How Popular Cinema Could Be Popular Again


Cinema was always called the populist medium. Generations of young audiences grew up with Bambi and Batman, Tarzan and Terminator, then went on to the world of Marvel superheroes, cheerfully unaware that these stories stemmed from comics dating back to the 1960s. Hollywood is going through one of its periodic growing pains. Its domestic revenue is shrinking, its international profits are growing. China is about to overtake it in output, and the action film is being rethought.

I realised this when I put together two news items recently; the first about Martin Scorsese complaining that superhero action films are destroying cinema, the second that Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in on a Bond film to spruce up some of the dialogue.

In a time when online trailers are dropped to great fanfare, only to be picked apart by viewers until the film is actually recut to their tastes, the populist medium of film is becoming just that. Fan service is the term given to films that deliberately feed their audiences what they want, but now the fans want to shape the films themselves.

TV shows are regularly revived or altered according to viewer demands. Movies are going the same way because when you’re spending a figure just south of 200 million you need to get it right.

Remember disaster movies? ‘Earthquake’ arrived in ribcage-rattling Sensurround, ‘Towering Inferno’ required two studios to combine, such was its budget and star power (Paul Newman! Steve McQueen! Fred ASTAIRE!) And even disaster novels abounded, the best being Richard Doyle’s ‘Deluge’, about the flooding of London, an all too real possibility.

CGI made anything possible so studios went into overload – why show one building falling down when you could show a thousand? Believability vanished as our heroes became superhuman. Effects are universally available, allowing British director Gareth Edwards to write, direct and act as cinematographer, production designer, and visual effects artist on his first film, ‘Monsters’, an SF film with an interesting message about borders and migrants which also featured crowd-pleasing effects. What if the future of the action film lay in that direction?

Two Norwegian films, ‘The Wave’ and ‘The Quake’, made by John Andreas Andersen, took up the challenge. Aimed at a mainstream action audience, they made mincemeat of most Hollywood product not by overloading us with even more ludicrous stunts, but by giving us less and investing more in interesting characters. Based on the idea that because of its unique geography Norway experiences more small tremors than anywhere else in the world, it showed the build-up and aftermath of a disaster.

Although the two films contain plenty of action they present characters in extremis in ways we’ve not seen before. In one scene a couple seem on their way to surviving a quake when the wife goes into shock, and simply cannot follow the instructions that will get her to safety. By portraying human behaviour in a realistic fashion everything else becomes realistic. Stress and trauma are factored into action sequences. Damage has consequences, and the films are memorable.

Will Hollywood heed the message, or will they carry on blowing up LA and recutting ‘Cats’ to match Twitter demands?

21 comments on “How Popular Cinema Could Be Popular Again”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    The only films worth watching now come out of British studios. And very good some of them are.

    Happily, I don’t have a mental age of 14, which seems to be that of people in Hollywood.

  2. admin says:

    To be fair, the traditional core audience for films is teenaged up to 23 (when babies start).

  3. Brian Evans says:

    That’s true, and has been the case since the 1950’s.Though perhaps that is the problem. For years, anyone older than the early 20’s has largely been ignored. I think that is rather odd as so many older people have more disposable income, and a lot still want do go to the pictures.

    It has always been joked about that a book on British film musicals would be about the shortest book ever written. However, I have just finished “The British Musical Film” by John Mindy which clocks in at 257 pages. Apart from a few silly errors and a rather elastic view on what constitutes a musical, it is an excellent tome. The author highlights the problem TV brought to film-going. The parents rather liked not going out as much as they did and preferred a night in front of the telly, whereas courting couples (How that phrase dates me!) still wanted somewhere to go of an evening.

    Mundy highlights the onslaught of pop music films such as “6.5 Special” and “It’s Trad Dad” as the start of trying to attract the young unmarried. The other way the film industry tried to attract patrons was via the “Dirty Mac” brigade with (s)exploitation films and what in the exhibition trade was described as “Off Circuit” films. Obviously you of all people know and understand this more than I do, and I am not trying to inform you-I am trying to open up the debate. If anyone on here wants to find out more then look no further than your wonderful autobiog of the time you worked in the film industry. It is one of those “Laugh Out Loud” books as well. Also, the British musical book I mentioned above is a fascinating read.

