If you wanted to pinpoint the moment this year when it became clear that moviegoing had devolved from Culture-Conquering Pastime to merely Something to Do When the Wi-Fi’s Down, consider the weekend of April 22 to April 24. On that Friday, with no other major new films opening in theaters, Universal Pictures released The Huntsman: Something Something Swordfart, a $115 million sequel to a movie that made nearly $400 million worldwide. The new Huntsman was accompanied by an omnipresent marketing campaign featuring four well-known stars (including Oscar winner Charlize Theron), not to mention a seemingly ceaseless cascade of ads like this one, in which Chris Hemsworth appears to have just won the gold medal for Confused Axe-Posing. It was impossible not to know The Huntsman was coming out, and that combination of wide-scale awareness and sheer star powernot to mention the relative lack of competitionmade the movie look like a sure thing.
But by late Saturday night, The Huntsman was all but dead, having been slayed by two women: Beyoncwho’d just sorta-surprise-releasedLemonade, her new albumand “Becky with the good hair,” an anonymous, Jay-zoomin’ interloper who’d been called out on the Beyonc song “Sorry,” and whose identity caused a weekend-long guessing-game online. And even if peopleweren’t trying to figure out who Beyonc was talking about, they were spending the weekend watching a clip of Bruce Springsteen covering a song by the dearly beloved, recently departed Prince; or checking out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Earth Day freestyle; or debating whether or not Jon Snowthe blokey with the good hairwould still be dead by the end of that Sunday night’sGame of Thrones premiere. They were doing anything but watching, discussing, or caring about the mega-sequel with the big stars and the impossible-to-miss marketing.
Like so many high-pedigree films released this year, Huntsman was quickly reduced to just another loud, expensive, desperate thingee hovering noisily and anxiously in the background of your digital life, hoping it could tear you away from Twitter or Snapchat or Spotify.
Granted, these kinds of apples-to-Lemonade comparisons are a bit unfair, especially when you consider thatHuntsman made almost $20 million in its opening weekend. And, sureit was much easier to watch Lemonade on your phone then head out to a theater and get your Ther-on. But, really: No one cared about this movieincluding, Im guessing, most of the people who actually saw it. Like so many high-pedigree films released this year, Huntsman was pushed out of the pop-cultural conversation quickly and fiercely. It was reduced to just another loud, expensive, desperate thingee hovering noisily and anxiously in the background of your digital life, hoping it could tear you away from Twitter or Snapchat or Spotify. And it ended up in an ambivalence-borne limbo, one that now includes several other recent oof-inducing films, including Warcraft, Ben-Hur, X-Men: Apocalypse, The BFG, and Zoolander 2.
These movies didnt just fail; they almost seemed to never exist in the first place, having been dismissed or disposed of almost immediately upon impact. And even if they did do OK for a weekend or two, they never reached beyond their predictable (and increasingly stratified) core audiences. Instead, they were dumbo-dropped into our ever-expanding cauldron of content, where they played to their bases, while everyone else turned to the newest videogame, or the latest Drake video, or some random “Damn, Daniel” parody.
Movies bomb every weekend, of course. And the studios have been caulking their calendars with mediocre films for decades, resulting in lackluster blockbusters that were gently forced upon us, and to which we responded with a collective, “Fine, whatever, its not like theres anything better to do this weekend.” Twenty years ago, you went out to see a movie starring Keanu Reeves as a physicist namedEddie Kasalivich not because it looked good, but because you kind of had no other choice. Even the worst film had a respectable half-life, and seemed to linger for years afterward.
Nowadays, though, theres likely something way more exciting than the latest alleged blockbuster waiting for you on your phone, whether it’s a Frank Ocean record, a cornered Charmeleon, or some dank memes. And with social media providing us real-time updates of our passions and consumption, its become clear that, in 2016, people are less passionate about films than ever before. Movies are still making tons of money, obviously, and still inspire giddy fandemonium (both good and bad) among the faithful. But its hard to think of a year in which movies have felt quite as ephemeral, and so easy to ignore. It feels as though they’ve been pushed further on down our pop-culture hierarchy of needs. And this is disturbing news, whether you’re a studio head looking to make money, a balcony brat looking for a few communal cinematic thrills, or a sword-farter looking for an audience.