also feel that films of this caliber tend to be the exception, rather than the rule, and in my experience I'm less likely to come away disappointed with a smaller film that was produced by a passionate team, rather than a major studio tentpole that was engineered to appeal to the widest conceivable audience and generate as much box office revenue as possible.
The thing about exceptional films is that you're often required to wander off the beaten path in order to track them down. For example, consumers probably encountered significantly more commercials and advertisements for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back than they did for Moonlight, despite the fact that both were released on the same date.
The difference is that one of those films had an expensive marketing campaign and opened on more than 3700 screens, and the other did not. But I'd be willing to bet that on the average, audiences who chose the latter walked away with an experience unlike anything they'd ever seen onscreen before, whereas moviegoers who opted for the former just got to watch Tom Cruise punch people for two hours.
The reality is that 2016 offered an impressive collection of stellar films, but many of them flew under the radar of the average consumer. Festival hits like Green Room, Swiss Army Man and Everybody Wants Some opened to disappointing numbers and evaporated from theaters in a matter of weeks, overshadowed by major studio releases such as The BFG, Legend of Tarzan and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
And while some of these smaller titles may eventually find their audience via streaming services and home video sales, the truth is critical acclaim will never carry as much weight as box office performance. Opening weekend numbers are still the most widely used measuring stick of success, and Hollywood financiers are becoming increasingly skittish about ponying up their cash for projects they don't view as guaranteed hits.
We can save cinema
I know this all sounds a bit hopeless, but it’s time for some good news: the future of cinema isn’t set in stone, and as consumers, we have the power to course-correct. Now more than ever, it’s important that we give new creators a chance to see their stories writ large on the big screen, that we give new voices a chance to be heard amid the ever-growing cacophony of content.
In 2016, Park Chan-wook’s brilliant erotic thriller The Handmaiden explored themes of patriarchy, lust and classism against the backdrop of Japan during the Korean occupation, while Chad Hartigan used warmth and humor to relate the story of a black father and his teenage son adjusting to life in Germany in Morris From America. And Barry Jenkins crafted a complex, heartbreaking and beautiful tale of a young man from the Miami projects coming to terms with his sexuality in Golden Globe Best Picture winner Moonlight.
None of these films had multi-million dollar marketing strategies, nor did they open in thousands of multiplexes across the country, and you won’t find them anywhere near the list of top-grossing films last year. But they told new stories from new points of view, gave audiences something that didn’t feel like it had been done before, and did so with poise, grace and authenticity. Films like these are a shining example of why representation and diversity are so crucial, and the embodiment of these ideals is something that deserves our support.
So if you truly love this art form and want to ensure its survival, then take the initiative to stray from the herd and wander the road less traveled. Open your mind to new ideas and new perspectives by attending a film festival, or by seeking out smaller films that may not appeal to the masses, but might just connect with you in a personal way. And when you find something you love, something that speaks to you on a level that X-Men: Apocalypse or Independence Day: Resurgence doesn't, make sure you spread the word so others might have the opportunity to enjoy the same type of experience.
Cinema isn't dead yet, dear reader - but if we aren't careful, we just might kill it. And if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not see that happen.