    Out of interest, it is my belief that whilst TV was the highest cause of the closure of cinemas, there were other factors that helped cause the decline. Cinema attendances started to fall before the TV took over, then there came Bingo. With hindsight, there was a much good to come out of Bingo as bad, as it ensured many cinemas had a longer life, some managing to survive long enough to be listed. But for Bingo, many would have been demolished by now.

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    The movies had difficulties with showing the real world from the late 1930’s. The Hays Code in America and the censorship caused by WW2 stifled any chance of telling a real story. You ended up with Western bar fights where everyone was thrown over balconies, hit by chairs, bottles etc., yet they were all ok the next morning and ready to chase the ‘Injun’s’, only sporting the odd black eye and a hangover.
    One of the big difficulties with western oriented fiction is that it denies the audience seeing the real consequences of violence. If a private eye gets hit over the head with a pistol butt he’s likely to have concussion, blood loss, confusion and at least a week lying down before he can walk straight and function properly, not get out of his bed, put on his hat and smoke a cigarette before chasing a dangerous psychopath.

  5. admin says:

    Brian, I have just run a search for John Mindy and cannot find his book – how did you find it?

  6. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Typo, I think.
    It’s John Mundy.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    Whoops. Cornelia is right, it’s a typo. It’s on Amazon. It gets only 2 reviews and they are not good. Whilst there are some silly typos-not that I’m one to talk-I think the book is excellent and very well researched. and I don’t agree with crits about it being too academic. It is a little bit-but that’s one of the things I like about it.

  8. Brooke says:

    With exception of age, not discussed is changing ethnic demographic, in the US, not UK. One would suppose this fact would merit some marketing attention. But no. Traditional film/cinema industry business model has limited ways of dealing with ethnicity. This year it rolled out “Harriet,” yet another boring film about a black character enduring slavery. Oh, well.

    APOLOGIES: AMZN lied yet again. Hard copy of EF only available from resellers; audio is available. Bah, humbug.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Why doesn’t Canada have films set in cities which have a mixed population: Asian, First Nations, African, Spanish (ass’t), as well as European? If you’re casting a film there is absolutely nothing to prevent any character from being of any background imaginable. I don’t know why it has taken so long for American films to wake up to that fact, either. Of course in Canada there seems to be a very limited amount of money for film making.
    I don’t want to see monster movies or superhuman movies, I’m heavily into character things but it’s hard to get out these days for anything in the evening.
    If movies and tv series respond to the desires of viewers why was it impossible for Firefly to be renewed? (I even taught a friend to knit so she could make a Jane hat.)

  10. SteveB says:

    Cinema is a shared experience and that’s what makes it special. I think the home cinema thing, which I am also guilty of, does change the whole viewing audience maybe. That follows on from the tv point made by Brian.
    I dont find that overall cinema got worse tbh. Just impressionistic. I think the most big changes I noticed is the whole Marvel / superhero franchise thing, and the globalisation of the target audience.
    Talikg of the Marvel thing…Did anyone see the Irishman yet? I didnt get a chance yet. I cant imagine a bad Scorsese film but it seems to be getting a lot of knocks? Anyone here got an opinion?

  11. Brian Evans says:

    Steve, I remember how my mum was disappointed when she saw “Whiskey Galore” on TV. She and Dad were rolling in the isles (pun intended) when they saw it at the pictures when it first came out, but didn’t laugh much when it was on TV. Then she realised it must have been the other people laughing in the audience setting every one off.

    I once saw a double bill of Norman Wisdom films (please don’t hold it against me, I was young) and there was one bloke in the audience absolutely helpless with laughter, and in the end we were laughing along with him as much as the star.

