Hollywood has, for the past few years, operated under a dark cloud: The theme of a box office slump and the belief that fewer people are going to the movies. Whether this prevailing wind was supported by the numbers or not, it was a reflection of the general sense that Hollywood, as a maker of mass entertainment, had lost its way — that its big blockbusters had become more packaged, generic corporate product, that it has all but given up making serious films, and that its unserious ones aren’t so great either.
Well, the prophets of doom should take a look at Hollywood’s Thanksgiving weekend. There are remarkably a host of actual good movies out — from adult dramas (Lincoln) to teen epics (Breaking Dawn) to literary adaptations (Life of Pi) to romantic comedies (Silver Linings Playbook) to action adventures (Skyfall) to inventive kids’ movies (Wreck It Ralph/Rise of the Guardians). And not only is there not a generic studio Frankenstein monster in the bunch, but they are almost to a film, packing in crowds, raking in the biggest combined box office tally in history.
Extrapolating a general trend from one weekend’s box office results is a sucker’s game. But nonetheless, there seems to be something afoot in Hollywood; after a particularly dreary few years, there is reason to hope that creatively, the industry may have bottomed out, and there is reason for optimism that the public is still willing to shell out a few dollars when presented with fresh, creative filmmaking.
Looking back at last year, it is hard to imagine Hollywood could fall into a greater creative abyss than that. It was the year of the sequels, with new installments of Harry Potter, Transformers, Fast and Furious, Hangover, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mission Impossible, Men in Black, Sherlock Holmes, X Men, and Alvin and the Chipmunks dominating the screens. A half a dozen superhero films came and went, without leaving much of a trace. A thoughtful reboot of Planet of the Apes provided the blockbuster arena's only ray of sunshine.
Comedies hit a nadir with the Hangover-inspired brand of aggressively repellent dominating the genre. Bridesmaids was the rare exception and bright spot. The only drama to cross the $100 million mark was The Help. When the Academy Award nominations came around, it was a halfhearted, only semi-loved cluster of films that found their way to the Best Picture list, with The Artist emerging as the winner like Mitt Romney from the Republican Presidential primary, keeping a smile on its face while one after another implausible opponent collapsed, only to become one of the least-seen winners in history.
This year, the overall changes may be subtle, but the fact that Hollywood is producing so many films in so many different genres that are both widely liked and finding broad audiences casts the entire business in a different light. It should be mentioned that sitting atop this pile is as conventional a studio product as you will find with The Avengers. But just beneath that goliath, the entire feeling of the list changes. Already this year, we’ve seen the end of as self-consciously cerebral blockbuster series as Hollywood has ever produced with The Dark Knight, a well made kick off to another series catering to that most neglected of audiences, young girls, with The Hunger Games, a madcap off-kilter but still likable comedy become a giant hit in Ted, and a couple of interesting, well-made grown-up films pass (or almost pass) the $100 million mark with Magic Mike and Argo.
It is almost unbelievable that Hollywood could produce a slate of films that is so contrary to all precepts of corporate cookie-cutter moviemaking. While Summit Studios may have marketed their Twilight films within an inch of their lives, the unexpected massive success of this series has always been about Hollywood chasing a grassroots movement that pre-existed, rather than commanding one to life. James Bond, certainly, is one of the most closely tended to corporate products on Earth, but also a figure of genuine affection and reverence. A worldwide cry of despair would go out if it were announced tomorrow that the series was coming to an end. One can picture, on the other hand, that a similar announcement about The Avengers would inspire little by a globe full of shrugs outside of the most hard-core fanboy ranks, whatever its world devouring grosses may say. And certainly, however much Bond’s keepers have riding on him, it is hard to imagine any franchise straying so far from its playbook as this inward-looking, low-tech installment did.
Like them or hate them, both Lincoln and Life of Pi represent a genre that was given up for dead — the big-budget grown-up drama. Both are serious, accomplished works by major filmmakers who were given exceptionally free hands to fulfill their visions. Both have been met with initial success, Lincoln now in its second week, Pi in its first. Silver Linings Playbook may be a more conventional romantic comedy than its indie trappings suggest, but it's a relentlessly watchable one, which, with a few Oscar nominations likely, should find something of an audience.
From whence this embarrassment of riches? How did Hollywood suddenly grow a brain? To suggest that someone had the notion that good movies are more likely to attract audiences than bad ones is too much to dream. Pursuing originality is contrary to modern Hollywood’s corporate soul, however much the paradoxical truth may be that originality is what will save it. More likely is that, as Hollywood is often accused of having run out of good ideas, for a brief period, they ran out of bad ones. Having exhausted all the sequels and squeezed the life out of any franchise with a heartbeat, perhaps for a moment they were forced to let some fun, different projects slip through. If that is the case, we should enjoy this moment, because gravity is sure to reassert itself momentarily.
Or maybe, just maybe, for once some people at studios will learn the right lessons from Thanksgiving 2012.