Ben Fritz of the Wall Street Journal loves movies. He is passionate about the experience of communally watching a film, the unique ability for artists to tell their stories, and the Hollywood business machine behind it all. But man, he hates franchise features. From Marvel and DC to Star Wars and Star Trek to dinosaurs and robots, he sees these spectacles as indie film destroyers and creative blockers. To some extent, he might be right. What Fritz seems to have forgotten along the way, and a point that is only marginally made during the wrap-up of his book The Big Picture, is that movies, yes, even those about super-heroes and Jedis, are supposed to elicit an emotional response, be that enjoyable, fun, or even disturbing.
The Big Picture is an important, topical, timely read, and one that can be quite depressing at times in regards to the state of the industry, and with that fact that Fritz just can’t get over that super-hero hurtle.
Fritz focuses his book on the parallel fall of both Sony Pictures and of mid-budget adult dramas industry-wide. Taking advantage of 2014’s hack, Fritz provides incredible insight into the studio that, honestly, never could have happened if that hack did not occur. The book runs with a documentary-style narrative on Amy Pascal, Michael Lynton, and Sony’s quest to remain as an actor-friendly studio in an era where big-budget franchises quickly became the rage of the machine, and at a time when Sony had one, single franchise, that surprisingly couldn’t compete: Spider-Man. Fritz’s on-going commentary, about how the franchises being overseen by the Disney umbrella (incorporating Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar), Warner Bros, and Fox propelled those studios ahead of the others by incredible margins with arguably less creativity, however, quickly becomes repetitive. He’s a voice in the wilderness screaming for common sense and a return to artistic measures, but one that is being smothered by the mass of fanboys, geeks, wizards, and Disney princess consumers.
But what if today’s current state is not all bad? Yes, studios have pared down their offerings, but what if in doing so, they are making better films? Creative films with substance guided by an artistic venture and not a committee? Fritz breaks down the financials of how a film like Steve Jobs may or may not make a profit and expands that equation to the first Spider-Man film by Sam Raimi. Yet he never scores an interview with an actor or director who made it big, and whose work benefited as a result of being in such a franchise. An artist, like Jon Watts who, regardless of making Cop Car, might never have achieved a grand success were it not for Spider-Man: Homecoming, or an actor such as John Boyega getting his huge break with The Force Awakens.
As part of those financials, Fritz gets into the former importance of DVD sales, and how the loss of that income was instrumental into the disappearance of mid-range fare. VOD and direct-release methods were discussed as alternatives, but financials on digital purchases and rentals were not given any viable notice. And perhaps it is still too early for analytics on such info. However, can it not be said that the successes of the X-Men and Deadpool films can directly lead into allowing studios, such as Fox, to release The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? Fritz only makes tangible connections.
Look, I am an indie film snob. I’m the guy hitting film festivals to see the latest from Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson while boycotting Michael Bay nonsense and Seth MacFarlane comedies. I prefer those serious dramas that compel thought and analyzation, to experience that fresh creative vibe. But man, the geek in me eats away at Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek, franchises that I will defend as much as I love Bottle Rocket and Ghost Dog. I think there can be such compromise between art and commercialism. I think that if people are going to the cinema, even if it’s, ugh, Sausage Party, then the medium is being absorbed, and propagated. And that should be considered a win.
The Big Picture is a good read and a fantastic insider’s look into the studio system. However, the removal of the constant commentary could have reduced this repetitive-at-times read from a full book into a powerful article in the New Yorker.
Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the advance reader’s copy. I find it deliciously ironic that I am writing this review on the eve of possibly the greatest franchise release of all time: Avengers: Infinity War. I have tickets for Saturday’s show.