  12. Roger says:

    The Irishman isn’t self-parody, SteveB, but it’s Scorsese doing routine Scorsese. Perhaps getting his old troupe together meant they all relaxed into the old routines. The electronic “elixir of youth” works pretty well on their faces, but the characters still move like old men.
    The Departed isn’t a bad film, except by Scorsese’s standards, but its inspiration, Infernal Affairs, is much better. Scorsese’s Americanisation added nothing to it except his skills.
    That said, even routine or bad Scorsese is better than nearly all Superhero films. I only say “nearly all”, because there may be a masterpiece I’ve no thought of. My own habit with films involving supernatural or “extra-natural” effects is to see if the extra-ordinary aspects are consistent with the “real world” in the film. I can’t help it and – as I said about Superman being immortal and invulnerable and going grey and needing spectacles – there are always arbitrary aspects.

  13. snowy says:

    I wasn’t going to say anything here, because you are all being so interesting, but to Brooke’s point.

    It seems to be a distribution rather than a supply problem.

    ‘Us’, did rather well, ‘Dolemite Is My Name’ might be worth a look – bio-pic, ‘Black and Blue’ – in the vein of ‘Serpico’ also, ‘Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror’ is a very intriguing subject for a doc.

    [I cherry-picked these from a list of 25+ from 2019]

    *Goes back to waiting for the ‘Knives Out’ review*

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I’m so glad that you enjoyed ‘Firefly’. It’s one of the few TV shows that I would call ‘astonishing’. You do have to wonder if the retards in suits who cancelled it, ever actually watched any of it. The episode that starts with a dying, naked Mal on the floor still blows me away – I mean, you think: ‘Where the hell is this going?’, on first seeing it. A great show, sadly missed.
    Have you ever seen the 1957 sci-fi/horror movie ‘Fiend Without A Face’? It’s British, very slightly shonky, great fun, with some superbly unpleasant stop-motion monsters (that actually bothered the UK censors a great deal) Where was it made? England. Where was it set, though? Canada. Worth a watch, definitely.
    And I gave up going to the cinema a few years ago – the temptation to seriously injure members of the audience who talk all the way through a movie, or cannot follow a narrative without asking dumb questions, loudly, or even not manage to sit still for an hour or so, was getting too strong for me to resist. Sad, but true.

  15. John Howard says:

    Completely agree with Ian about Firefly. Great show.

  16. Brian Evans says:

    Helen-could the lack of Canadian films be due to the duel languages spoken there?

    Ian-same here. I can’t bear the cinema now for the same reason. I watch everything on DVD now. Nowadays people think the cinema is an extension of there own living room. In a way it is not surprising due to the tiny size of so many auditoria-there is no sense of occasion now.

  17. Brian Evans says:

    Whoops-THEIR own living room.

  18. SteveB says:

    I enjoyed Firefly / Serenity also. And Dollhouse.
    Thanks for the Scorsese feedback. He’s a bit of a hero of mine, not just for his own work, but for his contribution to film as a whole e.g. Red Shoes restoration. Also Hugo was the first film I saw at home in 3D.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    There isn’t as smuch French spoken here as you might think, nothing like the casual language switches you get in European cities. No, I think a lot of our problem comes from the perception that Canada is a small market and all we’re useful for is the provision of locales that can stand in for anywhere else. We don’t seem to have money to invest although we have several large and complex sound stages (if that’s the word for huge buildings where they film things) which are always busy and people say that our technical craftspeople are superb. We did lose a stunt worker a couple of years ago when there wasn’t proper planning for a stunt and the young woman was killed. The company was raked over the coals for that one. There was a short while when government money was available but I think that is mostly going to television where it matches up with TVOntario and BC’s Knowledge Network. I can remember the thrill of watching a movie which had openly been set in Canada and recognizing places. That’s when you relise you’ve been watching foreign stories too much.

  20. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks Helen for that very interesting explanation. I have often wondered why Canada isn’t a bigger player. I suppose a lot of people in Canada get fed up with USA dominance, as many in UK to as well.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Of course we do, Brian, but if we got up off our duffs and invested money we could have our own. Quebec had its own tv with tremendously popular programs and actors. They don’t have a big movie industry, though, and have a lot of dubbing actors so they can have American movies. The National Film Board did an incredible number of cartoons, shorts, and art shorts but the funding has been cut back severely over the past decades.

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