Sony, which from 2002 to 2012 had generally been one of the top earners at the box office, was failing as a studio. Under Pascal’s leadership, Sony released a mix of tentpole films—the latest James Bonds, “Da Vinci Code” sequels—and star-driven vehicles often featuring Will Smith or Adam Sandler. (“Will and Adam bought our houses,” Sony execs liked to say.) Sprinkled among these were mid-budget, low-concept movies aimed at adults. Pascal had taken pride in Sony’s reputation as a “relationship studio,” built on its connections with talent. She was literate and smart, and alive to what makes a story click. Sony owned the rights to Spider-Man, and Pascal made intelligent use of them—her choices for director (Sam Raimi, of “Evil Dead” fame) and star (dewy-eyed Tobey Maguire) were unexpected, and together they made a movie that honored fans and non-fans alike. (“Spider-Man 2” was good, too.)
In the long run, it didn’t matter. Sony did not own the intellectual property, or “I.P.,” necessary to build out Spider-Man into a “cinematic universe”—that is, a fictional world that transfers from picture to picture, so that, instead of a single story line with a new installment every few years, a studio can release two or three “quasi-sequels,” as one Marvel executive has put it, in the span of a single year. Marvel pioneered the cinematic universe, hatching a plan in 2005 that it launched with the release of “Iron Man,” three years later. Without the requisite I.P., Sony couldn’t compete. “I only have the spider universe not the marvel universe,” Pascal explained to a colleague, in a 2014 e-mail. (The studio had had a chance to buy nearly all Marvel’s big characters, on the cheap, in the late nineties, but declined.) In another e-mail, Pascal suggested that she was trying to create an “un-marvel marvel world that is rooted in humanity.”
As Sony faltered, its rival, Disney, was enjoying an embarrassment of I.P. riches. First, it began remaking its animated classics as live-action features; then, in 2009, Disney bought Marvel, for four billion dollars. In 2012, it acquired Lucasfilm, the parent company of “Star Wars,” for another four billion. By 2015, Disney was releasing one new movie from the “Star Wars” universe and two or more movies from the Marvel universe every year.
Located nowhere in actual history or geography (or, maybe, human experience), a cinematic universe need not be limited by cultural specificity or nuance. What plays in Sioux City plays in Bayonne will play in Chongqing. The rise of the cinematic universe is inseparable from the rise of a truly global cinematic marketplace, dominated by China. In “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of the Movies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the Wall Street Journalreporter Ben Fritz shares a startling fact: in 2005, the highest-grossing film in China was “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which took in just under twelve million dollars. In 2017, a “Fast and the Furious” sequel made almost four hundred million there.
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Until blockbusters arrived—starting in 1975, with Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” in its time the most commercially successful film in history—Hollywood released movies gradually, one set of theatres after another. In the “run-zone clearance system,” a movie would begin with a heavily publicized first run in downtown theatres in major cities, continue on to smaller houses in less affluent or less fashionable parts of the city, and then move out to the suburbs, to smaller cities and towns, and, finally, to rural communities. A movie that was disliked by its first wave of viewers might not continue through the system, and the urban sophisticates who made the initial decision to see it were heavily influenced by the critics.
In the nineteen-twenties, the producer Irving Thalberg recognized that a pattern of distribution implies a pattern of taste-making. From his position, first at Universal and then at M-G-M, he turned Hollywood in the direction of prestige pictures—movies that “emphasized glamour, grace, and beauty,” as one critic put it. As much as three-quarters of M-G-M’s productions were A-class features feeding into the most deluxe of the downtown movie palaces, a business practice that was fortified, year after year in that decade, by an urban industrial boom. A version of this approach to distribution survived for much of the twentieth century—as late as the mid-seventies, a movie could take six months, or even a year, to finish its theatrical run. By then, however, suburbanization had transformed the country. The studios were stuck with a release pattern designed to flatter a social landscape that, by and large, no longer existed. “Jaws” was a masterpiece by a wunderkind director, but it also proved out a new business model: a gimmicky idea, bankable stars, and aggressive television ad campaigns, all of it designed to trigger audience anticipation and drive a massive Friday-night opening across thousands of screens—critics and snobs be damned.
It did not take Hollywood long to see the commercial possibilities, and the blockbuster came to dominate the movie industry.
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For most of Hollywood history, the movie business has needed a hostage buyer, a customer with little choice but to purchase the product. First, this was the theatre chains, which the studios owned, or controlled, until 1948, when the Supreme Court forced the studios to sell them on antitrust grounds. In the eighties and nineties, video stores partly filled the role. But, increasingly, the hostage buyer is us.
Today, the major franchises are commercially invulnerable because they offer up proprietary universes that their legions of fans are desperate to reënter on almost any terms. These reliable sources of profit are now Hollywood’s financial bedrock. The business model began to take shape, gradually, in the eighties; it solidified a decade ago, when a writer’s strike recalibrated Hollywood’s tolerance for risk. (The global financial crisis played a role as well.) At the same time, digital distribution was on the rise; Netflix, which launched its streaming service early in 2007, after years as a mail-order company, began eating into DVD sales. As the major studios faced the loss of a large and predictable revenue stream, they trimmed their release schedules and focussed more of their efforts on the global mega-brands: Marvel, DC, “Harry Potter,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Star Wars.” The movie business transitioned from a system dominated by a handful of larger-than-life stars to one defined by I.P.
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The preëminence, during the past ten years, of the superhero movie has been accompanied by the loss of the actor as hero, or heroic type. “According to Marvel’s philosophy,” Ben Fritz writes, “the characters, not the actors, were the stars, and pretty much everyone was expendable.” There was no separating Powell from Nick Charles, or Humphrey Bogart from Sam Spade. Is there any connecting Batman to—fill in the blank? The quality of film acting has never been higher, and there is still a craft in scriptwriting and directing that makes one regularly bow in awe. But a minimal standard of human relatability is not being met, on a routine basis, in the medium’s most dominant genre. People who are nothing like us rescuing a world that is nothing like ours is not a recipe for artistic renewal.